Princeton students ‘create’ their way to Jewish identity building

Princeton students ‘create’ their way to Jewish identity building

Princeton Hillel develops leadership incubator

Abraham Waserstein, at right, with Jacob Furst of Purdue University. Photos courtesy Princeton Hillel: Center for Jewish Life
Abraham Waserstein, at right, with Jacob Furst of Purdue University. Photos courtesy Princeton Hillel: Center for Jewish Life

When Rabbi Ira Dounn, senior Jewish educator at The Center for Jewish Life: Princeton Hillel (CJL), asked a freshman “Is there anything you are inspired to do for the Jewish community on campus?” the student’s eyes lit up, Dounn said.

The student, Abraham Waserstein, now a sophomore, wanted to organize a collegiate moot beit din, a mock rabbinic court — an extra-curricular activity he enjoyed while in high school at Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Fla.

With a moot beit din, Waserstein said he saw “an amazing way to promote pluralistic Jewish learning,” and wanted to open it up to anyone interested — as opposed to what he had seen in high school, where most participants were from Jewish day schools.

Co-Create, an incubator program launched in the 2017-18 academic year, enabled Waserstein to establish the first Collegiate Moot Beit Din (CMBD) competition, which was held in April with six teams from nine universities.

CJL came up with the idea for Co-Create after spending 2016-2018 as one of nine schools in the first cohort of the Campus Leadership Impact (CLI) Platform, cosponsored by the Jewish Design Initiative and CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Following a design thinking model, a Silicon Valley concept that promotes innovation, CJL interviewed students and others on “how might we engage students who are not automatically engaged in Jewish life here at Princeton,” said Dounn. After brainstorming ideas, prototyping, then tweaking and improving them, Co-Create was born.

In Co-Create students design projects within areas of focus designated by the CJL, such as performing arts, politics, volunteerism, and community building.

“You have a vision and a dream that you want to implement here for our community, and we work with you to make that happen,” Dounn said of the project-based leadership model. In the first year there were 10 projects and 14 student leaders.

Aside from drawing students to Princeton’s CJL, Co-Create also has the potential to break down barriers between students from diverse Jewish backgrounds. “Everyone is able to participate in their own way because they are creating it themselves and speaking to needs and interests that they themselves have,” Dounn said.

The CJL helped Co-Create students with funding — each student received $1,000, although for the Moot Beit Din Waserstein had to raise more money to subsidize travel for participants. Dounn and other CJL staff were there to help with brainstorming, advice, support, resources, logistics, advertising, and budgeting.

This goal was confirmed in a post-program survey of Waserstein’s program, which is continuing in the 2018-19 school year. “Were we pluralistic, regionally diverse, and teaching different levels of Jewish knowledge? We were able to say ‘yes’ to all those things,” he said. But he added that for him, the most incredible finding was that only 30 percent of participants were high school moot beit din alumni.

Another Co-Create project continuing this year is J-PODS, a social gathering developed by Rachel Silverman and Sarah Schneider, both members of the class of 2020.

Students in the theater fellowship attend a performance of “The Band’s Visit.”

J-PODS was designed in a response to a problem on campus: “It’s not always so easy to figure out how to engage in or enter the Jewish community, unless you go to services,” Dounn said.

Silverman, who described herself as “half-Korean, half-American, but fully Jewish,” said, “Coming to Princeton I wanted to find a comforting, open Jewish community. [However,] When I got to Princeton, I found out that it was dominated by Orthodox Jews. As someone not traditionally religious in that sense, that was a little startling for me.”

Not entirely content at the CJL, but still drawn to exploring her Jewish identity, she and Schneider started J-PODS “as a way to bring in people who would not necessarily feel comfortable at the CJL, but were interested in learning about Judaism” and “wanted to be part of the Jewish community.”

The idea was to create groups of four or five Jewish students who were asked to meet at least once a month to get to know each other, for example, meeting for coffee, bubble tea, or a study break. The 50 or so J-PODS participants got together once for a big ice cream party and a “family feud competition” between pods.

“The J-PODS program is intentionally social — it’s meant to help develop Jewish community and to help people meet each other,” said Dounn in an email to NJJN. “It’s also meant to help build bridges between Jewish communities,” such as different denominations, political viewpoints, and gender identities.

“Many of the people who got interested had never done anything with the CJL before,” Dounn said. “It attracted people who didn’t know how to get into the CJL community beforehand, and that was very compelling.”

Silverman said, “I was part of a J-POD, and my pod got very, very close. We started hanging out, two or three people together — we would grab food and go study together.”

From her experience co-organizing J-PODS, Silverman said, “I really learned how many people actually are interested in forming Jewish connections.”

When Dounn asked Michelle Greenfield, who graduated last year, to think about what she might want to do to bring students into CJL, she decided to create a one-time fellowship to explore connections between Jews and the theater industry. What followed were six dinner discussions, four speakers, and attendance at a performance of “The Band’s Visit” on Broadway, which included discussion on the show’s Jewish roots.

“It was a great opportunity for students who wanted to become more involved in the CJL, but didn’t have the means to do so, were uncomfortable with the observance level, or couldn’t find their niche,” Greenfield said, adding that some participants from her theater group are thinking either about doing their own Co-Create or finding other ways to get involved in CJL.

Looking back on the first year’s projects, Dounn said, “The majority launched, and with kind of a bang. In some ways, they rejuvenated campus life in ways that we were pleasantly surprised by. When you leave a project up to a talented student’s imagination, they really impress you.”

This year’s Co-Create program remains a work in progress as the deadline is rolling.

CMBD and J-PODS will continue; also in the works are Yiddish and poetry fellowships, music and environmental awareness groups, a film project, Big Brother/Big Sister program with teens from The Jewish Center — a local synagogue — and a Latino Jews group.

“We will take as many student ideas as our budget can handle,” Dounn

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