By Becca Sturm
Growing up in a Reform community in Flagstaff, Ariz., worship services were my release from everything difficult and challenging. In synagogue, no one told me my GPA was too low, my cross-country times too slow. Judaism was my private conversation with God, my personal, sacred space.
And I wanted to keep others out of it.
Forget youth group retreats, summer camps and barbecues. There was something about walking into a large ballroom or social hall of a congregation I had no affiliation with and being surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other Jews that terrified me. As an introvert, the social and communal side of Judaism scared me more than anything else.
None of those apprehensions went away when I started college, so, upon arriving at Arizona State University as a freshman in 2018, I stuck to my script. I tried to sit in the back corner and do my own prayer thing, but people kept coming up to me and inviting me to things!
While that might be inviting for some, it wasn’t to me. Not at first. Not until I got to know the then-student president of my ASU Hillel, Haddi, an introvert herself. She helped me see the value and the beauty of relational Judaism. She opened her house one Shabbat for one of the best Shabbat meals and Jewish experiences I ever had.
Over challah and Manischewitz, my perspective began to shift. Haddi consciously or unconsciously met me where I was as a person, not just as a Jewish individual. She realized that empathy was something I treasured more than any invitation.
Last year, I watched a Ted Talk by motivational speaker Simon Sinek. In his talk, he challenged listeners to evaluate the emotional core, the why, of what they are doing. His words resonated with me. There are a million ways for me to get fellow students engaged. I am attempting to answer my “why,” and “how” I am going about that.
I decided to apply his design-thinking approach in my role as a Hillel ambassador this year. Being an ambassador means being at the forefront of the freshman engagement initiative. It involves the relational side of Judaism I have come to love and no longer fear.
Innovation has become the brand of the university and that mindset has inspired the Hillel as well. I get to be a part of that search for innovative solutions. Meeting students where they are (mentally or geographically) is my “why.”
Being an introvert has been incredibly helpful for me in my role. I understand instinctively how social anxiety and room setup and group activities make me feel relative to other people. This is a strategy that can be applied universally: Instead of just looking at the merits of a programming offered, look at how it is offered.
Are there enough chances for introverts to not talk if they so desire? Are there enough tables for someone to choose to have social conversations? Look at how people react to social spaces and environments and you will be amazed at how much room there is to improve your customer service.
For example, our Hillel recently moved our Reform service to a Pilates studio as we undergo renovations. In that studio, there were mirrors up that we were reflecting us as we were praying.
To you it may not seem like a big deal, but as an introvert, it makes me feel on edge to watch myself pray. So, I advocated for covering up the mirrors. The Hillel staff listened to my feedback and swiftly acted. This is just one example of how to construct spaces while keeping in mind how others might react to experiences unfamiliar to them.
As an ambassador, I try to deeply engage with and wrestle with what motivates and inhibits students from feeling like themselves when they walk into a room. Everyone has a distinct way of interacting with the world and we should all pay a little more attention to those in the context of engagement work.
Sometimes we all need to be quiet and observe the things that people struggle with or are intimidated by. That makes sense; it’s how we apply it that is counterintuitive. We need to put introverts directly in charge of planning traditionally extroverted projects like engagement and social events.
Our ability to have the empathy to respond (or not, as the case may be) can reshape what people get out of events. Introverts get it. A program will not appeal to everyone, but an introvert who can take the time to understand students’ reservations will make almost every student feel welcome.
So, don’t discount the person who doesn’t speak up. Chances are they’re the one who knows the most (and can do the most) to serve the people around them. WJW
Becca Sturm is a member of the Class of 2022 at Arizona State University, an ambassador with ASU Hillel and a member of the Hillel International Student Cabinet. This piece was originally published on eJewishPhilanthropy.com.