From Birthright to Masa to a Job at Hillel: The Anatomy of a Jewish Leadership Journey

From Birthright to Masa to a Job at Hillel: The Anatomy of a Jewish Leadership Journey

Jordenne Parker earned her master's degree in higher education administration from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2017. Photo credit: White Light Exposure

By Jordenne Parker

Jordenne Parker’s path to her current position in the Jewish professional world was not exactly conventional.

“I come from an interfaith background and I didn’t grow up immersed in any kind of structured Jewish community outside of my family,” said Parker. “While I always held on to the importance of what Judaism meant to me personally, Israel didn’t really play a role in my life until after college. My interfaith background gives me a different perspective from some of my colleagues and some students, and it also makes it easier to connect with some other students.”

Today, Parker is firmly entrenched in the work of cultivating Jewish identity and connections to Israel as the operations manager for the Texas Hillel Foundation. In fact, she works for Hillel even though she was not involved with Hillel as a college student.

In the following interview, Parker discusses her unique Jewish leadership journey with Masa Israel Journey CEO Liran Avisar Ben-Horin. Masa has produced over 130,000 alums of its long-term experiences in Israel—including Parker.

Liran Avisar Ben-Horin: For many Masa participants, a short-term experience in Israel provides the foundation and motivation for a subsequent long-term experience in Israel. Can you explain how that was the case for you?

Jordenne Parker: I went on a Birthright trip in 2013, when I was 24, and it opened my eyes to a whole other part of my culture that I did not know I was missing out on. I really wanted to dedicate a significant amount of time to spend in Israel, and decided the time was after I finished my master’s degree in higher education administration at the University of Texas. I ultimately selected Masa Israel Teaching Fellows because it allowed me to truly immerse myself in the Israeli culture and lifestyle due to both the length and communal nature of the program.

From the first time I visited, I knew Israel was special. The people are so warm and would do anything to help you. I have been welcomed into homes as a stranger and left as family. And because of that, Israel will always represent a piece of home for me.

LABH: Then you joined MITF’s “Hillel: Next” track, which offers programming geared towards individuals who want to become future leaders for Hillel. More specifically, what about that track appealed to you?

JP: In a word, leadership. I think I have always stepped up as a leader in my school and work circles, so I was really excited to learn about the Masa Leadership Academy and the various tracks it offered. When Masa reached out to me to propose being a part of the Hillel track, they helped me unify my passions for higher education and Judaism in a way that provided a clear, practical, and meaningful future path after my Masa experience.

LABH: What did the road look like from MITF’s Hillel track to an actual Hillel career?

JP: I had no idea that working at Hillel was an option for me since I had not been involved with Hillel as a student, but the Masa Leadership Center team encouraged me and helped me look at positions that would be a good fit for me. They took the time to get to know my strengths and offered guidance when I was not sure if I would be a good fit somewhere.

Not only that, but the work done by the Masa Leadership Center's Director of Programming Ben Baginsky at the Summit really challenged me to think about things from a more adaptive perspective as well as to see value from multiple perspectives. I am so grateful for all the conversations I was able to have with Ben during my time in Israel, and for how he has continued to be a wonderful resource for me post-Masa. Ben and the other Masa Leadership Center facilitators are incredibly encouraging people who recognized a strength in me that perhaps I did not recognize as easily in myself. I learned how to harness my strength, but to remember the importance of kindness and compassion.

Overall, I feel like I have this powerful and passionate network of leadership alumni that I still get to collaborate with in the States because of my current work.

LABH: And how did the different pieces of your journey come together to shape the work you do today?

JP: I was initially tentative about working with Hillel because I had no prior involvement, but it has been a wonderful transition. I get to use my operations expertise along with my knowledge of higher education and work with an amazing team every day. Without the Masa Leadership Academy, I do not think I would be here. It is no understatement to say that without it, I would be on a totally different path.

Outside of connecting with my own Jewish identity, my work with Hillel allows me to exercise a skill set that I have worked really hard to hone over the past eight years. I have a master’s degree in higher education administration, so I love that I get to work with college students. I also have significant experience in operations and office management, so I am grateful that I have a place to continue this work and to learn new skills.

Having a job that I am passionate about means that I’m excited about going to work! It makes it easy for me to be committed to my job when I am passionate about the work I’m doing and the populations I am serving. ■

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