Outdoor retreat inspires students and staff
Hillel JUCMock Shabbat and BBQ

Outdoor retreat inspires students and staff

Hillel JUC takes a rustic and innovative approach to campus leadership.

36 student leaders from 4 campuses participated in Hillel JUC's outdoor retreat. Photos courtesy of Hillel JUC
36 student leaders from 4 campuses participated in Hillel JUC's outdoor retreat. Photos courtesy of Hillel JUC

As senior staff at Hillel JUC discovered, the secret to student leadership is lighting candles on Monday, singing as if it’s Friday, venturing into the woods for foreign language textual study and pairing students in unfamiliar groups.

If that sounds strange, that’s sort of the point, explained Danielle Kranjek, Hillel JUC’s senior Jewish educator.

In years past, prior to the start of the fall semester, student leaders from Hillel JUC traditionally gathered in Oakland for a series of weeklong presentations and trainings regarding upcoming activities.

This year, the decision was made to venture off-site, said Kranjek. “The vision was really to bring the student leaders from all the campuses together and to give them a Jewish leadership foundation for the kind of work that we do on campus.”

Invitations were extended to student representatives from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University and Chatham University to attend a one-day retreat at Camp Guyasuta on Aug. 19. The 13-hour endeavor allowed nearly 40 students to participate in team-building exercises, increase camaraderie and familiarize themselves with Shabbat — one of Hillel JUC’s core activities — explained Carolyn Brodie, Pitt Hillel president.

Students brainstorming about Shabbat.

Shabbat services and the accompanying Friday night dinner is “an inclusive space for different students from all the universities in Pittsburgh,” so it’s important that everyone has a common understanding, explained Roni Sosis, a member of Carnegie Mellon University’s student leadership board.

Despite being a common meetup spot for hundreds of Jewish university students, Friday nights at Hillel JUC can present numerous individuals with myriad levels of understanding. In recognizing such diversity of awareness, Kranjek and Hillel JUC staff organized a “mock Shabbat” at Camp Guyasuta so that student leaders could deepen their own ideas and be able to transmit greater knowledge to fellow students on campus.

At the retreat, “Danielle taught us a tune for lighting the Shabbat candles. We went over different rituals and the significance behind them to make sure all the student leaders were on the same page,” said Sosis. Explanations were provided for “why we light candles, why it’s two Shabbat candles, why we wave our hands three times, all kinds of things.”

There was also discussion on “what a Shabbat space should look like and how we can bring that to life,” she added.

Focusing on Shabbat is critical, as it’s tough being a student leader if you are uncomfortable with the practices, explained Brodie. “I know that I have had a much better experience at Hillel now that I know kind of what I’m doing and I’m able to fully participate and take in all that Shabbat services with dinner has to offer.”

To those unaccustomed to the Friday night function, or the multiple services and gatherings of varying denomination or emphasis preceding the meal, the volume of activities and attendees can be overwhelming. In the past, students like Brodie who were unfamiliar but interested in Shabbat rituals met with Kranjeck to learn more. Kranjek continues to educate Hillel JUC students, but as the Friday evening experience at Hillel JUC continues to grow and encompass more schools and students there was a recognition that the needs of an already diverse Jewish student group were expanding.

Students explored the meaning of Shabbat.

The idea of empowering student leaders through a simulated Shabbat originated from researching the Shabbat experience on campus, explained Kranjek.

“What’s become clear is that we need to develop a richer way of bringing students into the idea of Shabbat than just coming to Friday night dinner. In the past we’ve always touched on learning about it as part of our week of activities, but we’ve never really sat down around a table and gone through the rituals outside of the actual day of Shabbat,” she said. There is an absolute benefit in exploring Shabbat in a third space on a different day, she continued. “I think in some ways, it’s very difficult to teach about Shabbat on Shabbat, because in the moment, someone is having their own spiritual experience. And I think if you do it outside of the context of the actual Shabbat moment it gives people a more open mind and a more open heart to look at things from a different perspective. It feels less judgmental. It feels more experimental.”

The playing field is leveled and student leaders from all of the universities are reminded that “we’re all in this together,” agreed Leah Berman-Kress, president of the newly formed Jewish students association at Chatham University.

Togetherness was at the heart of the retreat, as apart from mimicking a Friday night, the 36 participating students were divided into twos and given Jewish texts to study.

Analyzing ancient writings in “chavruta” or with a companion is central to Jewish study, explained Kranjek. As employed, the process allowed participants to sit across from one another, “see each other face to face,” and not only learn unfamiliar works but “learn someone new.”

The experience can be “challenging,” said Brodie. “You’re challenging each other, but that’s the best way to do it because then you can grow from each other and learn.”

Hearing other perspectives, and not just those that reinforce your views, affords greater appreciation of not only a text but of values, explained Berman-Kress.

Hillel JUC students used text based study as a means of better understanding.

“At Hillel there’s a lot of people who come from very different backgrounds and different approaches to Jewish life, so to have this idea that it’s a good thing for us to have different opinions and to be adversarial in a way, to have conflicts or disagreements, but to be able to strengthen each other through this disagreement” provides a constructive method for reaching the other, said Sosis.

Whether it was students publically reading Hebrew for the first time, or exploring the practices of Shabbat, “I’m feeling so inspired by our students. They took a lot of risks,” said Kranjek. “There were a lot of little moments where people stepped out of their comfort zone to try something new and as much as it was inspiring to me, I think it was inspiring among the peer group to see each other do that.”

Long after the smell of s’mores cooking on a campfire dissipates, the image of student leaders at Camp Guyasuta will remain, explained Kranjek.

For the students to step away from campus and enter nature with the purpose of accepting greater responsibilities “it was very powerful in terms of setting the stage,” she said. “I think that we will be taking our own risks and having our own encouragement among the staff team to be bold with each other and to give everything that we have to the students and see where it lands.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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