On Campus | Post-Its

The Cohort Model: Jewish and Israel Learning Fellowships at Hillel

The centerpiece of formal learning opportunities at UArizona Hillel are our cohort-based learning fellowships, intensive opportunities that can have profound impacts on student lives. It’s a brilliant model because Hillel International provides a framework, curriculum, incredible resources, and some grant funds, but the program allows for customization by individual educators. During any given semester, we are operating between one and three learning fellowships at our Hillel, with plans to scale up to four in the future.

“The learning fellowships helped me learn so much about Judaism and Israel I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and it was the experience that brought me into Hillel’s open arms,” says sophomore Jordyn Morris, a Political Science and Music major who has taken the Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) and both Israel learning fellowships. “I met so many people, learned so many new perspectives, and ultimately felt so at home I started my conversion process the spring after my Jewish Learning Fellowship. The learning fellowships taught me a love of Jewish learning and helped me discover a love of Judaism and Israel, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Building community is at the core of these fellowships. Unfolding over six to ten weeks, each also includes special opportunities such as private Shabbatons, typically in my backyard, with tons of homemade food. The students develop unique and trustful relationships with each other, which often continue long after the fellowship is complete.

“JLF was an amazing opportunity that allowed me to get to know people I may not have been able to and learn different perspectives that I may never have been exposed to otherwise,” says Alyssa Cherney, a sophomore majoring in Optical Sciences and Engineering. Cherney just celebrated her Bat Mitzvah redux with her Hillel community by revisiting her Torah portion and leading, with her Hillel friends, a gorgeous Shabbat morning service.

In recognition of how precious a resource time is for today’s college scholars, each student receives a stipend of between $150 and $200 upon successful completion of a fellowship, depending on the track.

In fall 2022 we ran three fellowships:

  • Jewish Learning Fellowship (10 weeks): Life’s Big Questions – Using Jewish texts from the Torah and Talmud to contemporary scholars, students access Jewish wisdom to answer questions about their modern lives, questions about community, home, friendship, betrayal, honestly, conflict, rest, and sex and intimacy.
  • Jewish Learning Fellowship: Israel (10 weeks) – A chance for students to examine their own identity through the lens of Israeli history, culture, food, literature, and entertainment.
  • Kol Yisrael (6 weeks) – A geopolitical deep dive into Israeli politics, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and how Israel’s diversity affects the current climate.

Spring semester, we’ll introduce a fellowship that focuses on justice through a Jewish lens, and we hope to bring a fellowship fully dedicated to sex and intimacy next year. For each session, we try to create a unique learning environment: with welcoming signs, twinkle lights, special meals and treats, sensory experiences, music, and welcoming signs. We consider the whole environment to create the best possible learning conditions in our space. We believe that non-evaluative learning opportunities are a crucial part of the college experience, and that setting the mood and breaking bread together makes the content that much stickier.

In a typical week of content in the Life’s Big Questions track, we might start with a brief writing prompt, watch a video clip from a contemporary television show, read a piece of Talmud that directly relates to the clip, study the Talmud in hevruta (partner study), break for cheesecake, come back together and look at a piece of Torah, another piece of Talmud, a piece of Rashi, and two modern Jewish commentators—which we would study in small groups, hevruta, and as a whole cohort—then end with a very short lecture by the educator (me), a follow-up writing prompt, and a round-robin where each student shares their primary take-away from the evening. During the sessions the Hillel lounge feels like a lively beit midrash—but with mood lighting and cozy throw pillows—and the environment allows for remarkable levels of transparency and vulnerability between peers.

“It’s a diverse classroom founded on diverse topics,” says junior Leif Nelson-Melby, a Mechanical Engineering major. “Every class was a great break from stressful university courses to make friends while learning about everything Jewish.”

The learning fellowships are just one part of the Jewish learning experience at Hillel. From text studies before Shabbat and on holidays, to the history of Jewish thought crash courses, to prayer boot camp, to our experimental Saturday morning Shabbat labs, to making Hebrew name bracelets on the Mall, to Israeli cooking classes, we try to create access points to learning for as many students as possible.

Our Hillel is deeply dedicated to this work, but we need to hire an engagement-focused Rabbi in order to continue scaling. A Rabbi could teach the Jewish Learning Fellowship and other text studies, work with our Jew Crew and Davening Team student groups, offer pastoral care, lead High Holy Day services, and—most importantly—be a primary engager for the thousands of Jewish Wildcats we’ve yet to meet. We’re actively seeking visionary donors to lead the way and/or name our new rabbinic position.