Why Hillel Matters More Than Ever

85% of young American Jews attend college. They need tending.

Courtesy Hillel International, via Facebook.

Courtesy Hillel International, via Facebook.

Nov. 10 2014
About the author

Daniel Smokler is a rabbi and the chief innovation officer of Hillel International.

In their noble attempt to arouse communal action in response to the Pew Center’s now notorious Portrait of Jewish Americans, Jack Wertheimer and Steven Cohen declare the college campus “an opportunity waiting to be seized.” What, we might ask, is that opportunity, and how can it best be seized?

College is the single most common experience shared by Jews in the United States. The proportion of young American Jews on university campuses—a full 85 percent—exceeds the number who light Hanukkah candles, attend a Passover seder, or, certainly, marry other Jews. By some estimates, moreover, these young Jews are mainly concentrated on just 75 campuses. The opportunity is therefore clear: to ensure the continuity and cultural vitality of Jews in America, here is one place where Jewish organizations and philanthropies are well advised to invest.

As Wertheimer and Cohen show, the Orthodox community has taken this message to heart, funding a booming presence on campus. But “the message conveyed by [Orthodox] programs,” they write, “does not always appeal to non-Orthodox Jews.” They are right, and the point can be sharpened. Most Orthodox outreach, no matter how pleasantly delivered, is rooted in the hope of turning Jews toward traditional religious observance. Some organizations, like Aish HaTorah, are explicit about this. Some, like Chabad, communicate it quietly and, as it were, incrementally (just one mitzvah at a time!).

The Orthodox approach is hardly to be belittled, but it cannot be the mainstream policy of the Jewish community. No matter how many kiruv (outreach) workers flood campuses, or how many bowls of chicken soup are served by Chabad, most Jews are unlikely ever to move into any sector of the Orthodox camp. Nor does the kiruv movement recognize or embrace any of the alternative avenues toward Jewish engagement in America, which are abundant and diverse.


This brings me to the only pluralistic approach to student outreach currently on offer: the one pursued by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and the one with which I am professionally involved.

In 2008, Hillel launched an initiative to increase participation in Jewish campus activities by leveraging the power of social networks. With support from the Jim Joseph foundation, it placed “senior Jewish educators,” mainly rabbis, on ten pilot campuses; each was assisted by twelve student interns who were tasked with mobilizing their peers. An independent study of the program in 2012 estimated that by the end of that year, it would have successfully engaged no fewer than 22,000 Jewish students.

Over the next five years, Hillel plans to launch different versions of this same tutelary approach on more than 60 campuses, ultimately reaching more than 130,000 students. Simultaneously, it has developed a number of leaner and more targeted programs like the University of Pennsylvania’s Jewish Renaissance Project or New York University’s Jewish Learning Initiative, each of which reaches well over 1,000 students. Finally, thanks to a major investment by the Maimonides foundation, Hillel is working to upgrade the Jewish knowledge base of its own front-line staff, with the goal of making every staffer a Jewish educator.

Wertheimer and Cohen are deeply familiar with these initiatives. But, as they correctly argue, current efforts are wholly insufficient in themselves to change the downward trend of today’s leading demographic and cultural indicators within the non-Orthodox Jewish community. In addition to more funding and more personnel to expand projects of the pluralistic kind that I’ve described, what we need now is a paradigm shift in our educational vision and our methods. We must ask ourselves: which behaviors, skills, and dispositions are we hoping to cultivate among young Jews, and how might they best be imparted?

I would urge a focus on six things. Starting with the instrumental and moving to the substantive, here is my list:

(1) Jewish social groups. From smoking and weight loss to voting patterns and beyond, a mounting body of research testifies to the profound effect of social networks on human behavior. It matters who your friends are. It changes how you act. Jewish college students are no different in this respect: the single greatest predictor of participation in Jewish campus life is the extent of one’s Jewish social group. A student with Jewish friends will be far likelier than one without such friends to come to a Shabbat dinner, attend a service, or travel to Israel. If the young adults with whom we work emerge impressed, informed, and inspired by our ideas but have no Jewish friends, that work may well have been in vain.

(2) Jewish mentors. In common with social networks, mentoring relationships play a critical role in shaping the moral imagination of young adults. Especially for Jewish students with only one Jewish parent, an older role model is invaluable in envisioning for oneself a future Jewish life.

(3) Encounters with other Jews. For many, college is the only venue in which they will have the time, the space, and the resources to interact with Jews of radically different backgrounds from their own. Facilitating such interactions is a prime means of cultivating a diverse, tolerant Jewish community for the next generation.

(4) Torah. The study of Torah is a sine qua non of Jewish life. For a generation of Jews blessed with the opportunity of higher education, Jewish textual illiteracy is inexcusable. All, whether religious, agnostic, secular, on none of the above, should be enabled to study Torah for its own sake. Better the sacred texts of the tradition should be known and evaluated than unknown and neglected.

(5) The Jewish calendar. Anchoring an individual in a unique way of life, the calendar tells the story of the Jewish people through collective ritual. Like the study of Torah, it also leaves room for diverse practice. One person may scrupulously follow each of the commandments of Sabbath observance, while another may choose to honor the day through kiddush and dinner. Both can share a table together.

(6) Jewish service. The consumer market, its temptations and its demands, penetrates every aspect of the lives of today’s young people. But consumerism, as a mentality and as an orientation to life itself, tolls the death-knell of any authentic spirituality. We may not agree among ourselves about Jewish law or Jewish theology; nor, within reason, is consumption itself a sin. But we should be able to agree that what the Jewish way ultimately asks of us is not to consume but to serve—be it God, the Jewish community, the Jewish people, or the Jewish state.

Of course, this sketch of an educational vision is only a beginning, and deserves elaboration. But I would hold that it can form the basis of a robust, pluralistic Judaism rooted in depth, rigor, and solidarity while remaining capacious enough to be embraced by Jews of any background, of any denomination or none, of any degree of prior knowledge or interest. If it or something like it can also serve to guide the efforts of those tending to young Jews on American college campuses, and if those efforts bear fruit, the next Jewish population study will tell a very different story.

More about: American Jewry, Hillel, Jewish continuity, Jewish education, Jews on campus