News and Media Inspiring Organizational Change: Redefining prayer at Northwestern

Inspiring Organizational Change: Redefining prayer at Northwestern

An interview with 18X18 fellow Rabbi Jessica Lott
“When we're holding services, are we really praying? Are we praying when we’re observing holidays on campus? Are these events truly spiritual experiences? And what does sanctity mean in terms of space, place, and time during the college experience?”18x18 Fellow Rabbi Jessica Lott asked herself and her students some tough questions and began igniting organizational change at Northwestern Hillel.

It has been a year since M² launched the 18×18 Research Fellowship, which brings together executives at prominent Jewish organizations to respond to the shifting identities and interests of Jews in the 21st century, stimulate change within their organizations, and create a collective vision and framework for Jewish education.

Each fellow began their journey by mapping their organization’s offerings as well as their students’ and constituents’ needs. Then, they chose new goals for their organization and began experimenting in their organization on a small scale. Now, at the one-year milestone, they are beginning to implement their vision on a larger scale.

In “Inspiring Organizational Change,” we check in with M² fellows from various programs to learn how they are changing their organizations, with support from M².

Rabbi Jessica Lott was still adjusting to her new role as the campus rabbi at Northwestern Hillel when M² approached her to join the 18×18 Research Fellowship – and she soon began strategizing about how to bring its frameworks to campus.

“At first, I wanted to bring the entire 18×18 vocabulary to our students,” said Jessica. Yet, as she found herself working more directly with students than ever before, she quickly gained a new perspective.

Identifying goals for organizational change

Jessica’s students shared that college life for Jewish young adults was a whirlwind, and as a result, many students felt lost. Using the 18×18 framework as her guide, Jessica chose to focus on one important 18×18 goal that directly addressed her students’ feelings: sanctity, spirituality, and prayer.

She realized that she was in a unique position to make a change, and the more effective strategy was to select just one of the Fellowship’s 18 frameworks and dig in.

Building a feasible implementation plan

“I started asking myself and my students some tough questions,” said Jessica. “When we’re holding services, are we really praying? Are we praying when we’re observing holidays on campus? Are these events truly spiritual experiences? What does sanctity mean in terms of space, place, and time during the college experience?”

While incubating these questions as part of the 18×18 Fellowship, Jessica began to develop a three-year strategic vision for redefining prayer at Northwestern – one that would develop alongside her professional and organizational goals, and “prompt deep and broad thinking about the role of spirituality at Northwestern Hillel.”

It began with rethinking Shabbat. Jessica prompted her most active Hillel members to consider what it means to be a prayer leader cultivating spiritual experiences, not just social ones. This led the prayer leaders to create more spiritually enriching environments.

Experimenting with “small wins” to demonstrate new opportunities

Soon after this initiative took off, her vision expanded to the Jewish learning cohorts she leads on campus every quarter, which until now, had been mostly discussion-based. Jessica made one critical addition to the agenda: reflective writing. Each session, she encourages her learners to embrace the silence that settles over the group as a moment of sanctity and reverence.

“This is a work in progress, and that is a good thing,” said Jessica. “To me, the most important aspect has been including our student leaders in the process, and working with them to curate or co-create new content and experiences.”

Her students’ creativity – and their honest feedback – will shape the program for years to come. “I’ve built into my strategic vision the possibility that students might come along and say, ‘We want something different.’ Part of the plan is for the plan itself to change.”

That uncertainty is part of the job. “I’m working to build the space, structure, and content for students to have meaningful, spiritual experiences, and I don’t know if I’m going to see the payoff of that for many years,” said Jessica. “I tell people that my work is faith-based because I need to have faith that it will work.”


Rabbi Jessica Lott is the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern Hillel.

The M² 18×18 Executive Fellowship brings together executives overseeing educational strategy, policy, and programming at prominent Jewish organizations. Together, fellows seek to expand the range of Jewish educational goals and stimulate change within and across their organizations, in a collaborative and supportive setting.

The 18×18 educational framework was developed by Dr. Ben Jacobs and Dr. Barry Chazan. The 18×18 Executive Fellowship is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.