Alex “Ahab” Habbart, West Chester University Hillel president, cried out the name of someone from a Talmudic story just before he leaned back in his chair with his arms outstretched, miming death.
Habbart was in one of two groups of students who enacted a skit during a text study session at the Hillels in Philadelphia Leadership Retreat on Sept. 2, which took place at Bryn Mawr College Hillel.
The skits put a Talmudic story about two rabbis into a modern-day college campus setting.
The text study on conflict resolution was one of the day’s last activities. More than 20 students from small universities in the Philadelphia area grouped up and read a Talmudic text about Rabbis Yochanan and Reish Lakish. In the text, Yochanan brings up Reish Lakish’s history as a bandit in a personal attack during an argument about Jewish law, causing Lakish so much distress that he eventually dies. Yochanan, whom Habbart played, then dies, too, as a result of his friend and study partner’s death.
After studying the text with students from different universities, students got together with others from their own school to discuss conflict resolution tactics.
The retreat was open to students from Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, West Chester University, Ursinus College, Arcadia University, Villanova University and Philadelphia University. Some of these universities have their own Hillel, while others have different Jewish organizations on campus.
This marked the first time that student board leadership at these institutions met.
“The idea was that, for a lot of these smaller-sized schools … letting students know there are other students in similar schools, in situations that they’re in,” said Jenn Reiss, director of Jewish student life at West Chester University Hillel, who helped organize the retreat.
“The idea [was to have] peer interaction and have the opportunity to make connections to other student leaders at other schools so that, throughout the year, they can bounce ideas off of each other or use each other as feedback and sounding boards for programming, for leadership conflict.”
Besides the text study, the retreat included leadership development training, learning best practices in peer-to-peer engagement, and opportunities to discuss struggles and obstacles for Jewish life at small universities.
“On larger campuses, it’s easier to have an engagement intern program,” said Nora Woods, a rabbinic intern at Bryn Mawr College Hillel, who helped organize the event. “At smaller campuses, that tends to be a little bit harder, so it falls onto the board to do a lot of your outreach and engagement.”
Throughout the retreat, students mixed and mingled with their peers from other universities.
“It’s been very helpful that we’re all small colleges, so we have similar struggles in our Jewish communities,” said Rachel Silverman, a student and president of Bryn Mawr College Hillel. “The conversations that we have have been very helpful in terms of what kinds of programming we can do, how best to relate to students, retention, attendance.”
Silverman added that she had gone to a Hillel workshop before, but most of the attendees came from larger universities, and some of the particular struggles that Jewish organizations face at small universities were not relevant to them.
Samantha Dolin, West Chester University Hillel vice president, said that includes having a smaller student body to draw upon.
Trying to keep everyone happy is a struggle at Swarthmore College Kehillah, especially when it comes to politics, said Shira Samuels-Shragg, that organization’s co-president.
“We ended up alienating people on both ends of the political spectrum in an attempt to be neutral and have a place where everyone can just come and celebrate Shabbat and holidays,” Samuels-Shragg said. “It’s a constant struggle to find a good balance between meaningful social justice work and how that fits into a community where we’re trying to make everyone comfortable.”
At a liberal arts college, Silverman added, there’s a stigma against organized religion, which can make engagement difficult.
“I come across a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, I went to Hebrew school, but I haven’t done anything since my Bar Mitzvah,’” she said. “Or, ‘I’m really culturally Jewish, I’m not Jewish Jewish, I don’t really believe in God.’ That sort of thing.
“[We are] making sure that we are truly inclusive and pluralistic and welcoming to students of all different Jewish backgrounds and all different places in their Jewish journey.”
Woods said that a hope for the future is that this will lead to more cross-campus programming between Jewish organizations at different universities. Jewish students in the Tri-College Consortium of Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges, for example, already sometimes have programming together.
“For schools with really small Jewish populations, it’s really nice to diversify your groups,” Woods said. “One of the eyes that we have trained on the future is that maybe we can do some cross-programming with more geographically diverse schools so that we can mix it up a little bit.”