When Debbie Yunker Kail was named Executive Director of Hillel at Arizona State University in 2013, she wondered how she might match the depth of Jewish knowledge that her predecessor, a rabbi, brought to the position and the campus Jewish community.
In the end, she knew she didn’t need to do so.
“Every one of us has different orientations within Jewish education,” Kail said. “I’ve embraced the idea that we all have something to teach others; whatever I know and don’t know, I have something to share.
“As Jewish educators, we don’t need to have all the right answers. What about an educator who asks the right questions? Or one who models and teaches about different choices and lifestyles?”
This definition of a Jewish educator as fellow traveler – one she wholeheartedly embraces and practices – fits the organization she now leads well, the center for Jewish life at one of the most highly populated college campuses in the country.
Here, we have students who “are seeking to come into their own understanding of themselves as adult Jews,” Kail said. “A developmentally normal way to think in college is in black and white, but here we are attempting to show the grey middle and to validate that.”
In the five-plus years that she has led Hillel at ASU, Kail has with great purpose created an environment in which pluralism flourishes, students are empowered, and questions about faith, practice, identity, community, and activism are encouraged and vigorously explored together through open dialogue and exposures.
Kail received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in 2015 in recognition of her promise and potential as a young Jewish educator.
“Debbie is a lifelong learner herself,” said Shelley Cohn, former Chair of the Board of Hillel at ASU. “She’s transformed Hillel into a place where questions and emerging knowledge are assets. She personifies the educator as leader.”
Most notably, Kail overhauled a staff-driven approach and changed it into one that is now nearly all student-driven. This new approach is exemplified by a new student board, new prayer minyans, and new student-led classes on Hebrew reading, mindfulness, and other topics. In addition, she co-developed and taught a new and popular Jewish leadership development class that she said gives students “a foundation and confidence to think outside the box.”
Student engagement has more than doubled at Hillel at ASU since Kail became Executive Director. “There is a diverse range of Jewish experiences represented by who walks in the door here,” she said. “This presents unique challenges, but I think of it as an opportunity for exposure, teaching, and community building.”
But it is the smaller and more informal moments that Kail described as being immensely rewarding, meaningful, and impactful as a Jewish educator. “Having students at my home is being the best kind of Jewish educator,” she said. “Sharing Shabbat there, the mezuzah on my door, the Israel art hanging on the walls – it all synthesizes into conversation, exchanges, and mutual learning.”
Kail, who was Associate Director of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania before moving to Arizona, received the Pomegranate Prize just two years after taking her place at Hillel ASU. The honor, she said, was “in the fact that I counted as a Jewish educator, along with the recognition within the community that a Hillel is a thriving and valued place for Jewish learning, life, and growth.”
And just as significant to her was the timing itself, just a couple of years in and still searching to define the educational aspect of her daily work.
“It was a challenging time then, regrouping as an organization,” she said. “I had hope coming in as a Jewish educator, and I think that I lost some of that. The Pomegranate Prize had a wonderful way of refocusing me back to it.”
What immediately became apparent to her, Kail said, was the commitment of The Covenant Foundation to the nurturing and growth of a new generation of young Jewish educators.
“Every moment over the three years was designed to show me that I was being invested in. There was a sense of being invited to become a member of a family, with a never-ending welcome and personal and professional nourishment.”
In addition, whether by design or not, some moments, she said, spoke to her in unexpected ways, and the seemingly irrelevant became exceedingly meaningful. At one of the Project Director’s conferences held by the Foundation each year, for example, she found herself in a puppetry workshop, an approach to dialogue that admittedly is not her usual style.
“It was an opportunity to think about how we create environments for students here, and ask them to go out of their comfort zone,” she said. “If we know that learning and growth comes from productive discomfort, then how do we make that not too uncomfortable?”
“That stuck with me in a big way and made me think about ways to bring it back here, because much of what Hillel is, is exposing people to others and new experiences. We want the students to meet people different from themselves and to write or draw or sing when they would rather just talk.”
Resources attached to the Prize enabled Kail’s participation in non-profit management conferences and classes at the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. Her experiences there allowed her to examine organizational challenges and opportunities through a different lens than the Jewish communal one to which she usually gravitates.
She is also working with a management coach, “reflecting on what my values are and how I can allow them to play out and inform my workplace and community.”
“My vision as a Jewish educator is believing in everyone’s potential,” Kail said. “If we are feeling frustrated that they are not reaching that potential, then there is more as educators that we can do to create a better environment for them. We can ask them different questions, help them find a role that is a better fit, or help them realize that what they are doing may not jive with the other things going on in their lives.”
“At ASU, every time we push ourselves to try harder as educators, we are blown away by what students can do.”