Challenges on the Campus: Community Looking at How to Combat Jewish Illiteracy and Assimilation
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Challenges on the Campus: Community Looking at How to Combat Jewish Illiteracy and Assimilation

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While anti-Semitism and ethnic exclusion are increasingly common features of campus life, some of the most dangerous trends confronting Jewish college students come from within the Jewish community rather than from the outside.

There is growing concern about whether today’s Jewish college students are sufficiently Jewishly literate and committed to the larger community to ensure that they will be part of it once they graduate.

Nearly everyone working with Jewish college students has a similar tale to tell of widespread apathy and ignorance of basic Jewish history, culture and religious practice– crippling inabilities when it comes time to refute the anti-Semites preying on the campus population.

Then there are the statistics in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which sent shockwaves across the organized Jewish community: more intermarriage than in-marriage among the youngest marrying Jews, and the widespread inter-dating that precedes it.

An increasing percentage of Jewish college students are the children of intermarriage themselves.

The impact of accumulating assimilation is revealed in the way Jewish students identify themselves. They “don’t identify as Jews religiously, but as ethnic Jews, which is a much softer, elective category,” said anthropologist Ruth Cernea, director of research at B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation.


“People change their ethnic identify. It doesn’t have the sense of shared national destiny, and it doesn’t have the power to bring Jewish students from one generation to the next as Jews,” she said.

This crisis in continuity has prompted Jewish organizations that in the past did not deal much with students to concentrate attention on the 90 percent of 18- to 22-year-old Jews who attend college.

The Council of Jewish Federations, the association of Jewish federations in North America, is in the early stages of addressing the issue. It recently established a Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity under whose purview will fall a task force on services to college students.

One federation is well on its way to addressing the issue substantively. The Atlanta Jewish Federation has established a new agency designed specifically to serve the needs of college-age and young-adult Jews.

It spent more than a year investigating the needs of the area’s young adults with the aid of research techniques, including focus groups.

It found that while there were many different activities designed for young adults, both on and off campus, few of the 5,000 Jewish students in the area were participating.

Atlanta’s 3,500 post-college young adults, ages 22 to 30, had even fewer ties to the organized Jewish community.

The federation discovered that graduate students and those just out of college were falling through the cracks–feeling too old for Hillel and too young for “young leadership” groups.

The newly established agency does not yet have a name or a director, but it plans to serve 18- to 30-year-olds as a central address for Jewish activities that already exist and to provide them with year-round activities, on and off campus, to fill in the gaps.

The study found that college students and those between the ages of 23 and 30 have different needs. “Those just out of college are heavily social, and older ones are looking for something substantive,” according to Glenda Minkin, who chaired the study committee.

But “the whole age group is looking for some place to volunteer in the community,” Minkin said. “And they’re looking for mentoring in business, ways into the organized Jewish community without feeling like outsiders.

The agency will direct the activities of Emory’s Hillel House, which had been funded nearly wholly by the federation for the last decade and is the only on-campus center for Jewish students in the area, according to David Sarnat, executive vice president of the Atlanta federation.

The approximately $200,000 first-year budget will come from a variety of federation-funded agencies, according to Billie Feinman, chair of the new agency.

Another effort is being undertaken by the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education, a body formed after a two-year study of the state of Jewish education in North America.

CIJE is in the process of selecting two or three lead communities in which it will support new, experimental educational structures and systems.

CIJE requires that any Jewish community applying to be a lead location include a plan for the colleges in their area, said Seymour Martin Lipset, the sociologist who is analyzing the educational implications of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey on CIJE’s behalf.

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