I feel compelled to respond to David Suissa’s article “Passionate Judaism”, posted online on July 18. This appears to me to be one of those instances in which the author is simultaneously right and wrong. I do not assail the statistics referred to regarding resources allocated by national Jewish organizations and college attendance data among Jews; indeed, they are all correct. There is a serious decline in Jewish involvement throughout North American Jewish communities and college campuses are not immune. What David is mistaken about is in his argument that Orthodox Judaism has taken over the campus.
To which campus is he referring? On the campus of the University of Southern California, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While Chabad is indeed flourishing on our campus, it works in conjunction and in partnership with our Hillel to reach as many Jews as we can on campus, regardless of our ideological differences and labels. Our model of collaboration inspires me every day. I welcome anyone who wants to hear about a true model of community partnership and friendship to reach out to me and to Rabbi Dov Wagner of Chabad.
More broadly and to the issue of Jewish identity and affiliation, a major issue isn’t that Jewish students are choosing orthodox centers over others. Rather, overall, Jewish students come to college with little to no Jewish identity at all. As many as 50% of these students come from interfaith homes. This results in significant challenges in how to engage them once they arrive. I don’t know the most recent statistic, but anyone familiar with Jewish education ‘drop-out’ rates for post bar and bat mitzvah understand that most students enter college with a Jewish identity that fomented between the ages of 8 and 13 – not the most sophisticated time to develop a personal theology or create a lasting impression.
And thus, while I agree with Suissa’s premise that a major challenge for Hillels and Chabads is in fact to spark an interest among this large majority of Jews while also maintaining the interest of those students who come with more mature Jewish identities, we must remember that the former population has an unseen obstacle. Namely, for unaffiliated Jews, we are competing for the attention from those to whom being Jewish is a choice. On campuses such as ours that offer hundreds of other involvement opportunities that resonate with an increasingly global and interconnected generation, we are competing with other avenues of identity formation.
In the end, our Hillel does not seek to offer another label or denomination to which we hope young Jews will affiliate. We know that young Jews (and many young adults for that matter) do not look to join traditional movements or identify with buildings and structures.
I can assure you, a Hillel that seeks to build a membership rather than seeking to build the next generation of Jewish citizens and leaders, will run in to the same struggle as most synagogues today which see declining memberships. It always strikes me when members of the community ask me “so, how many members does your Hillel have?” This question illustrates a very real lack of understanding of what engagement of emerging adults means. Yes, we count the heads of Jews who come for an Israel Independence Day event, a Shabbat dinner or for our monthly woman’s Rosh Chodesh Challah Baking program, but we are equally as concerned with creating real depth and meaning in the experiences of students who never enter our doors. How do we do this? We go to them.
At USC, we have formed partnerships on campus with student organizations, and help students create programs for their peers that they feel passionate about. Our Hillel has spearheaded activities (with support from the LA Jewish Federation) with and for hundreds of students such as an interfaith Sexuality and Spirituality Retreat for LGBTQ students, a Jewish & African American initiative to connect our two communities in celebration of our common history, and a 3-on-3 basketball tournament to raise money for local youth mentoring charities and to reinforce their commitment to tzedakah and social justice — to name but a few. These Hillel initiatives, along with the now in formation Jewish Campus Entrepreneur Initiative (CEI) and the Global Jewish Student Film Competition (a partnership between USC Hillel, Jewlicious, NYU Hillel and Tel Aviv University), will mobilize and engage more than 1000 Jewish students in the coming year. These initiatives will help our students create lasting relationships, build community, are relevant to their career aspirations, and resonate with their universally human and distinctively Jewish value systems.
We are fortunate that USC has a vibrant and diverse center of religious life, which includes more than 80 religious organizations for the over 17,000 undergraduate students at USC. We are fortunate to be at the first university in the country with the vision to have hired a Jewish Dean of Religious Life (Rabbi Susan Laemmle), and the first Hindu Dean of Religious Life (Varun Soni). USC is, ethnically and culturally speaking, the most diverse campus in the United States. The USC administration’s recent and historic trip to Israel, the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute all demonstrate a powerful dynamic that contributes to a vibrant Jewish story on our campus. All of this provides an incredible backdrop for our Hillel to create broad entry points that spark the universal values many of our students bring with them, and shine a light on the Jewish journey in front of them. We don’t provide our students with a google map to the nearest synagogue, but we do walk with them along their own unique and diverse Jewish journeys as they develop lasting and positive Jewish memories on birthright trips, alternative spring breaks to New Orleans or to the Ukraine, film festivals and hiking programs.
In a way, the campus community is very much like the North American Jewish communal establishment, offering diverse institutional, cultural and spiritual pathways into Jewish life for its citizens. Within this microcosm, there is no magic bullet; however, when we widen the lens and get a better view of who is in the picture, we can work together towards inspiring one Jew at a time.
Unfortunately, most of what the broader Jewish community hears about campus involvement comes from all organizations except the ones that are actually on campus. If this is true, then all Jewish professionals working on campuses need to do a better job at telling our stories and how we are inspiring students each and every day to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. Personally, the past three-years that I have worked as Executive Director at USC Hillel, I have seen hundreds of students connect to their Jewish identity, build meaningful Jewish communities, and innovate around ideas that transform and impact the larger campus culture. It is a sight to behold. Mr. Suissa and others, I invite you to come and see this transformation for yourself, and be a part of how this young generation engages one another in Jewish community. It is a lesson for those of us interested in the future of Jewish life in America. If you want the real scoop about USC and campus life,where Orthodox or any kind of denominationalism doesn’t rule, but, rather, young, curious Jews do – email me anytime.
Allen & Ruth Ziegler Executive Director, USC Hillel
CEO, USC Jewish Alumni Association
firstname.lastname@example.org / 213-973-1203