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Jewish Students in Search of Heightened Jewish Consciousness

The wooden dining hall at the Jewish Ys and Centers camp here rocked last night with the enthusiasm of nearly 300 young Jews celebrating their Jewishness. They were singing Hebrew songs, and many were dancing with intensity between the tables while others clapped their hands, stomped their feet and even whistled and shouted for emphasis. On the surface, the group appeared to be a homogeneous one: all Americans, perhaps, at a religious summer camp, or Israelis on a religious kibbutz. But those in the large hall were students and young adults from 18 different countries, and they ranged across a religious and political spectrum of affiliations which included the Lubavitcher Hassidic movement as well as secular radical-Zionist groups.

About 150 of the conference delegates were North Americans, another 128 were from Europe and Israel, one was from Colombia. South America, and one from Australia. They had all come to exchange ideas, share experiences and explore their Jewish identities during a five-day conference on Jewish life-styles and culture. The conference, organized by the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), a federation of Jewish student groups in over 30 countries, was the first international Jewish student seminar ever held in America. It began last Thursday and ended late last night.

Throughout the seminar–entitled “Jewing it ’32: Encounters in the month of Elul”–Jews learned about fellow Jews, and about themselves as well. At least a few foreigners were disturbed by the political and religious fragmentation of American Jewry. Americans noted the predominantly secular orientation of the Europeans. And many of the Europeans experienced a spirited celebration of the Sabbath for the first time in their lives, being quite taken by it, though they all could not fully identify with it. Edy Rauch, the 30-year-old Chilean-born chairman of WUJS, said the Europeans were brought to the U.S. because there is a vacuum in the European Jewish student world while here there is a Jewish revival which frequently manifests itself in spiritual and religious forms.

Although differing local social dynamics make it difficult to transfer experiences, Rauch said, it’s “good for European students to see what is going on in America.” Thus, American Jewish life-styles and artistic creativity were either on display or under discussion here. Workshops dealt with Jewish theater and films, Mussar (ethics). Havurot and alternative communities, student organizing, and Yiddish culture. A number of Europeans also joined in the “innovative” Friday evening Sabbath services. One WUJS official said that the conference broke the isolation of the American Jewish community. Geographically and organizationally, the European and Israeli Jewish student groups have been closer to each other than either has been to the Americans. Here, a large number of Americans interacted with foreign Jewish students.

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