Let’s Grab Coffee: The Success of Hillel’s Relationship-Based Engagement


People today are looking to build micro-communities with peers focusing on issues and ideas that are personal to them. Personalized Jewish experiences and small group learning are the present and future of Jewish education and engagement. 


Hillel International has been doing this work for 10 years now. Today, we celebrate the success of their Relationship Based Engagement model with this post by Michelle Lackie, Associate Vice President, Social Entrepreneurship, Hillel International. We explore the model, its successes, and what we can learn for our own work by understanding that developing meaningful relationships builds community and builds Jews. 


When we picture campus life, we might think about a classroom, a rowdy football stadium, or students lying out in the grassy quad. At Hillel, we also picture dynamic students engaging their peers over coffee and having meaningful conversations. Ten years ago, Hillel launched its new methodology: relationship-based engagement. Since then, Hillel’s student engagement interns have built relationships with 131,959 of their peers, helping to expand Jewish communities and connect the unengaged to Jewish life, building truly pluralistic, open, and diverse Jewish life on campuses around the world. 


What is relationship-based engagement?
Sari Dorn, a University of Maryland, College Park engagement intern, describes the practice of engagement simply as: “Asking open ended questions and getting to know students instead of having them get to know Hillel.” Hillel’s engagement methodology empowers students to build relationships with other Jewish students on campus to help them form personal connections to Jewish life. Through interactive training, Hillel teaches students the skills of active listening, empathy, paying attention to what is relevant to their peers and using that as the basis for designing Jewish life. Ultimately, Jewish life is focused around the needs of students, not the needs of the institution. This is the essence of relationship-based engagement: Relationships first. Design second. 


As students get to know other students, their Jewish exploration comes to be about them, not the people in charge, about their Judaism and not our Judaism. As students have more opportunities to explore, they build their Jewish self-confidence, increase their Jewish knowledge, feel more connected to Jewish peoplehood and community, and create more positive Jewish memories. Ultimately, these actions and decisions about their own lives help each student take ownership of their Jewish experience.

Gabrielle Kirsch, a University of Michigan Hillel engagement intern, hits the nail on the head: “It was realizing where voices weren't being heard. I met with some students on a whim because I realized they were Jewish and they turned out to be the students who cared the most about being Jewish but didn't necessarily have a place for being Jewish on campus. It made me feel like I was able to be that link into meaningful Jewish life.” Only through building relationships was she able to connect her peers to Jewish life in a way that was meaningful to them. We need to get to know the students individually and personalize experiences for them that meet them where they are—not bring them to us, but meet them where they are.


Planning large events with hopes of attracting huge crowds into the Hillel building is a thing of the past. We want to empower students to build micro-communities based on their interests and in areas that are personally relevant to them and their social networks. This can take place in or outside of Hillel, wherever is most comfortable for them. Our engagement interns are at the forefront, peers connecting with peers. They can reach the periphery of Jewish student life, where many of their peers tend to be. 


Through a comprehensive outside evaluation the initiative, we’ve learned that when engagement interns meet regularly as a cohort with a Hillel Senior Jewish Educator, the interns themselves also exhibit a high level of Jewish growth. Senior Jewish Educators are authentic Jewish personalities who act as mentors, teachers, pastors, and community organizers in a variety of campus contexts. They use the relationship-building approach to introduce students directly to Jewish opportunities and compelling Jewish ideas. As Danielle Ben Jacob, an engagement intern at Baruch College Hillel puts it, “I like the values that I've learned from the Jewish learning. We were able to relate to our current experiences as well as apply them to our day-to-day lives. It didn't just help make me a better Jew … it also helped me become a better person overall.”


The Force Multiplier Effect
As 100,000 new Jewish students enter college each year, we know we cannot rely solely on one-to-one peer engagement to truly reach every student. In fact, relationship-based engagement is predicated upon a force multiplier effect – teaching ten students the skills to engage their peers meaningfully enables a Hillel to reach an additional 400 students in a meaningful way. Adding a Senior Jewish Educator on staff correlates with increased student engagement and leads to significantly higher student outcomes in 2 out of 4 of Hillel’s outcome areas (Growing Knowledge and Connection to Jewish Life and Israel Engagement/Connection); the force multiplier effect continues.


The Power of Data
Every Hillel has a calendar of events, but more and more, these calendars look empty. Is nothing else happening besides coffee dates with students? Of course not! But the calendar and its programs are not the only evidence of what happens on campus. However, without clear data on student growth, we can’t know, truly understand, or share our successes with donors and lay leadership. The truth is, we can never eradicate the need for numbers; instead, it is about what data we collect and how we use it. Recognizing data’s importance, Hillel launched the Measuring Excellence pilot two years ago. Today, there are 89 Hillels participating, all collecting data in a customer relationship management database (CRM) regularly about every student who shows up at a program, has coffee with an engagement intern, meets with a Hillel professional to learn about hosting their own Shabbat dinner for friends, and more. 


So we do have numbers, but there is a significant difference from the past – instead of stating 100 students came to an Israel & Culture event, we can now say the names of the 100 students, for which of them it is their sixth or more interaction with Jewish life on campus, and for whom it is only their first or second. Why does this data matter? Because strong data helps us make informed strategic decisions about the next steps that we take with each student engaged. Those 15 students you thought we’ve never seen before? Our data tells us that each one was part of a small conversation in a peer’s apartment the month prior, and through personal invitations, decided to come to their first big event. Those 20 first-timers at the event? Each one of them will receive a personal invitation from another student to have coffee just to get to know them, without inviting them to attend another Jewish event. The data tells us precisely what next step to take with each student and how their Jewish journeys are progressing. And while the data is important, it isn’t the end itself. The circle goes around again – it begins with building a relationship, leading to understanding what is important to that individual, enabling more connection to Jewish life, leading to more interactions.


The Balance
Numbers must be held in balance with outcomes and impact. In order to meet our mission, we’ve married quantitative and qualitative measurement of our work. We need to understand the changes in attitude, behaviors and knowledge related to these interactions in Jewish life. Hillel International developed its Jewish student outcomes for just this purpose. (Look for Hillel’s next blog post to learn more about our Jewish student outcomes!) In a recent study of Jewish college students, removing factors attributed to background and profile, Hillel International learned that even one interaction with a Hillel student leader or professional or participation in any one activity makes a positive difference in a student’s Jewish outcomes – the behaviors, beliefs, and actions - we would like to see in students on campus and beyond. Higher frequency of interactions with Jewish life further increases these outcomes - whether it’s the importance of having friends with whom to do Jewish things, spending time learning about Jewish life and culture, identifying oneself as Jewish to others, feeling a connection to Israel, among others.  And it all starts with relationship-based engagement: building relationships first, so design comes second, and then the lowering of barriers to enter Jewish life on campus and ultimate change in students’ Jewishness.


We continually hear hundreds of powerful and diverse stories rooted in relationship-based engagement work. Zachary Wolff, from NYU Hillel shared: “As an engagement intern, I have had the privilege and honor to grow not only as a person and a leader, but Jewishly. This internship is about so much more than just meeting people and taking them out on coffee dates, what it is truly about is hearing about people's Jewish journeys and connecting people with people, places and groups that help them expand their (Jewish) story.” 


The notion of engagement is being discussed and addressed in fields across our Jewish educational landscape and the model of relationship-based engagement has shifted the paradigm. What does it mean to have a peer connector in the early engagement field, or build micro communities in the adult education world? By changing the way we approach engagement, Hillel and other organizations and communities can help many Jews (and the non-Jews who love them) reach meaningful and personal milestones along their individualized Jewish journeys. 


For reflection and discussion:


  • How do the ideas in this post resonate? In what areas can we adapt the relationship based engagement model to enhance our work? What demographic groups might this apply to? 
  • What programs or initiatives are facilitated by your Federation that engage with community members? How do you build relationships? 
  • How can Federation help partner agencies build meaningful relationships to engage Jews on the periphery of the community?


For further exploration:


FedCentral Engagement Resource Library: We combined all of the must-read articles on engagement into one document. We’ll update the document as new studies, articles, videos and more become available. 


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