Lessons From the Listening Tour
Here’s the advice I received before starting my position last year as the Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel at UCLA:
“Forget about your own passions and interests, at least at first. If you think you’re going to get to campus and it’s going to be the “Aaron Lerner show” – that you’re going to dazzle them with your openness and ability to talk about sex, drugs and rock and roll, or that you’re going to stun them with your, albeit substantial, racquetball skills. Yes – you will attract some students – but you’ll be missing the point entirely. If you’re not addressing who the students are and what they care about – you’ll never make a significant impact.”
This advice, from Rabbi Ben Berger, who just completed four years at OSU and is working for The Wexner Foundation, helped shape my first quarter at UCLA.
Instead of starting with programming, I started my time at UCLA with a listening tour. I met with 150 students in 10 weeks and heard their stories. I listened for their interests and how I could connect who they are to the Torah and Judaism I believe can be positive influences in their lives
I learned that they are hungry for Torah which speaks directly to the issues they face. Consumerism, selfishness, teshuvah, sexuality, ethics and Israel pre-Zionism became major themes of learning for the year – not because I’m necessarily so passionate about those things, but because my students are.
We live in a generation in which young people simply will not do anything that they don’t want to do. They treat life like a buffet table or iTunes: picking a little of this and a little of that – but almost never buying a whole album.
But when they do find something they connect with – they want to own it!
For instance, I gave a student with very little background a 200 page book about Jewish Belief because he expressed interest. He was done in a week and had “some questions on the Rambam.”
On the communal side, more than 200 students at UCLA run an Israel advocacy group which prevented BDS from passing at UCLA this year – with zero staff prodding.
I have learned to view my role in the field as being an enabler of others’ passions, and as a Jewish resource to help them understand that Judaism speaks to whatever they’re currently into.
That focus on enabling helps me build trusting relationships with my students, while also challenging them to broaden and deepen their Jewish journeys into other areas that they might not yet know are also important.
My challenge to my colleagues is this: more than ever we must truly internalize Rabbi Ben’s words: “it’s not about you.” I know you might have entered Jewish professional life because you love learning Talmud or really think that you have a creative solution for young families – but if you don’t see droves of your constituents knocking down your doors to do those things with you – make some coffee dates and find out why not.
At Hillel this year – we’re moving to a “partnership only” model. I might have a great idea for a program – but if I don’t have an excited, invested student partner or organization – I’m not running that program. We’re not interested at this point in generating demand (how do I get 20 people to come to this event that I think is really exciting?) – we’re only responding to demand. And that will require a lot of listening.
Rabbi Aaron Lerner is the Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel at UCLA. He works with a cohort of interns to peer-engage students on the periphery of Jewish life on campus, a program estimated to touch more than 1,000 students annually. Aaron is passionate about bolstering highly individualized, relevant, and compelling Jewish identities in young people. Towards that goal, he constantly employs his background in investment banking, in addition to years of Jewish education in institutions including Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Pardes, and Bat Ayin. Rabbi Lerner is a Wexner Graduate Fellow Alumnus, Class 22, and an avid racquetball player and scuba diver. He has traveled to six continents and loves to laugh with his wife, Rachel, and daughters, Lily and Gavriella. And, yes, he graduated from UCLA’s crosstown rival, the University of Southern California. Aaron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.