I’m spending the week at Camp Ramah Darom for the fourth annual Hillel Engagement Institute. Good stuff being discussed, and I’ll try to write one or two more dispatches before I’m done.

I actually managed to have a late-night discussion with my roommate for the week, Dan Libenson. (I say this because usually at these conferences I just wind up falling asleep, and the much-anticipated late night discussion doesn’t actually materialize. Not so in this case.) Among the things we talked about was a mutual friend’s idea for creating a building–a space–in an urban center to enable post-college Jews to do what they did in Hillel, namely show up and create Jewish life in the way they want to.

My response to this was that I think our friend was asking the wrong question. The question to start with, it seems to me, isn’t, “What does Hillel do?” but “What does college do?” Yes, Hillel is particularly special in the Jewish world, but that’s only because college is special within the larger structure of life. “Bright college years with pleasures rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life,” as my alma mater goes. College is the time and place when we show up and feel like we can do anything; Hillel is simply the Jewish manifestation of it. And since college is never re-created later in life (I could be wrong there, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about that), Hillel is also never re-created.

So the question to ask then is, “What do people take with them from college? And what would this teach us about what they can and should take with them from Hillel?” (This article from today’s Inside Higher Ed provides a nice insight.) In our conversation last night, Dan and I identified a few things that people carry away from college: Knowledge and skills, values, habits, relationships, and memories. No doubt there are others. The combination of these things may well result in the kind of nostalgia (love?) people tend to have for college (see the alma mater song quoted above), because college is associated with these very formative elements of our identities.

By implication, Hillel should be providing Jewish knowledge and skills, Jewish values, Jewish habits, Jewish relationships, and Jewish memories. And that’s largely what we do. But now try to define all those things–and you have what I spend most of my working life trying to figure out.

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