By Michelle Lackie, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and Amy Weiss, Maryland Hillel
Organizations throughout the world continually grapple with the task of transforming college students, many of whom are largely oblivious to the myriad social justice issues confronting society, into activists for social change. Models striving to achieve social awareness abound, but one warrants particular attention: Maryland Hillel’s Alternative Break Fellowship. The fellowship seeks to motivate a small cohort of select students to see themselves as Jewish social change agents and to empower them to influence their peers to create positive change in the world. Through the story of Gita, a fellow who experienced the transformative power of the fellowship, one can witness the success of leadership training in enabling students to take ownership of the Jewish imperative of Tikkun Olam and be able to influence others to take action. This article offers key insight into elements of the fellowship that can be replicated in other environments to create and inspire Jewish social change leaders.
Organizations throughout the world continually grapple with the task of transforming college students, many of whom are largely oblivious to the myriad social justice issues confronting society, into activists for social change. Models striving to achieve social awareness abound, but one warrants particular attention: Maryland Hillel’s Alternative Break (AB) Fellowship. Gita, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Maryland and an AB Fellowship alumna, currently works as an advocate for accessible women’s health care in Chicago, as a participant in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. She attributes her career choice in no small measure to her experiences as an AB fellow: “My path to a life of Tikkun Olam has been influenced by many different people and moments, but a pivotal point for me was my Alternative Break Fellowship at University of Maryland.” Gita is one of 40 graduates of the AB Fellowship, a program that invests in a select group of college students with the goal of teaching them to become effective Jewish social justice leaders.
Approximately 2,000 Jewish college students participate in Hillel-sponsored Alternative Breaks each year; generous support for these Alternative Breaks is also provided by Repair the World. However, Maryland Hillel’s AB Fellowship represents a unique and potent approach to engaging Jewish students in service-learning and ultimately inspiring them to become active citizens. Through participation in a year-long intensive fellowship on social justice, Jewish enrichment, and professional development, AB fellows are empowered to plan and execute an immersive Jewish service-learning experience (Alternative Break) for themselves and their peers. Through weekly classes, they learn the skills necessary to become change agents and come to see themselves as members of a global community who are inspired by their Judaism and their humanity to become contributors rather than solely consumers. In describing the impact that the AB Fellowship has had on her life, Gita says, “I used to see Tikkun Olam as a nice thing that Jews do once in a while. I had never seen myself as someone completely immersed in it. The ASB fellowship changed that all for me. It made me see Tikkun Olam as a way of life.”
The Power of Peer-to-Peer Engagement
The theory of change underpinning the AB Fellowship has two components. First, the fellowship seeks to educate and motivate a small cohort of select students to see themselves as Jewish social change agents. Second, once the fellows are empowered, they are given the task of influencing their peers to create positive change in the world around them. Drawing from copious case studies pointing to the efficacy of peer-to-peer engagement, Maryland Hillel sought to apply the same methodology to its Jewish social justice work on campus. Hillel elected to invest intensive resources in a select cohort and energize them to become change agents on campus.
During the two years Gita spent as a fellow, she was able to work with more than 50 of her peers on campus. Gita reflects,
The fellowship allowed me the opportunity to really see myself as an agent of social change. I was given a significant responsibility and was treated as someone who could inspire others. It made me realize that I was passionate about a variety of issues and needed to do something about it. As a fellow, I influenced others to want to become fellows and to commit to ongoing service once Alternative Break was over. Together, the participants and I planned educational events, days of service, and clothing drives to serve the local population. I was able to connect with participants on an individual basis to evaluate their commitment to social justice work and draw from their passions to keep them involved in service.
Follow-Through: Challenging but Essential
The Alternative Break program and AB Fellowship has seen tremendous growth over the past three years. However, this growth has not come without challenges, particularly in the area of follow-through with the immersion experience participants.
When thinking about follow-through, one must employ realistic metrics for success, fueled by reasonable expectations of the students. For example, success may be gauged by the change in a participant’s behavior and actions or by an increase in the frequency of volunteer service by the participants. How many participants now engage in service once a year? Monthly? Or perhaps weekly? How many are becoming social justice leaders who inspire others to act? In addition, success may be measured by the change in a participant’s attitude and understanding of social issues. Setting realistic expectations for the coordinator, the organization, and the participants will lead to stronger outcomes.
Investing in – and for – Success
For any peer-to-peer model to succeed, great effort and significant resources must be invested. Once committed, the investment is rewarded with significant results, but sub-par investment will yield significantly curtailed results. Conversely, an institution must ensure it has the mechanisms in place to deal with exponential growth of a burgeoning initiative – a “growth plan.”
The success of the AB Fellowship model can be traced to several key elements, which can be replicated in other environments. Organizations planning similar efforts should follow these guidelines:
- The organization must make an investment of resources (human and otherwise) to create an ongoing and serious learning environment for a committed group of people who have the potential to serve as change agents.
- Resources must be invested in such a way that the fellows take ownership of the information and skills, with the aim of using them to affect others.
- The fellows should begin by engaging peers in their own social networks, empowering them to become active citizens.
Regardless of the venue, institution, or age of participants, inspiring a small group of people to deepen their own commitment to social justice work – when coupled with the responsibility of engaging others – leads to a greater number of young people engaged in active citizenship.
As Gita summarizes, “The AS Fellowship made me realize that service for a week was nice, but we live in an imperfect world and need to be working to improve it every day. I now see Tikkun Olam as the most important of Jewish values and decided to join AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps for that very reason. I seek to continue to live a Jewish life filled with service for others.”