Penn Hillel Director Wins National Jewish Book Award

Rabbi Mike Uram
Rabbi Mike Uram

After 12 years of working at Penn Hillel, Rabbi Mike Uram has learned a thing or two about how the college-aged Jewish population interacts with community organizations.

In fact, Uram, executive director and campus rabbi, has noticed these trends since he was a 22-year-old working his first job with Hillel. But it’s his work with Penn Hillel’s model in particular that has been most illuminating.

He outlined his findings and ideas in a book, Next Generation Judaism: How College Students and Hillel Can Help Reinvent Jewish Organizations, which won a 2016 Jewish Book Council National Jewish Book Award in the Education and Jewish Identity category.

The outline for the book was inspired by a teaching and speaking engagement he did back in 2005 and the PowerPoint he created for it, which he’s developed and presented to many other organizations since.

“Everyone always asked me, ‘Is this written up anywhere?’ and it never was,” Uram said.

Two years ago, while on sabbatical, he got a book deal with Jewish Lights Publishing and transformed his PowerPoint into a book.

“The main piece I was trying to get at is that leaders who are responsible for legacy organizations — whether that means synagogues or JCCs or Federations — have a sense that they are stuck and that the world is changing and Jewish identity is changing and they don’t know what to do,” he explained, “because on the one hand, the way that we do business in the professional Jewish sector still works for a lot of people and it does really meaningful things for a lot of people, and yet there’s a sense that there are whole segments of the Jewish community that we are not successful in engaging.

“So there’s the sense on the part of leadership that we’re stuck but we don’t really know how to move forward.”

However, he took a few notes from Penn Hillel to take a look at solving this problem.

With its two initiatives that provide programming in different ways, students are able to find ways to be involved that are meaningful for them, whether with Hillel or with the Jewish Renaissance Project, which is more like a startup organization. This dual approach, Uram noted, can be taken by other organizations.  

“In the American Jewish scene there are a handful of incredibly successful legacy organizations doing incredible work, and there are Jewish startups that are doing incredible work,” he said. “The thing that makes Penn Hillel really special is that we are acting both as a successful legacy organization and a startup and doing both at a very sophisticated and highly impactful level.

“What our model allows us to do is it avoids a binary choice between either keep doing what we’re doing or do something totally different,” he continued. “It allows us to continue to improve on the existing model and to preserve it for a lot of people who still need it and benefit from it but at the same time having organizational bandwidth to experiment with things that are new.”

There are a few assumptions to take note of, however, including the language and the strategic approach many organizations seem to use.

“What I learned from Hillel and what I learned from students on campus is that all of this Jewish innovation was happening that could be adapted for the adult Jewish community and provide a bridge between where we are and where we want to be, and there are some key assumptions in that,” he explained. “One is that we have the wrong language to talk about Jewish communities, to talk about the different ways people relate to Judaism, and that if we don’t have the right language, it’s very hard to have the right strategy to engage them.”

Another, he continued, is that the Jewish community was stuck in a  “deficiency-based approach” of strategic thinking, which means starting to first think about what is wrong rather than starting with the assets you have that are right.

A third assumption has to do with skills — and the tools that can be used to create change.

“The third major assumption is that the skills necessary to change and innovate are fundamentally different from the skills necessary to run a really good legacy organization,” he said. “So if legacy organizations wanted to change, we had to do some work to figure out why it’s so hard to change and what practical tools we could have that would help us change.”

514Zzu-FGGL._SY445_QL70_That’s where Next Generation Judaism comes in.

“There’s real concrete tools in the book about how to make that shift, how to evaluate that shift, how to change the metrics, but what we found is when you stop talking about survival and start talking about impact, everything changes,” he said. “The truth is, if you really focus on making a difference in people’s lives, the future of the organization is much more secure. So there’s an irony there: By not focusing on survival, you actually can do more to ensure your survival. You then have room to focus on really inspiring people in a powerful way.”

For Uram, this is something he found even when was 22 years old. When starting to write his book, he took a look back at a binder he had from his first year with Hillel at Northwestern University as a senior Steinhardt JCSC fellow.

However, while he reflected with a laugh that having first had these ideas even in 1998 was “mind-blowing,” it also shows something important about the college-aged population.

“What that highlights is the power of the college-aged people to be incubators for change,” he said.

It also gives the adult Jewish community a chance to look at this generation as more than a group of people they need to involve or persuade to take over legacy organizations.

“Part of the message of this book is that the best way to engage the next generation of Jews and the best way to benefit from their wisdom is to treat them as partners who have something to offer the conversation rather than as future clients who need to be recruited,” Uram said.

While it may be a lot of information to take in, the book promises that not all hope is lost.

Mixing theory with real-life experience, Uram hopes to provide suggestions of how organizations — not just Jewish organizations, he noted — can follow Penn Hillel’s lead by incorporating elements that work for them.

“Ultimately, the book is really an optimistic look at what our possibilities are for rejuvenation in the Jewish communal world,” he said. “What it will do, hopefully, is give language and voice to the challenges that our organizations face and it will help inspire people to see there are real ways to build a bridge between where we are and where we need to go.”

Being named a National Jewish Book Award winner was a nice compliment — and also showed that someone other than his mom enjoyed the book, he laughed.

“The thing that excites me most about the award is that I hope it helps disseminate these ideas that I care about so much to a larger audience,” he said.

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