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Empow(her): Inspired By Those Who Continue to Find a Seat at the Table

By Alexa Zappia August 13, 2019

Alexa Zappia is currently the innovation specialist at Hillel of Buffalo, where she is also the founder and director of Rocks of Unity™, a brand of educational workshops, geared towards individuals of all ages, which affirms diversity as a strength through kindness, acceptance, and unity.

Through Hillel International’s Springboard Fellowship summer immersion program, I was able to recently attend the Mobilize Women Summit sponsored by the Ellevate Network in New York City. Mobilize Women “is a movement based on Ellevate Network’s purpose of achieving equality for all through giving diverse voices, and particularly those of women, a seat at the table where decisions are made.” 

During my time at the summit, I had the opportunity to meet with other female professionals who identified a need in the world and were determined to make a difference. One of these inspiring difference makers was Haben Girma, the first deafblind individual to graduate from Harvard Law School. In order to communicate, we sat face-to-face as I typed words on my keyboard and watched them get transmitted and translated into braille on Haben’s keyboard. This process continued as we discussed her journey, my role at Hillel and how we can continue to use disability as an opportunity for innovation.

I saw many important parallels between my conversation with Haben and the work we lead as Hillel professionals. As an innovation specialist, we are taught to look at things through a different lens. At Hillel of Buffalo, we are knee-deep in an exciting re-branding phase. I, along with the rest of our staff, are looking at things through a different and innovative lens. When I told Haben of our re-branding initiative, she responded with a clear message: “The unknown is the opportunity to innovate.” 

Change can be scary; but change can also be what is needed. At first, sometimes the change we need to make isn’t evident. It requires vulnerability and a level of comfort with the unknown in order to be realized. As Hillel professionals, our work is ever-changing; but that’s also the beauty of it. Leaning into the unknown through an innovative viewpoint can be the enhancement that was always needed. 

As the summit continued, I became increasingly inspired by the parallels between the lectures given and my work as a Hillel professional. During a panel, “Courage to Lead,” Shareen Luze, senior director of human resources for RBC Wealth Management, reminded the crowd that “we can’t be it all to everyone all of the time.”

As Hillel professionals, I think many of us have a hard time grappling with that. Our job is to provide an experience for students to help them foster their Jewish identity. When there are so many students who need us and require so much of our attention, how do we tend to them all? To echo Shareen, it is physically, mentally and emotionally impossible to be “it all” to every student every day. Our jobs are so rewarding because our work is so transformative. In the same respect, if we don’t put realistic expectations on our work, it can get extremely taxing extremely fast. 

Some students may view us as parents, friends, confidants and mentors; yet our job often asks us to meet with as many students as we can through hour-long coffee dates. We have so many students to reach, which often makes giving students what they really want near impossible. It is perfectly acceptable to give students a time limit by saying you can meet with them for a specific amount of time before you have to give another student your attention. By doing so, you are not shutting a student out, but rather giving them realistic parameters. Our jobs are not meant to allow us to be “it all” to every student all the time. Instead, our jobs are meant to allow us to work with as many students as we can to help cultivate their Jewish identities in whatever shape that may take.

As my time at the Mobilize Women Summit came to an end, I felt a sense of gratitude for this experience. If I hadn’t stepped outside of the parameters and found this on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to experience this inspiring summit. I knew that it was where I was supposed to be. No matter the context of our work as Hillel professionals, we must continue to learn from each other as we strive to find our seat at the table.

As Hillel professionals, our work is ever-changing; but that’s also the beauty of it. Leaning into the unknown through an innovative viewpoint can be the enhancement that was always needed.