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Hillel Directors Report Experimental Worship for ‘disenchanted’ Students

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B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation directors, exploring the use of experimental forms of religious services that would involve Jewish students “disenchanted” with conventional worship, were divided today in their views on the validity and effectiveness of the idea.

Opinions expressed by many of the 89 Hillel rabbis attending their annual conference here ranged from support to ambivalence to outright rejection of “underground services” that depart radically from established forms of traditional or liberal worship. The experimental services are free-wheeling innovations that change from week to week, often incorporating discussions, poetry readings, folk music and other means of student expression, with adaptations of such Jewish rituals as the kindling of Sabbath lights, commentary on the Torah portion and chanting of the kiddush, it was reported.

Pilot efforts are being sponsored by Hillel directors at several schools with large Jewish enrollments, among them Yale, Brandeis, University of Chicago and University of California at Los Angeles. The Hillel directors reported varying degrees of acceptance by small groups of students whom Rabbi Albert Axelrad, Hillel director at Brandeis, described as “the disenchanted who want to remain Jews and give some kind of ritual expression to it.” The innovations not withstanding, underground services — also identified on some campuses as the “no hyphen service” — seek to maintain “elements appropriate to the Sabbath.” Rabbi Richard J. Israel at Yale reported a “significant group of non-Halachic students for whom the Sabbath is a viable symbol and who enjoy a low-pressure recognition of its presence.”

At Chicago University, where the experiment is now in the fourth year, Rabbi Daniel Leifer. associate Hillel director, supported the idea because “worship ought to be a small group experience in which each person can fully participate.” The 30 or so students who attend the service on Rabbi Leifer’s campus “also gain from a continuing process of self-evaluation of what they are doing.”

Many Hillel rabbis, however, challenged this approach on the ground that “there is no authentic alternative to real worship” and for students who are unfamiliar with conventional forms of worship, the need is not to find a substitute but to teach them the customary forms.

Rabbi Norman Frimer of Brooklyn College questioned whether experimental services could not “lead Jewish students out of Judaism.” He and others contended that an undisciplined religious service could estrange students further from an understanding of authentic forms of worship. Others questioned whether a loosely-structured service could be maintained on a weekly basis. Another objection was to the possibility of creation of “an exclusive element in the Jewish campus community” and a further fragmentation of an already splintered Jewish religious life. The rabbis emphasized that the experimental services were supplementary to regular services held under Hillel Foundation auspices.

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