Study challenges Jewish campus groups

Members of the Jewish Student Union at Santa Clara University near San Jose, Calif., talks to a first-year student about Jewish activities on campus in 2005. (Sue Fishkoff)

Members of the Jewish Student Union at Santa Clara University near San Jose, Calif., talks to a first-year student about Jewish activities on campus in 2005. (Sue Fishkoff)

OAKLAND, Calif., March 8 (JTA) — Jewish campus organizations need to become less parochial if they want to reach Jewish students more effectively. They also need to integrate better into university life, build better relations with Jewish studies departments and re-evaluate their current focus on reaching ever-larger numbers of students. So says a new study of Jewish college students conducted by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” surveyed more than 2,000 Jewish students and conducted 700 in-depth interviews at 20 unnamed U.S. colleges chosen for their large Jewish student populations. Researchers found that Jewish college students know little about Israel and avoid formal organizations. They’re also proud of being Jewish but dislike events that are “just for Jews” and are likely to change their denominational affiliation and observance levels during their college years. And in line with their non-Jewish peers, Jewish students speak of having “multiple identities,” of which being Jewish is just one — and not necessarily the most important. “As a result,” the study concludes, “no single universal program could attract today’s students and hold them long enough to affect their Judaism.” Not only that, the study continues, each campus has its own particular challenges and opportunities, its own personality clashes, power struggles, and organizational structure. So instead of looking for the one-button solution, Jewish organizations and philanthropists who want to engage the next generation in Jewish life need to be flexible, and customize programs for each school. “Is there one thing we could do that could have a impact on a large number of Jewish students?” asks Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center and co-author with Leonard Saxe of the new study. “The answer is no. Each campus is different.” The Avi Chai Foundation sponsored the study, Sales says, because there is a lack of data about Jewish college students and how their lives and interests change during those four years. “All we have is old data, or data collected for a particular purpose,” she says. Additional funding came from the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. The suggestion to customize programs for each campus won’t be an easy pill to swallow for Jewish organizations or their funders, Sales admits, but it’s the only approach that makes sense. For example, on some campuses Sales and her team visited, Jewish studies departments are popular, with excellent teachers, and are well integrated into university life. On other campuses they were “lackluster” with “uninspiring faculty.” “If I were a philanthropist, I’d ask how could I help build up Jewish studies on those campuses. That’s an example of targeting your dollars,” she says. The majority, 55 percent, of students surveyed spend no time at Hillel or any other Jewish group, a number that has not changed greatly in the past generation or two. But the study showed that even as Jewish students avoid campus Jewish organizations, those who are engaged are prouder of being Jewish, more likely to increase their observance and place greater importance on Jewish values. So how can these organizations be made more appealing? By adopting a more universal approach, the study suggests. “A lot of these students have a real appreciation for Jewish-themed programs that are open to everyone,” Sales says. “They don’t want particularistic events, they love that ‘everyone’ goes to the Purim party. They want programs that let them feel Jewish and to share that with the rest of the students. You see this integration in the rest of their lives — it screams ‘Jewish lifestyle,’ not ‘Jewish Jewish.’” Sales admits this is not as true for Orthodox students or those highly engaged in Jewish campus life. Hillel, the umbrella group for Jewish campus life, needs to be better integrated into the life of the university as a whole, and Hillel directors need to build better relations with their Jewish studies departments, the administration and the local Jewish community, to create what Sales calls a “Jewish-friendly campus.” That, she says, is still rare. Although researchers did come across some “more enlightened places” that try to create unity, more often they saw campuses where Hillel “is ‘going it alone,’” she says. Part of the problem, the study notes, is that Hillel directors and Jewish studies faculty often distrust each other, with professors having “low regard for Hillel” and “refusing to sponsor events” that are limited to Jewish students, while Hillel directors “complain of free-thinking academics” they sometimes consider “self-hating Jews.” Wayne Firestone, Hillel’s executive vice president for North America, agrees with much of this analysis. Hillel has been looking at many of the same issues for the past two years as part of a strategic planning process, he says, adding that the group will release its findings later this spring. “We agree that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work,” he says, which is why Hillel provides money for its campus branches to use for their specific needs, and encourages them to create customized programs. At the same time, he continues, successful programs can and should be shared among Hillels at different campuses. Concerning the need for better integration between Hillel, Chabad, and other Jewish and non-Jewish groups, Firestone says he agrees “100 percent” with the Brandeis findings. That’s why Hillel is organizing a May summit that will bring together university presidents, community members and Hillel professionals “to discuss how we can advance our relationship and become better partners.” Another challenge Hillel faces, the Brandeis study continues, is balancing the tension between its goal of being an inclusive umbrella group for all Jewish students, and the proliferation of niche groups created by more engaged students with specific interests. In the best cases, researchers note, “the core commonality holds and the proliferation of groups are its ornaments and its operational arms.” But on other campuses, the niche groups tear at the center. That sometimes occurs around Israel, which “often serves to divide rather than unify Jewish students,” the study notes. Students with clear opinions on Israel bring them to Hillel and form advocacy groups that “scare away” the 43 percent of Jewish students who don’t know or care much about Israel and are just looking for a safe place to be Jewish. “You have to do Israel education,” Sales says, “but in the second semester, or later. It’s not the way to build community in the first semester.” The study also found that Reform students are “surprisingly under-represented” among the leadership of Jewish campus groups. They are “much more likely” to lead general campus organizations than Jewish ones: Eighteen percent of the leaders of Jewish groups identify as Reform, as opposed to 30 percent of the Jewish students who hold leadership positions in non-Jewish campus organizations. “These are leadership kids, but they are not choosing to enact that leadership in the service of the Jewish community,” Sales says, suggesting that the leadership of the Reform movement “might want to look at” what this portends for the movement’s future. Rabbi Michael Mellen, director of youth programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, admits that the Reform movement “has to do some work” to increase its on-campus presence. But it’s not just about motivating the students, he says — campus Jewish organizations need to “welcome Reform students in, so Reform voices are heard.” Kesher, the Reform student organization, has been “making strides to develop relationships with Hillel International and with Hillel professionals on campus,” but much more needs to be done, he says. Overall, Sales says she and her research team were pleased with what they found. “The study was inspiring,” she insists. “Our future is bright. These kids are extraordinary.” And if campus organizations such as Hillel want to serve student needs better, they would do well to reassess their priorities to focus on strengthening the Jewish presence on campus, supplementing university services with services based on Jewish content and values, preparing students to enter society with greater Jewish knowledge and leadership skills and building Jewish social connections that will increase the likelihood of in-marriage and greater Jewish observance. “Reaching larger numbers may be important,” the study concludes, “but it may not be the sine qua non of success.”

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