Penn Junior Sophie Beren Has People Singing and Talking

Sophie Beren, a junior communications major at the University of Pennsylvania, is a natural connector. 

Beren, from Wichita, Kan., is minoring in music, while also earning her master’s in non-profit leadership from the School of Social Policy & Practice

As a freshman, she joined the Shabbatones, Penn’s Jewish a cappella group, which performs locally and nationally at synagogues, schools and special events, including a Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey game and the 2014 Hanukkah Party at the White House. Today, she is the group’s musical director, conducting rehearsals, scheduling shows, preparing for performances and arranging music. 

Each January, the Shabbatones go on tour. During the three years she has sung with the group, they have performed in Boca Raton, Fla., New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Malibu. 

“We all come from different backgrounds, but our group is united by a love of singing and Jewish music,” Beren says. “It brings us much joy spread our tradition through music and to share it with different communities around the world.” 

Through Penn’s Music and Social Change Program led by Molly McGlone, the assistant dean for advising in the School of Arts & Sciences, as a freshman, Beren began volunteering in the local community. Since then, she has continued to teach music during an after-school choir program at West Philadelphia High School. 

“The students are so talented and it is powerful to be the person who realizes, encourages and shapes their talent, self-image and opportunities,” Beren says. 

The experience mentoring has had an impact on her. 

“It’s therapeutic,” she says, “I can put everything else away and immerse myself in this environment.” 

Last spring, a course at Penn inspired Beren to do even more in terms of connecting people. 

Taught by Chaplain Chaz Howard, the Heart of Social Change class helped Beren to develop her skills and put her in the right frame of mind to launch TableTalk

Through five initiatives, TableTalk facilitates conversations between people at Penn who might not ordinarily interact.

“Each initiative fosters various kinds of dialogue, from small talk between individuals on a couch to discussions among student groups, or meaningful dialogue that encourages students to engage in the larger questions,” Beren says. 

TableTalk started at Emory University and has grown into a national movement, and Beren believed that Penn’s campus was suited for specially designed initiatives. With the freedom to shape the organization in her own way, she founded a chapter in March 2015. 

“Penn prides itself in its diversity; there are so many interesting people here,” says Beren, “but there was no existing framework to get them talking with each other.” 

About 50 student groups are registered as affiliates, and TableTalks can happen anywhere: in a dining hall, along Locust Walk or any space with enough room for two groups to interact. 

One of Beren’s favorite TableTalk success stories is when a student she’d never met e-mailed her for help after noticing that everyone in the ARCH building stayed in their separate areas and rarely interacted with other groups housed there. 

Beren worked with the leaders of Makuu Black Cultural Center, La Casa Latina and PAACH, the Pan-Asian American Community House, to bring students from the groups together through TableTalk. 

Using a speed-dating-like method with intentional prompts, students were paired and asked questions such as “Where are you the happiest?” Each student had one minute to answer, before moving on to talk with someone new. 

“The brevity of the conversations were designed to break these students out of their comfort zones and leave each member wanting to continue talking,” Beren says, adding that TableTalk established a more-connected space. Now members from each group interact daily. 

“Moments like these are so rewarding and meaningful,” Beren explains. “This event demonstrated that TableTalk is truly filling a void at Penn.” 

Being involved with TableTalk has also shown Beren the power of listening. 

“Imagine how drastically different our world would be if we took the time to listen, if we asked more questions, instead of providing answers, and if we took the time to listen to the perspectives of others,” Beren says. “TableTalk has opened my eyes to a world of curiosity and diversity I was never exposed to at home.”

She’s also got people talking online. Beren manages the social-media outlets for TableTalk, the Shabbatones, Penn’s A Cappella Council and Penn Hillel, where she serves as the communications chair on the student board. 

“I love creating interactive, innovative and creative ways to keep people connected,” she says.

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