Photo of Jason Benkendorf

What was your journey to becoming the Executive Director of AU Hillel?

I came to American University as an undergraduate when I was 18, and when I came to American I thought that I was going into politics- my dream at the time was to be a political speech writer. During my time at AU, I did a lot of things in terms of political activism and internships, but was also very active in the Jewish community and had a number of internships within the Jewish community. Over the course of my time here as a student I found that I was less and less interested in a political career, and noticed more and more that the most fulfilling work I was doing was within the Jewish community. So it was really here at AU that I started thinking about working professionally in Jewish leadership. After I graduated I pursued first a couple of opportunities that were designed to be a hybrid of the two, and allow me to engage both in politics and the Jewish community, but after a couple of years I decided that what I really wanted to do was work with Jewish young adults. The most meaningful experiences I had were when I was able to be a part of people’s journeys to finding what was meaningful to them about being Jewishly involved. So I worked for a number of years with Jewish high school students, doing engagement and educational work, and 5 years ago I was presented with the opportunity to return to AU as the Hillel director. It really has been a dream come true in so many ways to get to do the work that I find really meaningful, challenging, and exciting, and to be able to do it at my alma mater is kind of the best of all worlds.

In what ways do you and Hillel engage with Jewish college students on a regular basis?

AU Hillel ran more than 200 programs last year, everything from Shabbat dinners and Jewish learning to service projects, social justice discussions, and Israel programs. Just as importantly, we focus on building relationships with those Jewish students who might not seek us out – meeting them where they are and helping them find Jewish experiences that will be personally meaningful to them.  We have a team of dynamic students whose role is to identify and engage those Jewish students who aren’t yet connected with Jewish life on campus; between them and our staff members, we have more than 2,000 one-on-one interactions with Jewish students on the periphery of our Jewish community every school year.  All of the research out there, and our experience on campus, tells us that relationships are really the key. For a student who’s not already closely identified with the Jewish community no event is going to bring them in, while the opportunity to build a real relationship with a peer or a staff member- someone who really cares to take an interest in them- is the way to open the door and hopefully help them find some point of connection to Jewish life.

How does AU Hillel differentiate from other Hillel programs?

There are 550 Hillels around the world doing really amazing work.  One focus for AU Hillel is the development of what we call micro-communities, small groups of students who come together on a regular basis to share meaningful educational experiences.  We have big events that draw hundreds of students, but the truth is that the magical moments – the really transformative moments – usually happen in a smaller group setting.  We have a weekly student-led Torah study program, a Jewish LGBTQ group, an affinity group for our Israeli and Israeli-American students, a women’s Rosh Chodesh learning group, and the list goes on.  The learning and growth that takes place within these micro-communities is tremendously inspiring.

In your role, you engage regularly with people from many different backgrounds- students, your team at Hillel, foundations, university leadership, etc- so how does this play into your approach to leadership?

The concept of relational leadership has always resonated with me.  When you’re in the business of enriching people’s lives and building community, relationships are everything.  Whatever success I’ve had as a leader has resulted directly from my ability to build relationships with stakeholders, to actually understand them, and to find the points of intersection between what they value and the values of the organization.  As Executive Director of AU Hillel, that’s the process I go through with students and university colleagues and prospective supporters. The conversations can be very different but when it comes to the approach it’s really very much the same- building authentic relationships with people who are part of our constituency in one way or another, really trying to understand what they care about and what motivates them, and seeing if there are things we are doing that excite them and make them want to be a part of it. I think we’ve had considerable success with a variety of different stakeholders, so it’s something that I strive to do, and when we bring on new staff and work with student leaders we focus on this in their training as well because it’s really at the heart of what we do.

What leaders do you admire most, and why?

I believe strongly that, as Jews, we have a responsibility to the Jewish people and to the broader world. That’s something I often challenge students to think about.  So I admire those Jewish leaders who demonstrate a real commitment to our particular community and to the broader world.  One great example was a gentleman named Phil Klutznick who, in the second half of the 20th century, served as president of B’nai B’rith International and of the World Jewish Congress, and also as U.S. Secretary of Commerce and a U.S. delegate to the United Nations.  He was somebody who naturally transitioned between leadership roles in the Jewish community, and in American society at large. The way that he moved back and forth between these different types of roles, it’s clear that he didn’t see them as separate endeavors but, rather, as different ways in which he could serve and make a difference in the world.  For me, that’s really inspiring, and a wonderful embodiment of how I think of leadership as a balance between the particular and the universal.

As a non-profit leader how do you evaluate your progress and success? How do metrics play into your work, and what suggestions do you have to other non-profit leaders about using metrics?

We at Hillel have developed very clear metrics to measure our success, and we are very serious about data collection.  It’s not just about knowing that we’re doing a good job; strategic data collection and analysis allow us to learn and improve in an ongoing way.  For example, we might hypothesize that student participation in one of our Birthright Israel trips or our freshman peer mentorship program spurs these students to deepen their Jewish involvement in subsequent semesters. But does data support that hypothesis? It’s crucial for us to have that information as we make decisions about strategy and resource allocation, so it’s something that we monitor really closely.

More and more funders are approaching philanthropy with an investor mindset, expecting to see proof of results.  The truth is that we in the non-profit sector shouldn’t need to be pushed on this.  We at Hillel have an absolute responsibility to our supporters and our students to do our work in the most effective way possible.  I’m really proud to say that the entire Hillel movement takes this challenge very seriously and has invested significantly to develop the understanding and the tools to do this well.

What is your favorite (kosher) restaurant in DC region? 

I wish there were more of them!  I’m a big fan of Char Bar- its downtown near Foggy Bottom.  The pulled brisket is fantastic.

What goals do you and Hillel have for the next year?

We’re actually in the process of setting our goals for the year right now.  This past year, we had an unprecedented 80 students in ongoing leadership roles within our Hillel community, and we’ll certainly have as one of our goals to continue growing that number. The depth of experience that comes with that sort of role is just unmatched.  We’ll also be looking to launch additional micro-communities and content-rich educational programs.