This year I became a Peer-Network Engagement Intern (PNEI) for my Hillel, which is a paid position that works in conjunction with Hillel International in DC. The program varies from campus to campus, but essentially my responsibility at Johns Hopkins is to help engage Jewish students on campus, and to try and connect them to Jewish resources and opportunities that aren’t necessarily associated with official Hillel programming. There are five of us this year, and we were selected to act as a liaison between the “involved”, (those who attend organized campus Jewish programming) and the “uninvolved” communities; an intern is supposed to be someone who stands somewhere in the middle.
My school is approximately 12% Jewish. There are around 550-600 Jewish students on campus, but only around 130 of them would probably be considered “involved.”
I like my position; I think it has value. Overall it’s been an interesting experience for me to learn why Jews choose to not go to Hillel, and the reasons themselves certainly run the gamut.
One thing I would say to many worried Jewish Establishment leaders is, “Take a deep breath.”
It’s a well known fact that Jewish adult leaders look to college campuses to gauge how the next generation of Jewish leaders are faring, and how connected Jews are to Jewish life. And often we hear about the “crisis” that Jews are apparently in. I went on a Taglit-Birthright trip last Winter with my Hillel and the first thing the leader told to us when we arrived was that the program was created “to help spark interest in Israel among Jews of the diaspora in response to the growing threat of assimilation and the growing number of inter-marriage rates.”
While I do not know how big institutionalized Jewish organizations will necessarily survive among future generations, I do not despair that Jewish life and Jewish experience are dying.
One common response I heard from many students and friends when asked why they don’t go to Hillel is that they still have lots of Jewish friends who they hang out with often. They were never particularly religious to begin with, and because Hillel is associated with religious programming, they don’t feel that comfortable there. But they spoke positively about the Jewish homes they grew up in, and spoke assuredly that they would have their kids grow up in similar environments. They also had strong, positive things to say about many aspects of Jewish culture—comedies, movies, books, and history.
In essence, I met very few students who grew up with strong Jewish backgrounds who came to college and suddenly rejected Judaism and being a Jewish person.
To them, being a Jewish person was more about finding ways that they connect personally and positively to Jewish life, often through social justice or relationships. They said that even though they might not attend Megillah readings at college or regularly attend Shabbat dinners, they feel uncomfortable by the idea that some adult somewhere is determining that they are not “involved” enough.
I think, in general, the way we use this dichotomy is worrisome. Are “involved Jews”, or Jews that go to Hillel, are “better Jews”? Certainly not. While there is nothing wrong with creating opportunities and ways to enhance Jewish identity, (I did love Birthright and appreciate it immensely), I think we have to also trust each other that Jewish life will be continue in the future, even if it changes or it manifests itself in different ways.