When 20-year-old Laura Beth David walks to her classes at San Francisco State University, her eyes fix on specific objects: a Star of David dangling from a woman’s necklace, a hamsa tattoo on someone’s arm, a kitschy Jewish saying on a T-shirt.
Ordinary items, but for David they are so much more.
“I’m constantly meeting new people,” said David, who approaches students sporting those objects and strikes up conversations about Judaism. “It’s fun and easy for me — though guys often think I’m hitting on them.”
David still likes to strike up Jewish conversations, but as a sophomore during the 2008-09 school year, she was doing it in an official capacity: as an intern in the Peer Network Engagement Initiative.
Tasked with building relationships with uninvolved Jewish students on the S.F. State campus, David connected with 60 young adults by inviting them to Shabbat dinners, group outings and holiday parties.
“In high school, people get really involved,” David said. “In college, people have to work and deal with school and the economy. I feel like they don’t have time to get super-involved in the Jewish community. If someone like me starts talking to them in class, I bring that connection to them.”
After nearly being dropped from S.F. Hillel’s programming after only one year due to the economic downturn, PNEI is back for a second year, bolstered by a grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Kohn Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
PNEI interns are on select campuses that have significant Jewish populations. This year, more than 30 campuses in North America are participating, including Hillel at Stanford.
In an effort to connect with uninvolved Jewish students, each Hillel employs three to five student leaders (S.F. State has five) who are part of various social networks through which they can build relationships.
David, for example, is involved in several campus activities. She is one of the founding sisters of S.F. State’s Jewish sorority, a “GatorAider” who guides new students around campus and a former employee at Hillel. Also, she is a communications and marketing major.
“Not everyone will take that hand, but at least it’s being extended,” said Alon Shalev, the executive director of San Francisco Hillel.
PNEI interns not only build relationships with Jewish students, but they also introduce them to immersive experiences such as Birthright Israel and Alternative Break. The latter program sends college students on short-term service projects, where they learn about literacy, poverty, racism and other issues.
The interns also make an effort to understand students’ interests, passions and aspirations, and connect them to opportunities they may find meaningful and engaging.
“PNEI opens up a whole new world at S.F. Hillel,” said Heather Erez, the agency’s assistant director. “We are now able to provide students with the tools and resources to celebrate and explore Judaism as they see fit. Bringing them through our doors is now an option, but not the only one.”
San Francisco Hillel serves 13 local institutions — including UCSF, the Academy of Art University and three community colleges.
At S.F. State, junior Brian Trief-Barrell used to view Hillel as a “very religious place” and not somewhere he wanted to hang out. But that changed when some Jewish students “went out of their way” to reach out to him. At that point, he said, he began to realize that Hillel was more than a religious setting — it was community.
Then last year as a sophomore, Trief-Barrell served as a PNEI intern.
“I really hit home with a lot of students I found,” he said. “I asked, ‘What do you appreciate in Judaism: religion or community?’ Most of them replied ‘community.’ And I would say the same thing.”