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Behind the Headlines: Religious Pluralism Crisis Not Felt on College Campus

The religious pluralism issue that is so divisive elsewhere does not seem to be much of a factor on the American college campus.

“There’s a strong sense of the Jewish community being a pluralistic community,” said Aaron Benson, a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There are students who actively consider themselves Reform, Conservative or Orthodox but there’s a sense they can all work together for the benefit of the community.”

Controversy over religious pluralism issues in Israel have generated a crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations and strained relations between the Orthodox and liberal movements in the United States.

But religious pluralism was not addressed in any of the sessions at the recent Charlotte and Jack J. Spitzer B’nai B’rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy, an annual conference for Jewish college students, that was held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. last month.

“If you set up a session to talk about the divides in the Jewish community, people will be divided,” said Richard Joel, president and international director of the Hillel — the Foundation for Jewish College Life.

“The safest place in terms of the pluralism issue is on the campus,” Joel said.

Students attending the conference seemed to have found ways of dealing with the issue on a practical level on their campuses.

“We don’t discuss it so much,” said Jessica Schoengold, a senior at Boston University. The university’s Hillel holds separate Shabbat services for each of the denominations, but the students convene for a common kiddush on Friday nights.

“On the whole, I think we approach it well. It doesn’t get argued about,” Schoengold said.

Sarah Radin, a sophomore at the University of Texas said, “Our campus is pretty unified. Everyone respects each other’s levels of observance.”

On her campus, Orthodox students usually attend services at the Chabad house, a practice common at several schools, while Reform and Conservative students go to Hillel for services.

Some Jewish communal observers say the issue does not resonate among college students because the nature of campus life is different from the broader Jewish community.

“The college campus is the place where people of different ideologies interact. They have operational pluralism even if they don’t have ideological pluralism,” said Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s national director of Jewish communal affairs.

Larry Sternberg, director of the Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy at Brandeis University, said issues related to pluralism “manifest themselves differently on campus.”

“The conflicts are more around the issues of space. That’s a good conflict; it means they’re all doing well,” said Sternberg.

When Lauren Mogul began attending the City University of New York’s Baruch College, the campus had separate organizations for Russian Jews and Orthodox Jews in addition to the Hillel that attracted Conservative and Reform Jews. The groups have since officially merged with Hillel.

“There’s no reason why we can’t celebrate together,” she said. “There is a sense that Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews are different, but at the same time, we’re all Jews.”

Jason Stein, a sophomore at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, said, “We respect each other. We embrace the differences.”

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