15 August 2012

15 Reflections from Hillel Institute 2012

Theme of the conference
Just as I did last year after Hillel Institute, I felt that one way of mentally unpacking is to reflect upon my experience there. Although I wrote about ten aspects of it last year, I have fifteen this time. There's a lot on this post and I totally understand if no one in the world reads this lengthy post (seriously, feel free to let me know if you read this post in it's entirety, as I doubt more than a few people will actually read it). Also, don't forget to check out my list of ten expectations for this year's Hillel Institute.

1) I love going to Jewish conferences; it's one of the reasons I entered the rabbinate (and, more broadly, serving the Jewish people). With Hillel Institute convening so many people who are there to serve the Jewish people, there is such a great energy about thinking about ways of serving such an important segment of our people.

2) Once again, I thought having the conference in the middle of the country was a smart move. So often, national Jewish organizations have their conferences on the east coast and so the attendance also happens to clump very east coasty. Fortunately, the conference folks at the national office have had a great vision with placing it in the middle. Also, I must add that the weather in years past was in the 90s and around 100, so it was nice that this year's temperatures were only in the 80s. 

Most of the YCT rabbis at the conference
3) It's always great to see my fellow YCT alumni (as I've mentioned before)!
4) Reducing the number of track sessions and increasing professional network sessions: The main aspect of the conference, as in years past, were the track sessions, where several Hillels come together and think about where their Hillel is and where they are going. I was happy that they reduced the amount of track sessions, as they somehow are never as effective as one would hope. In the opposite direction, they increased the number of professional network sessions, which was good, as I have gotten more out of them than the track sessions. 
The well thought-out interwoven curricula

5) Interweaving of track sessions and professional network sessions: Despite my gripes about anything regarding the track sessions and professional network sessions, they pulled off a very smart move with intertwining the curricula of the track sessions and professional network sessions. Furthermore brilliant was the interweaving of Wayne Firestone's plenary session speech. It was an incredibly smart model for any professional conference and it will be hard to top! 

6) The food: WOW! I seemed to have forgotten (and never previously composed words regarding the cuisine at this conference) that the conference food was fantastic! They hit a homerun, foodwise. It was really impressively good and I hope they keep the conference there. 

Rabbi Dan Smokler sharing some excellent tips to teaching
7) The highlight of this conference for me was an afternoon session on the last day of the conference with fellow Jewish educators. Called "Deep Dive Conversation", it was a session led by Rabbi Andy Kastner and Rabbi Daniel Smokler, in which they shared some tremendously helpful insights. The most important morsel of wisdom for me (and where I am at professionally at the moment) was to hear about the need to inject some agitation into our interactions with students and not simply building relationships with them {tweet link}. Rabbi Smokler was especially impressive, who kept coming up with great lists. What particularly made this session so great, in my mind, is three-fold: 1) the personalities who headed it up (which I've just discussed), 2) the didacticness of it (which is, IMHO, a perennially sorely lacking component of the conference), and 3) the lack of specifically-designed rabbis(/Jewish educators) sessions.

8) The energy at the conference, once again, was nice and refreshing. It's something I am not sure is even something that I particularly discern, but was reminded of it when I saw a new Hillel staff member mention it to me as well as tweet it. 
City Museum now has an aquarium [with a boat]

9) Our visit to City Museum was once again mind-blowing. Even though I've been there the last two years as part of the conference, I get more impressed with each time I experience it. While part of that is their continued development and building, some of it is just further examination of previously existing elements. One totally new area of City Museum was their aquarium. At least that's what they called it. While City Museum is quite post-modern, they have shown an excellent example of a post-modern aquarium. For instance, they have animals that are entirely non-aquatic, such as an armadillo, a sloth, and guinea pigs. They have some other weird elements to their aquarium, as well, but suffice it to say that one needs to experience it in person to fully have one's mind blown by it. 

Water bottles from the three Hillel Institutes from left to right
10) It may sound utterly mundane, but I was disappointed with this year's water bottle. Yes, I know that sounds so petty, but it's important to me. However, the last two years' water bottles had the Hillel name on it, which, if one takes it around with them (on campus or elsewhere), people can identify you as having a connection with Hillel.  This year, we got a water bottle that had nothing to do with Hillel - how can we use it as an engagement tool?

11) It seemed as if, almost out of nowhere, Ask Big Questions took over the Jewish content.  Not only had Ask Big Questions (ABQ) seemingly taken over the Jewish content, but also it was heavily promoted, including even training for facilitating ABQ conversations.

12) I liked that there was a gathering for Orthodox professionals.  I think we deal with unique issues contrasted versus our colleagues.
Me with my girls by the playground

13) Kids at the conference: With both of us attending the conference, we couldn't just leave our children at home. Although last year, we were able to leave our older daughter with family last year, this year, it was not possible. Hopefully, next year we will have some family around to take care of the girls while we come to the conference. So much of the professional and social networking occurs at meals and most of the meals we had our kids, so we missed out on a lot of that. Furthermore, since our room was on the exact opposite end of the hallway as the babysitters, someone had to be with our girls when they were asleep. Usually, that was my wife, though. The one night we went out, we took our daughter with us to City Museum and had to hire a local babysitter for our younger daughter. I must say, though, that this year's babysitters were much better than they were two years ago, and better than last year's, as well. So, I will say that the babysitting was improved. If the quality of the babysitting is lacking, so will the attention of their conference-attending parents. 
Wayne Firestone giving his annual plenary speech

14) It was strange and a greatly-missed opportunity that there was no goodbye/farewell event/speech/anything.  The conference starts off with a great amount of energy and what-to-do, but then us professionals just quietly leave to catch our flights.  It's a very strange situation.  I think it largely has to do with the students arriving and some professionals staying on for the engagement institute, but it would still be nice to mark it in some way, rather than just letting the energy dissolve....

15) Lastly, I enjoyed how Wayne Firestone was introduced by someone who had spoken to a friend in Germany, who said she had read that he was known as the "Jewish Steve Jobs" - I felt so great, since I was the one who had first given him the moniker following his plenary speech two years ago and last year.  (Although, it was unclear why, after two years of giving speeches while walking around the stage (and owning it), this year he stayed behind the lectern in giving his address (a bit less Jobs-like).) 

Yet another great conference and I applaud Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Campus Life on putting it together! 

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