The most meaningful and important Jewish experience of my college career

Guest author: Aaron Wilson, UPenn '15


Last year I had what was, without question, the most meaningful and important Jewish experience of my college career. At Penn there are literally thousands of Jews who identify as such and have some background but are not involved in the Jewish community. At the beginning of March I started speaking to friends from classes and asking if they were doing anything for Passover. It slowly became clear that most of my uninvolved friends had been to seders in the past but didn't plan on doing anything this year. After hearing this enough I decided to stay at Penn to host H2H style seders in my house. Of course my parents expected me to come home but when I shared with them how important this was, they respected my decision to stay.


I invited 17 people to my first night seder. 17 people said yes. A week before the seder I emailed everyone and asked that they clear their schedule for the night and bring some kind of idea or memory related to Passover. On the night of the seder I had my living room set up with dimmed lighting, a circle of couch cushions on the floor, and a very low table in the middle. What becomes clear when you prepare to lead your own seder is that the seder is literally just a long, engaging conversation about core Jewish values. And that showed as we got into the seder. I prepared plenty of helpful notes, but as we got into it, I used them less and less, as everyone was so excitedly engaged in conversation that the seder began to carry itself.


We didn't get to shulchan orech until 11pm (the secret is to serve lots of salad and vegetables at karpas) and there were still 10 people sitting around and talking about Jewish ideas until 1am. And this was in the middle of the week.


Pesach seems far away, but now is the time to begin planting seeds. Plant seeds in the minds of your parents that you might stay at school to host seders. Plant seeds in the minds of your friends to consider staying to host seders with you. It's not as easy as hosting a shabbat dinner, but the effort you put in is repaid 100 times. I can't stress enough how strongly I'd encourage you to host seders and have the most meaningful Jewish experience of your college career.


editor's note: if you're interested in running Seders on your campus, or need help organizing stuff on your campus, or want to go somewhere else to run Seders, let us know and we'd love to help make it happen - and give you the most meaningful and important Jewish experience of your college career!  And check here for Aaron's session on leading a Seder!

A Heart to Heart With One of the H2H Interns

A Heart to Heart With One of the H2H Internsby Dov Winston

Atara Lakritz, puts the Heart in Heart to Heart. One of H2H’s inspiring interns this summer, Atara always walks around with a smile on her face and an apparent glow in her heart. Hailing from the great state of Michigan she is going into her Senior year in the University of Michigan. She has many passions in life, two big ones are the Jewish people and public health. As a young Jewish woman, with years ahead of her, she aspires to be someone who will change the world. But, who doesn’t want to change the world?! What makes Atara special is that she wants to share the beauties and greater meaning in life with everyone that she comes in contact with.

One of the things that connected Atara with H2H is her belief that no Jew should go through college and not have a Jewish experience. The whole concept of labels, says Atara, is something we get too caught up with. It’s time we start looking past the labels and looking at what matters, the essence of each Jewish person. The soul within the body.

On a lighter note, Atara is a really cool person. She loves fish, not the food, although she doesn’t mind that either, rather, she loves them as pets. Or at least she used to, but now she considers herself more of a dog person. In her spare time she can be seen laying in a bed of lily’s or talking to dogs. She also loves the color purple and if she could choose to be any animal, she would be a jaguar. Because, who wouldn’t want to be able to run that fast!

Atara, loves working for H2H because not only does it give her personal satisfaction but she knows that being here, isn’t just any kind of desk job. Working here, can and will make a direct difference in the lives of her friends in colleges all across the world. Although Atara has only a few weeks left, she will always remain a valued member of the H2H team.

Hart and the gang can’t thank her enough for all of the tireless work that she has put in, in the past month. Atara’s greatest dream in life is to use her education to help the world, and we at H2H know that she is on the way to doing that!

H2H Welcomes New Hillel CEO Fingerhut

Heart to Heart Welcomes New Hillel CEO Fingerhut In true Heart to Heart-style, we welcome former U.S. congressman and state senator Eric Fingerhut on his appointment as president and CEO of Hillel International and extend best wishes to outgoing president Wayne Firestone.

We enjoyed a positive working relationship with Wayne Firestone, who saw our work and vision as essential to the Jewish people's future and Hillel's work on campus. His tenure coincided with Heart to Heart's nascence and exponential growth into a movement of students on over 60 campuses worldwide, many of whom work closely with their local Hillels. Firestone's push to reach an ever-changing Jewish student constituency and his not being satisfied with the status quo led him to work on expanding Hillel’s domain beyond its doors and to a broader range of Jewish students.

Heart to Heart and Hillel both share a commitment to strengthening students' Jewish identities and leadership, to ensure the future of the Jewish people. We are specifically united through our investment in student-based relationship building and community organizing, and in building vibrant, meaningful, and sustainable Jewish communities.

We look forward to a continuing partnership with Hillel under Eric Fingerhut’ leadership.

The Art of Inviting

A lot of people give me a hard time about doing Heart to Heart - "I don't feel right forcing/tricking people to be Jewish", "kiruv makes me really uncomfortable", "I don't like asking people to do things" "This is the rabbi's job", etc. I never really understood them, because I never felt that any of those things were really an issue. When I'm talking with this random person who I just met or inviting an acquaintance to a Shabbat dinner, kiruv/forcing/tricking is probably the last thing on my mind - or theirs. When I was sitting and talking with a new friend at a Shabbat table and connecting with them on a real level, all I was really thinking about was the person in front of me. And I would usually found that people were more than happy and thankful to join me for Shabbat dinner or let me know about something that interested or was bothering them with Judaism - I just needed to ask. Sure, it makes you a little uncomfortable and definitely makes you feel vulnerable, but the genuine exchange that occurs is probably worth it.

It was something that bothered me, not being able to explain it to people (other than telling them to just try it themselves). And then I saw this video and I realized that I found my answer: (warning: slighting NSFW).  Amanda Palmer talks about the music industry and street performance and crowd/couch surfing and a lot of crazy things - but if you switch music for Judaism, asking for inviting - and she's talking about Heart to Heart. About profound encounters, about empowering people, about inviting people to connect with you, and about the fear and beauty of encountering and asking something of a stranger. And if she can do it, and be so successful doing it - so can we. And so can you. So get out there and genuinely encounter someone new on the city's street! Go out there and invite someone for Shabbat dinner!

A New Model for Chanukah Celebrations on Campus

Of all the Chanukah celebrations on campus happening, there are 2 generic types: one, usually by Hillel, entails a party (usually in Hillel), with games, free food, acapella performances, and a communal candlelighting. The second, usually by Chabad, entails a public lighting of the menorah in the middle of campus, and also has free food and music. Either of these also has the optional 'celebrity upgrade', featuring the president of the university or some other public figure. Both very nice, and perhaps necessary - but definitely not sufficient. First of all, how many people are coming to these parties/lightings? A few dozen? A few hundred? Best case scenario it attracts 20% of the Jewish students on campus, usually the most religious or active ones. Additionally, the time/effort/funding that goes into planning these programs ensures that they happen only 1 or 2 night of Chanukah. And finally, while seemingly in line with the mandate to "publicize the miracle", these lightings are actually ineligible and ineffective at fulfilling the commandment, which has to be at the entranceway to your home.

Which is why Heart to Heart pioneered a new model through which to celebrate Chanukah on college campuses. Instead of trying to bring everyone to 1 location, which physically and mentally tends to crowd out non-regulars, we take the holiday to the people - literally. The strategy consists of 2 different models: candle-lighting and caroling. For candle-lighting, we map out campus housing and where people live, and then assign point people to set up, get approval for, and publicize candle-lighting stations in those locations/dorms.

map of penn for chanukahUsually there are 1 or 2 students who are dedicated enough to light in their rooms, so this just requires them to light in their lobby instead and stand by the candles. But now you also have dozens or hundreds of students walking by each of these candle-lighting station and coming over - which means that if you plan and schedule it right, you can reach over 50% of Jews on campus! And that's including tons of students who would never go to Hillel but "Light candles?! I love lighting Hanukkah candles!" Bring some extra menorahs and throw in some donuts, dreidels, and friendly faces, and you got yourself a party!

The other part, which can either work in concert with the stations or stand alone, is Chanukah caroling. It's exactly what it sounds like - groups of people going around singing Chanukah songs (the Adam Sandler one works great) and spreading the holiday joy. You can go acapella or get an accompanying band, you can give out gelt and donuts or just laughs and smiles, and you can go through the library (a little quiet), frat houses (a little loud), or the candle-lighting stations in the dorms (just right). It might be the songs and the free food that draws people in, but there's something about the friendly people and welcoming experience that appeal to people. I remember that time this random girl stopped me - "Are you guys singing Hanukkah songs?" Shoot, I thought as I answered in the affirmative, I'm annoying her and infringing on her personal space... "Ohmygod I love Hanukkah! Can I come around singing with you?? And I have this friend down the hall and he would also love..." Some of the people I met those nights have turned into and remained my friends, with whom I've shared many more Jewish celebrations.

It turns out most Jews want to celebrate Chanukah and their Judaism, they just might need the right celebration and the right messengers. And in the college setting which is so often devoid of home, these intimate, Heart to Heart Chanukah celebrations can provide just that, rekindling their Jewish memories from childhood - or helping them create new ones. That is the message of the victory of the decentralized Jewish activists, and the meaning of the menorah in the window: that it is each and every individual's personal relationships, micro-community, and home-building that ensures the Jewish future and gives us all a reason to celebrate.

To see more or to learn how to bring this to your campus, go to

Happy Chanukah!

The Sixth Day

When we recite Kiddush on Shabbat evening, we recall the story of the original Shabbat - how God rested on and blessed the seventh day to make it holy. But in a seemingly odd manner, we begin the story with two unconnected words "יום הששי" "the sixth day". These words are in fact the final words of the previous chapter and the concluding description of (you guessed it) the sixth day of creation - not highly appropriate for the blessing of the 7th day, Shabbat. To understand this, let's take a step back. In creating this world, one of the main motifs of which God makes use is separation  - He separates between light and darkness, between water and land, and between the 6 days of creation and Shabbat. We emulate God by following similar guidelines, living our lives with prescribes boundaries and like God, setting aside the 7th day as a day of rest, Shabbat. With one small difference: God, who knows in His infinite wisdom how to distinguish with perfect measurements between the 6th day and the 7th day, stops a hairsbreadth before Shabbat; man, in our less-than-perfect abilities cannot achieve the same precision in our distinctions.

To solve this problem, we have Tosefet Shabbat ("Adding onto Shabbat"), a commandment derived to be biblical which compensates for our inability to precisely draw the boundaries of Shabbat by adding additional time onto Shabbat, starting it a little earlier and ending it a little later. Regarding this concept, the Mei Marom asks a question: We know that God keeps Shabbat (because we learn Shabbat from God), but does God keep Tosefet Shabbat? He answers that God does not and can not keep Tosefet Shabbat, for if He were to keep it it would not be Tosefet Shabbat, but rather Shabbat itself. What emerges from this clever answer is that man actually has a unique ability entrusted to him - the ability to add on to Shabbat. And so the creation of holiness, which was previously exclusively God's domain, has now become man's Divinely-mandated responsibility as well. The commandment of Tosefet Shabbat thus becomes not merely a precaution from holiness but rather a Divine empowerment - for man to create, to transform, and to transcend the boundaries of holiness.

So on Friday evening, when we are beginning our journey of holiness and telling the story of Shabbat, we first want to remember our ability to transform the mundane world around us into holiness. And by starting with the tail-end of Friday's story, "the sixth day", that's exactly what we're doing - adding on a bit of Friday into the holiness of Shabbat.

Practically, holiness takes many forms in our lives. It can be the language we speak, the group with which we pray and study, the religious community of which we are a part. And it is important to strengthen and uphold those fortresses of holiness and keep them holy. But if we were to stop there we would be remiss, for we would be failing to actualize our greatest God-given potential - to influence the world around us. We would miss out on the opportunity to bring forth holiness beyond its boundaries, and to transcend our own boundaries of holiness. There are so many people outside the high walls of our holy community who never had the background/exposure/courage to gain entry. You have the power to extend beyond the normal limits of holiness, to welcome people into the community of holiness of which you are a part. You can share the holiness of Shabbat with people unfamiliar with Shabbat or untouched by its holiness. You have the ability and the God-given responsibility to create transcendent holiness in this world. You have the potential to be Divine.

It is likely no coincidence that the acronym of those last two words from Friday's story and the first two words of Shabbat's story ("יום הששי. ויכלו השמים") form the name of God - for that bridge into holiness, the transformation of the mundane and transcendence of the limits of holiness, that is the manifestation of Godliness in this world. And so every Friday night, when you open Kiddush with those seemingly out-of-place words, remember your God-like and God-given potential to transform the world beyond yourself and to add holiness to those around you.

Good news for the new year

Dear friends, fans, and followers,I have good news to share with you: 2 years ago, a survey of uninvolved Jewish college students on 10 campuses found that the #1 reason why they weren't involved was because "the 'very Jewish' students on campus make [them] feel uncomfortable". #2 was because they weren't friends with students who were Jewishly involved. Those unfortunate sentiments are partially what has inspired H2H's 'very Jewishly' involved students to break down those barriers, bridge those gaps, and help outsiders find their place in the Jewish community.

And now, just last month an independent study found that nearly 75% of students said they viewed Hillel and “Hillel people” favorably - an increase of more than 20 percent since 2005!

Heart to Heart, as the only organization, movement, or project working directly on this issue, has undoubtedly contributed to this important change and we are proud of that accomplishment. It took much hard work and genuine care on the part of our students and community leaders, who worked tirelessly to make this cause their own on an ever-growing number of campuses. Their efforts over the past 2 years - running over 250 Shabbat dinners for uninvolved Jewish students, going out of their comfort zone to welcome people into their Jewish community, and building authentic and meaningful relationships with their peers - have made a real difference in thousands of lives, including their own. And we have begun to change the face of Jewish life on campus: tens of Hillels and Chabads around the country have begun adopting our models of engagement and community-building, and over 1,500 student have signed up to join Heart to Heart's cause.

75% is still not high enough, and building those bridges and relationships is just the beginning - but as we enter yet another year spreading the messages and models of H2H on campus, it is with confidence and humility that we are making a difference in the Jewish world. And for everyone else, I welcome you to join our cause - find out how you too can make a difference in your community and in people's lives.

With great pride and hope for the future, Hart Levine Director, Heart to Heart

H2H and Israel

While at Penn, I was also in charge of a pro-Israel student activism group - we were grassroots, outside of the establishment, connecting people and spreading some truth. While similar in some ways to H2H, it wasn't connected - although there were some instances where they seemed very much intertwined... Amidst all the campus brouhaha following the 2008 War in Gaza, I went with some fellow pro-Israel students to an anti-Israel presentation, mostly just to "ask questions" and "present some opposing arguments in the name of academic freedom and integrity". During the Q&A after the anti-Israel speeches, one student got up and said: "I have to admit - I'm Jewish and my whole family is pro-Israel, but I just can't believe how stupid they are! They're blind to the poor Palestinians, and I'm ashamed to be associated with them." He went on bashing Jewish support for Israel, and disassociating himself from those people. My few friends sitting nearby whispered to me, with their fists in their hands, "We gotta go teach this guy a lesson..."

"Guys, guys", I said, trying to calm everyone down, "He just needs some love - let's go over and try and talk to him." And so, after the event was over, we went over to try and speak to him, but by then all the pro-Palestinians had gathered around him (of course, they love those anti-Israel Jews...) and we didn't have a fighting chance.

Around two weeks later I was at the off-campus supermarket late one night, randomly doing some shopping. When in the check-out line, I turn around and guess who's in line behind me - that guy from the anti-Israel event! As I notice him, he notices me too, and seemingly recognizes me. "Aren't you the guy from the...?", he asked, to which I finished "...the Israel/Palestinian event, yea,  I though I recognized you too..." After we both finished paying, we stood outside the store. "So tell me", he said, "Why do you support Israel?" Knowing it wasn't really about politics (and that I wasn't going to win that argument), I started talking about what Israel means to me - as the birthplace of a nation, and my family's homeland, as the in-gathering destination of all Jews, as the historic and cultural roots of Judaism and the Jewish people. I went on about how Judaism for me wasn't an archaic and dry religion - it was a tradition, and a family, and a nation rooted in its homeland, and an all-encompassing way of life. And so Israel for me, and for all Jews actually has historic and current meaning, and means something much more than political arguments can describe. "Wow", he exclaimed, "I never realized was being Jewish was all about - I thought it was just my grandmother's brisket and some bad jokes." And so we went on talking about Judaism, the multicultural aspect of Jewish nationhood, my experiences visiting Israel, and some interesting elements of Jewish life. At the end we argues about politics for a little bit, but mostly agreed, or agreed to disagree. And an hour later, I headed back home.

Of course, the first people I told (while laughing uncontrollably) were my friends from the event - "You see? He just needed some love!". And a few weeks later, as Passover rolled around, he sent me an email, asking where he could find "a meaningful Seder and some good homemade kosher food :)" I sent him an invite to our Seders, but I'm not sure if he ever showed up - but I was too preoccupied to even notice. The next year, I ran into him at our "Activity Fair Shabbat table" and he signed up to come to a Shabbat dinner(!) - but he never responded to our email invitation a few weeks later. I tried again a few months later - and again he ignored an invitation to Shabbat dinner. But I'd see him around campus occasionally and we'd have a friendly chat. While often hesitant about being too pushy, I kept pursuing him because he had initially reached out to me and and repeatedly expressed interest, and I could tell there was a spark there - he just needed someone to keep trying to ignite it...

Finally, a year after our first encounter, I invited him again - and he showed up. Not only did he come to Shabbat dinner, but he brought his girlfriend too - who it turns out was unknowingly Jewish! And it was amazing - he was engrossed in conversations and discussions, loved the food, the people, the environment, and he stayed for hours. In what could have been the downfall of the night, one of my friends from the original anti-Israel event walked into the room in the middle of dinner. "Do I know you from somewhere?", he asked. My friend played it cool - "Nope, never seen you before", side-stepping that bullet. Turns out, they were both studying abroad in Southeast Asia and ended up having a whole conversation in Chinese! He wanted to come back, he wanted to be more a part of it next time - b'kitzur, it was a success!

That semester he went abroad, I graduated, and before I knew it I was out spreading H2H around the country - and sadly, became "too busy" to remember all the people I had met at Penn, including this guy. Until I got a call from a friend one day the next fall - "Hart, I met your friend!" Elaborating, she told me she was eating lunch in Hillel that day and decided to go sit with some guy who was sitting on his own. So she went over, they started talking, and she asked if he comes here a lot. "Nope, never really been - but I've been to some other Jewish things and really loved it!" He then said that he really wanted to come back, but just didn't know anyone. "Well, do you know Hart?", she suggested. "Yeah!", he said "Hart's one of my really good friends!"

From time to time I remember all the people I met, reached out to, had at Shabbat dinners, had meaningful conversations with - and I'd wonder if it had any lasting impact. And whether my advances and efforts were well received and they actually felt a connection and genuine friendship with me, or whether it was all in my mind. Hearing something like that made it all worth it :)

The Smell of Inspiration

I was waiting for the subway coming down from Columbia down to my house. I had just finished some rockin' meetings, people were really excited about H2H and inspired how we were gonna transform the Jewish community, and change the world! When the subway arrived, I followed some people onto the car, absorbed in some emails I was writing on my 'droid. But even distracted, I could smell the overwhelming stench on the car within moments - and looked up to see an empty subway car. Except for one guy, sitting in what must have been, judging by the smell, his own wastes. Not thinking too much, I followed the group in front of me as they crossed into the adjacent car, where we all breathed in some fresh air. I looked back into the car and saw that guy sitting there by himself - ragged clothes, overgrown beard, clearly homeless with some bags at his side. And I was just overcome by how embarrassed he must feel. I mean, all homeless people must feel embarrassed and ignored - but to have an entire subway car run away from you is pretty low. Okay, fine, it was a bad smell - but the humiliation that guy must have felt probably stank even more. So at the next stop I got out, walked back into the first car, and sat down.

I didn't sit next to him, I didn't talk to him, and I don't know if he even saw me - I just sat there. It was a really incredible train ride - I thought a lot about ideas of humility, and sitting with someone through their shame ("betoch ami anochi yoshevet"), and G-d sitting with us through our sins, and the weight of our actions and inactions. Especially because I spend all my time these days meeting with people and telling them how they should be more loving and welcoming and understanding of people - and here I was finally with a chance to do something along these lines myself. Some people would get on at each stop, stand there for a few minutes, or a stop, and then move to another car. One woman said to me, when she saw I wasn't getting up, "You're stronger than us!" before rushing off the subway car. Now I don't think my nose wasn't any less impervious to the stench,  I guess I just made myself see through that and sit through it.

Before I got off the train at my stop, I walked over to the guy and asked him if he wanted the coffee cakes I had in my knapsack. "I'd love them," he said. So I handed them to him, and I got off the train. That was it - no fanfare, no standing ovation, no thanks, no public kiddush Hashem. But in a really unexpected way, it definitely inspired me to keep doing what I do.

The Organizational and Personal Sides of H2H

Firstly I must apologize - a lot's been going on and I've fallen behind on sharing it. I'll try and commit to being better at it, it's not that I don't want to include you all in what's happening, sometimes I just get overwhelmed by how much there is to do. One question that's been coming up a lot is the balance between "Heart to Heart" the organization and the personal stories of people whose lives have been touched. I firmly believe that those people and their stories are more important, but that organization is necessary to cultivate, spread, and sustain the requisite ideas.

Anyway, last year at Penn I took a class in Non-Profit Leadership, so I could gain some familiarity with the latter. The first week of the class we got broken up into random groups, and then within our group, I ended up paired with one woman for our section of an assignment. After finishing the 'business' side, we started to chat, and after hearing about my major (bioengineering) she started getting a little inquisitive. I guess it was a little weird, because the rest of the class were grad students in a program for Non-Profit Leadership in their mid-to-late twenties. "Why are you taking this class, Hart?", she asked me. "Oh, well, it's because I'm starting a non-profit organization", I answered hesitantly. "Really!", she said, now even more interested, "So what does your organization do?" (Side note: she had let slip earlier in the conversation that she was going home next weekend for "some holiday or something" - and being that the next weekend was Rosh Hashana, I deduced that she was Jewish.) So now I started freaking out - how do I explain the ideas of H2H as an organization, especially now that I'm talking to a potential "invitee"?! Shoot, this is exactly what I didn't want to happen! And so, blushing with embarrassment, I started mumbling something about Shabbat dinners...Jewish experiences...bridging religious and social gaps...being friendly. After I finished, there was a pause for a few seconds, during which I was sure I would die of shame. "Oh my goodness!", she exclaimed, "This is perfect for someone like me - I'm also Jewish! Do you think I can come to one of your Shabbat dinners?"

We ended up talking for a while, about her experiences with Judaism (or lack thereof - she hadn't been to Shabbat since her childhood) and how she was looking for just that, an entranceway for someone with no background, and someone to welcome her in. We also talked about H2H and the organizational progress I'd made so far. She added at the end "You know I'm in a graduate program which trains us to help manage non-profits - do you want any help running your organization?" It was too perfect.

Walking back from the library to my room, I laughed so hard I could barely breath. It was such a revelatory moment for me. And I tried to think what was better - that she wanted to come to a Shabbat dinner, or that she wanted to help me with my organization? Which was such a meta-distinction, because that balance was something I had been struggling with. This story ended up being a perfect blend of the two, how because I was there for her to help her Jewish involvement, she was able to offer her non-profit organizational advice and support. To be perfectly honest, the thing that excited me most was her personal interest and wanting to come to a Shabbat dinner, because as much as the organization is important, I don't do this because I love building grassroots organizations - I do it because I love connecting people like this woman.

The Craziest Week Ever for H2H

I just want to quickly share what Heart to Heart is planning for this coming week:40 H2H Shabbat dinners, across 10 different campuses and Chanukah candle-lighting stations in dorms and Chanukah caroling all across campus at: Penn, Maryland, NYU, Brandeis, and Columbia

Yea, this is gonna be nuts. As in amazing. As in, over 500 students celebrating Shabbat, many for the first time. And hundreds of students celebrating Chanukah in an intimate (a la "ner ish u'veito"), personal, meaningful, fun, memorable, and magical way.

I'll keep you all posted how it all goes... Be'ezrat Hashem this will be an amazing way to end the semester, as our breadth and depth continues to soar!

Much love! and much hope for a Chanukah full of pirsum ha'nes!

The Power of “Shabbat Shalom”

Guest post! (written by an anonymous dear friend of mine)
My invitations to Jewish functions are usually very direct.I’ll invite a friend to join me on Friday night for Shabbat dinner or come with me to hear a speaker.And sometimes, even when I can’t make it to something, I’ll send them an invite anyways and encourage them to attend.
Like anything, this direct approach has its advantages and its disadvantages.It gives the person very specific knowledge of the activity, whether it be a dinner or a speaker or whatever else, and can give them the extra push to attend something that they would not have otherwise attended just for the sheer fact that they were personally invited.
On the other hand, such direct discourse can sometimes come off as a bit too aggressive and actually have the opposite effect of what was intended.The invite may come off as a sort of holier-than-thou greeting to try to get them to become more “religious.”As a result, the person may feel intimidated, rather than inspired, by the invitation and respectfully decline in fear of committing to something greater than the one-time dinner or discourse to which they are being invited.
I’ve always been impressed by the markedly warm and welcoming way in which some of my friends invite others to do something Jewish.Yes, it’s important to invite people to meaningful Jewish activities like Shabbat dinners, they say, but it’s equally important to give them the space to make the decision on their own volition rather than feeling like they’re being pulled into something.
This summer, I finally decided to take that approach when I met a student at a social function for Jewish college interns,We had a wonderful conversation about Jewish life on our respective campuses, and afterwards I thought it would be a great idea to invite her to a weekly Shabbat dinner widely attended by Jewish interns during the summer months.
In the middle of writing her a Facebook message on a Friday afternoon in which I planned to invite her to dinner that night, I recalled the idea about giving people space and, rather than sending her a direct invite, I told her how nice it was to have met her earlier in the week and merely ended the message with two simple yet incredibly powerful words as my signature:“Shabbat Shalom.”
Moments later, I received an e-mail from her.She said that it was great to have met me as well, and then, to my amazement, she asked if I had any suggestions for Shabbat dinner that night!I immediately called up Hart -- who as it turned out, was making a H2H meal that night – and told him what had happened.It was a memorable moment and a vivid reminder of the power of the simple two-word greeting we extend to our fellow Jews each week as Friday night draws near:SHABBAT SHALOM.By sincerely sharing these two simple words, we can have a tremendous impact on others.It is a greeting which is inclusive and gives them the space in which to interpret what it means to them at that particular moment in time.Ultimately, It’s about connecting in a real and genuine way, heart to heart, and allowing someone to feel comfortable establishing that connection with you.
Shabbat Shalom.

Being a Part of the Performance

I'm currently in St. Louis, at a big Hillel conference, networking and making my pitch about Heart to Heart. Ton of fun.
I recently recieved an email from a friend which I think has such an unbelievably powerful message. This friend is the member of a Jazz band and performs at some local bars from time to time. As a college student, many of the friends whom he is inviting are minors, which recently posed a problem for an upcoming gig. Here's part of the email he sent out:

The owner of [the venue] just called me and told me that he isn't licensed for minors to be in the vault UNLESS they're playing music. This happens to contrast heavily with our "minor's allowed" policy.So here's the plan if you're a minor coming tonight:

1. There will be no cover charge because... 2. You will receive (unless you want to bring one) a very quiet percussion instrument and become part of our "percussion section" at a table near the band. 3. You don't need to play the whole time but only when it feels right-- you might also get a few solo breaks if you're up for it...

Why wait to sit in when you could be laying down grooves the whole night long? Hope to see you all there tonight!

This is amazing - in order to allow minors to be present for their concert, they are going to include them in the performance! The concept of making the "audience" active participants is such a beautiful and deep way to include people in the experience of which you want them to be a part. I was recently in a session (at a Hillel conference in St. Louis) where they talked about facilitation, and compared it to conducting (highlighted by this fascinating video)  There's a lot of meaning behind that - and I think a lot of what I strive to do is to facilitate Jewish experiences and encounters for others, often by directing them and other religious students. But when dealing with all sorts of "stakeholders" or "audience members", it's so important (and often difficult) to remember to include others in the experience, to help them make the moment real for them. For example, to have different people sharing ideas at the Shabbat table (on kiddush, shalom aleichem, etc.), or having everyone act out a part in the Seder. Besides for getting them interested and active, it's about them being part of the experience, not some "rabbi doing things for them", or something external happening around them. Sure, it takes a delicate methodology to facilitate that, but I think it's crucial for people to become committed or invested in something, and you never know what magic will occur!

Pesach@Penn 2010 - part 3, The Rest of the Chag

I ended up staying in school for the whole chag - I had seen my parents the week before, my siblings were coming to visit me for Shabbat, and it would my last chag at Penn as a student - how could I leave!! People asked me "Hart, are you really staying at Penn for all of Pesach??" You would think that I was being enslaved in Egypt, that's how averse people were to the idea. No, I wanted to stay, and it ended up being incredible (of course), including some of the most amazing tisches of my time in Penn - one tisch in 403 in the dark with 50 people sitting on the floor, 1/2 OCP, 1/4 CJC, and 1/4 Kesher or unaffiliated; another one with 35 people outside on the grass, until it got broken up by the cops at 1am. And they were really good tisches - amazing singing, wonderful people, beautiful words of Torah, and some delectable kosher-for-Passover treats from my grandparents (thanks B&G!). Probably because there was a small Orthodox crowd, we all got to bond with each other, as well as to meet new people and include them into our community; I probably met over 50 new people over Pesach - and that's just me! In retrospect, what was also amazing was that we did all that (Seders, tisches, shiurim, and ran an amazing community for a week) without the JLIC rabbi and rebbetzin being here. There's something nice about having a rabbi run things, but there's something downright inspiring about running a community yourselves. And you get to do it exactly how you want, down to the tisches, the table arrangements, and the Seders. In some ways, we got a taste of what it's like to go to a college with a small religious community. For all the struggles and challenges it presents, it also affords a lot of amazing opportunities, both within the Orthodox community and in impacting the wider Jewish population. In fact, when Pesach ended and the masses came back, a few students shared with me their frustration and disappointment that we'd have to go back to the old ways. Don't get me wrong - there's something amazing about having such a big and vibrant religious community, but believe it or not, there are times when I'm jealous of those colleges with small communities and no rabbi. (Probably only until I have to be in that community full-time.) Regardless, those 8 days at Penn were some of the most freeing and uplifting as any, and definitely a good way to end my Penn career. Until I come back next year, of course ;)

Pesach@Penn 2010 - Part 2

Besides for the Seders, one of the best aspects of Passover is the eating "kosher for Passover". "What?!", you're probably asking me, "Isn't that the most annoying part?" Well, what I love most is how everyone does it - Jews who don't keep kosher or rarely identify as Jewish will be adamant about keeping "kosher for Passover". I once had someone ask me if his turkey and cheese salad was "kosher for passover" - I guess they're different laws and as long as there's no leaven in there, he was doing alright. I'm not sure why, but it's great! At Penn, people come out of the woodworks to eat at Hillel on Pesach; I saw some people who I hadn't seen since last Pesach, and some people who I had never seen. Many of the people who I met for the first time at the Seder came back to Hillel over the next few days and we've made sure to say 'hello' to them and reconnect with them. One of the best practices we tried instituting was in arranging our seating: Over yom tov, those who were at shacharit would come down to eat after prayers and we were often the first and only ones there. Normally, we would fill 2 or 3 tables ourselves - partially out of convenience and partially out of design. Because invariably, half an hour later, random people would start trickling in to eat lunch, likely in between classes or perhaps just getting out of bed.  We would be sitting in our nice, yom tov-clothes and trying to have a nice yom tov-meal, and in would come these random kids - who probably didn't know what yom tov was, who just wanted to eat "kosher for passover". And so we'd end up sitting at our tables, they'd end up sitting at their tables (or by themselves) and never the twain shall meet.

I had an idea. Instead of all sitting together and filling up our tables, what if we spread out and filled 5 or 6 tables halfway, leaving half the table empty. When the other students would come in, either they'd join on their own or we could invite them to sit with us. And that's what we did - and people were usually overjoyed to sit with us, talk with us, and to celebrate Pesach with us. They were also then able to hear kiddush with us, which is a much better and more organic method than getting up on a chair to make kiddush for everyone in the room (which some people tried doing). By making one little change, I and others were able to make so many new friends and helped make the environment a little more welcoming and friendly for everyone.

Heart to Heart in the Kiruv World

In the spirit of תשעה באב, here's a video from Project Inspire which I think you might find interesting, and perhaps even inspiring... (full disclosure: I'm featured in it!)

(full video here)

For the record (and I should probably write a whole separate post about this), I don't like to call it "kiruv", but rather loving people (hence the name "Heart to Heart"). As Rav Kook famously said, 

"If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred (sinat chinam), then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love (ahavat chinam)." (Orot HaKodesh III:324) 

I saw a line from Rav Amital zt"l (which also appears in Rav Kook's writings) qualifying that oft-quoted claim: There is no such thing as undeserved love -- everyone deserves it. It's our job to discover why and how to share that love with others.

DC meets Kentucky, part 5

Oh man. So I always tell people that there are pros and cons of the Shabbatons that we go on to other schools. The cons are that it's harder to find people and harder to stay in touch and build relationships, which are some of the essential components of "Heart to Heart". The pros are the unique and memorable experiences, and the opportunity to meet and share Judaism with people from totally different places. To counter some of the cons, there are technology and other useful tools - like facebook, which could be used for both a) finding people and b) staying in touch and building a relationship. When we were planning out trip to Kentucky 18 months ago, we ran into some of these same issues and solutions, with some great help from the One above. In particular, the story of how I found one girl from Transylvania University was really amazing - and the whole thing ended up working out really well. (It was also one of the clearest instances of the Hand of God that I've seen.) I don't know if I ever shared this, but ever since that Shabbat we've become friends and stayed in touch, occasionally facebook chatting - about life, hockey, Ketucky and of course, about Judaism. (As an avid fan of Prince of Egypt, she LOVED our video!) She's probably the most religious and Jewishly knowledgeable student in Kentucky and I was encouraging her to get involved, perhaps run some Shabbat dinners for the other students, especially the many who had expressed interest when we came. She said she was honored and really appreciated it and would think about it, but that its really hard.

Fast forward to two days ago, when Kener invited me to dinner at Eli's; he also said he was bringing a friend. Turns out this friend was a Jewish kid from Penn who lived in Maryland and Kener had randomly met up with that afternoon and brought along for dinner. Great guy, we had a great time at dinner - and so when I got home that night, I went to friend him on facebook. That's when I saw that one of our mutual friends was that girl from Transylvania/Kentucky!!! Turns out they were from the same city in Maryland and went to the same high school (and Sunday school). So I sent her a message, asking her how camp was (which I saw she was in by stalking her fb wall) and telling her that I met a former classmate of hers in DC. She wrote back a while later that camp was in fact good, but that for the weekend, she was coming to DC!! It was for unfortunate circumstances (her brother is having surgery), but she wanted to know if I wanted to meet up over the weekend! Of course I said yes, and after an exchange of text messages, we're set to meet up this weekend. Maybe I'll even invite her to the Georgetown Chabad, where I plan on going tonight for Shabbat dinner.

The point is that you never know the effects of your actions, and the relationships you build are some of the most important assets that you have. Even "shot-in-the-dark" Shabbatons can make profound impacts and build lasting connections, assuming you have the right intentions and you get some help from Above.

I'll let you know how it goes this weekend :) Shabbat shalom y'all!

p.s. Check out my dvar torah on this week's haftorah (it's from last year, but probably just as relevant)

Jewish Empowerment

Ahhh, so much to write about - speaking tour 2010... Israel in general... next year... DC... I'll get to it all soon, I promise. For now, one quick story which happened yesterday, which I must share. To catch you all up briefly, I'm working this summer in Washington DC with/for Hillel International, as a summer intern. (Though in reality, I'm planning for next year and how to take Heart to Heart national.) Anyway, so I was talking with some of the other interns in the office - they're all college students, involved in their local Hillels, interested in engagement and Hillel's strategy, etc. I started telling them about Heart to Heart and what I've been starting and trying to spread, including some of the programs we run (e.g. Shabbat dinners, Hebrew classes, etc.) One of the girls asked me where I run the dinners, to which I responded (in typical Third Space language) - in my dorm room, in friends' apartment, off-campus houses, etc. "So which rabbi runs the meals?", she asked me. I was stunned - that thought had never even occurred to me, that I had to have a rabbi run everything. "Well, none.", I answered, "We do it ourselves, me, my friends." "What?!", she responded, "So who explains things? Who talks when everyone is eating?" As I tried to explain how the meals work, the other girl turned to her and said "Don't you see? We've been thinking about it all wrong."

When I told the story to my mom, she pointed out something interesting. For people who didn't grow up in religious homes, their only perception of Shabbat and of ritual Jewish observance was in the synagogue or in school or in a Chabad house, with the rabbi telling everyone what to do. Many people don't know, or didn't even think to learn, that they could do it themselves - they can run their own Shabbat dinners, teach their own Judaism, forge their own paths. Much of institutional Judaism's failing is the lack of empowerment - relying exclusively (not that any reliance is bad, but exclusive reliance is problematic) on rabbis and others, thus becoming lazy, ignorant and apathetic about their Judaism. People need to realize that they can do it themselves, they can help mold their own Jewish identities and create the Jewish future they so desire. It's not so simple and it takes many things, but the first thing is realizing that the Gd-given power rests within you.

"Who's that good looking guitar player?"

Having done a lot of these "Heart to Heart" Shabbat dinners (over 40!), there are many things I've learned - some of which I came across by accident but which have proven to be very helpful. Here I'll share one such practice: One of the best things about the meals is that there's no set script - after explaining shalom aleichem, kiddush, and making motzi, we just go with the flow. And it always works, conversations spontaneously occur, people meet everyone around them and a certain level of comfort pervades the atmosphere. But it's always nice to help that process along, and hence the invention of ice breakers - where everyone goes around the table and introduces themselves as well as something about themselves. The big dilemma is always what should the ice breaker be? Something serious? Something funny? Something original? Something Jewish?

Something I've started using is "What's your favorite YouTube video?". I think it's great for a number of reasons, all of which I've seen borne out. Firstly, because everyone watches YouTube - this shows a common cultural language and is something over which everyone can bond. I don't know if people actually think that Orthodox/religious students don't watch YouTube or have their fingers on the pulses of pop culture, but this sure dispels that notion. The best is when people affirm each other's choices ("Oh man, I love that one too!"), instantly giving people a sense of validation and belonging. It also jump starts conversations, and gets people comfortable talking and sharing with everyone else at the table. Also, people often choose funny videos, leading to spontaneous and contageous laughter. Some people choose serious and important videos, which often lead to meaningful conversations. People's choices also tell a lot about them - their interests, their sense of humor, how much time they waste online, etc - which is exactly what you want out of the ice-breaker. Other than breaking the ice.

Another hard question is how to follow-up with people - you don't want to make it sound like you're required to send them a form-email saying "Thank you for coming." You want to make it real; you want to make it personal. What I started doing was emailing everyone from the meal with a link to my favorite video, as well as a line or two saying how wonderful it was sharing Shabbat with them. Then I'd get someone else to reply-all with their video, and if it catches on, you can start off a whole little email chain. (The dynamics for that to happen are a whole other story.) Once when we did it, someone replied that she had such a good time and wanted to do it again soon! So simple, yet so powerful.

The video I often pick is this one:


  • I really do love it!
  • I'm in it!
  • I get to tell people how it happened: an impromptu group of people joining together to celebrate Judaism in a joyous, musical, magical and communal manner - not unlike what Shabbat dinner itself is.
  • And because it's Jewish, but also cool and actually pretty good. And pretty popular - over 1,500 hits!

So when I send out the email to everyone after shabbat, I title it "Who's that good looking guitar player?" ;)

Longing for the Beit Hamikdash

Two year ago from this Shabbat, I helped Drexel AEPi run a Bar Mitzvah. I'll have to tell that story another time, it's too good - and long. But in preparing for it, I was helping some of the brothers learn to read Hebrew and lain. I was teaching them one of the pesukim in this week's parsha and they asked me to translate it. It happened to be about stoning people who worship Ov and Yidoni - not exactly the most politically correct topic, nor one that people find most attractive about Judaism. But what the heck, I figured, and I told them exactly what it meant. "Woah!", they exclaimed, "That's awesome! Do we still get to do that?" I told them no, that since the destruction of the Temple a few thousand years ago we no longer have the judicial authority to punish people the way the Torah prescribes. To which one of them responded: "Man, I wish we had the Temple back." Out of all the times we say in davening or zemirot that we wish we had the Beit Hamikdash back - how many times did we actually mean it? Here was someone who didn't know much - but at that moment, on his own, he really meant it when he wished for the Beit Hamikdash. Our people never cease to amaze me...