Dear Folks,

When I was a freshman in college, the most effective communication strategy involved “table tents”: little signs made of folded pieces of heavy paper, which were placed in dining halls all over campus.  These tiny billboards advertised everything from musical theater to keg parties, and they changed almost daily.  Sitting alone we digested them silently, and when a raucous group sat down, the information on the signs shaped both our conversation and our social plans.  By sophomore year, groups were stapling 8 x 11 sheets on every available tree and pole, and by senior year huge signs were fastened to the walls of buildings.

We are always looking for better ways to connect with each other and promote what’s going on, and in these days of Twitter posts and Instagram and curated Facebook pages, I admit I’m a little nostalgic for those humble handmade signs.

Twelve years ago, the students at Northwestern University took a similar tack.  They had e-mail accounts and social media, but they also began to post important statements on bed sheets: spray-painted eye catchers hanging out of windows.

In that spirit, the new rabbi in charge of the University’s student fellowship, Hillel, decided to put up a banner advertising Yom Kippur services. (Yom Kippur is an annual Jewish holiday set aside for confession, atonement, and starting over on a new foot.)  But instead of announcing the date and time of services, he decided to try something different: he printed “What will you do better this year?” on the banner. And then something unexpected happened: Students told him that the banner sparked conversations about the question. And they suggested that Hillel make more banners.

“More banners came along. Northwestern students Lexie Komisar and Allie Gross got involved. Soon a website emerged, professors began participating in salon conversations in the campus Starbucks about the questions, and groups of students began to hold their own conversations.” (

“Ask Big Questions” began with a pretty simple idea—to ask a question instead of making a statement—and it has sparked something important on 28 college campuses nationwide.  Asking a big question rather than offering an answer inspires conversation and engenders mutual respect, two things we need more of, now more than ever.

Here are a few to chew on:

  • How can this year be better than the last?
  • When do you conform?
  • What one thing needs to change?
  • What value do you stand on?
  • Why is freedom elusive?
  • What makes a community thrive?
  • What does every individual need?

As we begin the 2017-18 program year, staff and volunteers have created myriad opportunities to pose these questions (and others!) and foster the kind of community that can begin to answer them.  Check out the service leaflets, bulletin boards, website, and e-redeemer posts for speakers, studies, musical events, worship and more.  What question does this year pose for you?