Heart to Heart (H2H), an organization founded and led by Hart Levine, twenty-three year old UPenn grad, has a mission that seems extremely simple: to include uninvolved students in Jewish life by enabling involved Jewish students to share meaningful positive Jewish experiences and relationships with their peers. Despite its seeming obviousness, this grassroots effort on the part of American students is actually quite radical. Its genius lies in the casual, non-pressured environment Heart to Heart strives to create, ensuring that all are welcome.
In the winter of 2007 at the University of Pennsylvania, Hart engaged in some amazing experiences sharing the joy and happiness of Chanukah with dozens of unaffiliated or otherwise uninvolved Jews. Inspired by this, he joined with like-minded friends and decided to create more opportunities to share positive Judaism with others. Those first conversations led to the idea to host Shabbat meals for under-involved and curious Jews on campus.”When we were inviting people they’d ask, hesitantly, ‘Are you from Hillel? Chabad?,’” Hart relates. “Nope,” Hart would answer, “I’m just Hart Levine; I’m a senior in bioengineering. ‘No way!’ they’d exclaim, ‘I’m also in engineering…’” Based on these encounters, some of Hart’s friends started calling the initiative ‘the Hart Levine project.’ “But it wasn’t really about me,” Hart explains, “it was about the personal connections, and about sharing loving and meaningful relationships and experiences with others. Hence the name ‘Heart to Heart.’”
Now, four years later, Heart to Heart has become a movement on a host of college campuses throughout North America. Student-run and led largely by NCSY alumni, the organization, which now boasts a website (TheHeart2HeartProject.org) provides guidance to its leaders on various campuses and offers many forms of programming. Programs include intimate Shabbat dinners, one-on-one partnered Jewish learning and holiday experiences such as student-run explanatory services for the High Holidays, “Chanukah caroling” around campus and candle-lighting stations in dorms plus student-run introductory Passover services. The Orthodox Union has joined the movement by collaborating with Hart on these initiatives, giving him an office space at their headquarters and working closely to insure that his outreach efforts include former NCSYers.
Raphy Rosen, a student at Columbia University, was inspired to get involved in Heart to Heart after going on YUSSR, a program that brings American college students to Belarus to run a winter camp for Belarussian campers. “One camper told me that he would tell his parents that he was going to a movie on Saturday night but would sneak to the house of the Chabad rabbi and learn with him,” he recounted. “This blew my mind. In every American community I had seen, the situation was reversed.” Impressed by this Jew who knew so little but cared so much, Raphy wanted to do more to help “worldwide Yahadut.” For him, Heart to Heart was the answer.
Ben Shefter at the University of Maryland had sent out an email to the Maryland Vaad expressing his frustration regarding the lack of outreach to Jews on campus. A friend told him about Heart to Heart so Ben got in touch with Hart, and after learning more, decided to become a leader on his campus. In no time at all, Ben was arranging Shabbat meals, Chanukah parties and even a Superbowl party with a shiur on the spiritual aspects of the Superbowl.
Michael Snow at SUNY Binghamton met Hart on the latter’s yeshiva/ seminary tour of Israel. He also heard about the program from friends of his on other college campuses. It wasn’t so easy to get H2H off the ground at Binghamton, in large part because the culture of having intimate Shabbat dinners at various people’s dorms did not really exist. As a teenager, however, Michael used his knowledge of what he would enjoy to persuade others to come over. He created a meal that was in a convenient, easily accessible place with an environment that was warm, welcoming, friendly and had no agenda. It was a smashing success. “It’s my belief that the students out there, whether or not they realize it, are hungry,” Michael commented. “They’re hungry for something deeper. They’re thirsty for something spiritual.”
Alexis Mayer, a mentor for NCSY JUMP at Kohelet Yeshiva High School and a University of Pennsylvania student, noted that the meals impact the hosts just as much if not more than they impact the guests. “Hosts learn to explain what they do religiously and why they choose to do it, engage in serious religious conversation and most of all, show fellow Jews the beauty and fun of a Shabbat meal with friends,” she said. “From the perspective of guests, I think they appreciate the environment, which is homey, genuine and really a fun cultural experience without any commitments or intimidation.” Raphy pointed out that many guests have confessed to him that “they want to be part of the Jewish community but they have no friends there and they don’t want to show up to an event to be ‘that charity-case’ guy with no friends.” Thus, H2H affords them an entry point; they are guaranteed familiar faces around Hillel or campus in the future. Michael agreed with this and also focused on how “non-bureaucratic” Heart to Heart is. “What’s so wonderful is that you don’t have to fill out an application to have a Heart to Heart dinner. You just need to have the drive and desire to have a meaningful experience with other Jews.” He also mentioned that H2H is flexible and the vision of what it is and could be can change from campus to campus, enabling leaders to tackle the needs of each college individually, which makes this movement decidedly unique.
One of the aspects that Hart stresses most is the need for follow-up and creating a longstanding relationship with the students that attend the Shabbat meals, Chanukah parties or other programming. It’s the personal touch, investment and interest that seals the deal. Andrew Kener, an NCSY alumnus at the University of Pennsylvania, epitomized this when describing a Passover seder he and his friend Elad ran. Elad wanted to make everyone attending the seder feel as though they really had just exited Egypt so he found a picture of each person on Facebook and cropped it into a background with an Egyptian landscape. Andrew remembers “how touched people were that he had taken the time to do something personal like that, and they really enjoyed it.”
Michael noted that the goal is not only to teach Jewish literacy in cultural traditions and settings to those Jews who are not involved at all, but to also create a welcoming environment for those Jews who may have left traditional observance. At one memorable meal, he hosted a friend who had gone through the Modern Orthodox day school system but had fallen away from it. His friend was wearing his Halloween costume in order to attend a Halloween party later that evening. This person donned a kippah and recited Kiddush for all; he had been given the space and respect to do Judaism on his terms- and he responded to that.
Heart to Heart is currently funded by the Orthodox Union and donations from friends and families of those involved, or people who heard about the movement and wanted to be part of it. H2H is always looking for donors, as the costs of Shabbat dinners and other programs do add up! If interested in getting involved, please contact Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the website at TheHeart2HeartProject.Org.