An annual ritual begins snow and runs through mid-June: approximately 100,000 Jewish students will be donning mortar boards and gowns and accepting diplomas on more than 500 colleges and universities across our continent.
This ritual is slightly different for the Jewish communal leaders observing it. They are wondering what’s next for this year’s graduates. Will they, like many of their predecessors, disappear from Jewish life during their 20s, only to re-emerge when marriage and children prompt a return in their 30s and 40s — and, even then, BE much less Jewishly engaged and surefooted in the ways of leadership than their parents and grandparents were? Will they replenish and re-energize the pool of Jewish leaders, whose ranks have been dwindling over the recent decades? And will we ever get this Millennial Generation of Jews to care more about Jewish life?
Based on what we at Hillel see, the answer is that there is reason to be encouraged about this generation of new Jewish grads. If anything, they care deeply about Jewish life, but in a different way than their predecessors.
There is abundant empirical and anecdotal evidence that the universe of students who are engaged with Hillel and other Jewish-sponsored activities is increasing impressively. According to a March 2012 poll conducted for Hillel by Penn Schoen Berland, for example, 45 percent of Jewish students participate in Hillel events, a 36 percent increase since 2005, and three in four Jewish students have a favorable opinion of Hillel, a 21 percent increase since ’05. Penn Schoen Berland conducted both the original student poll in 2005 and the follow-up poll in March 2012. The market research firm used the same methodology and same sample size (600 Jewish students) each time.
At the same time, the number of Jewish students who seek a deeper, more meaningful relationship with many aspects of Jewish life and with fellow Jewish students is also rising. (Perhaps our most gratifying discovery is that students who had relatively weak Jewish backgrounds, or less Hillel engagement to begin with, were even more likely to grow Jewishly than their counterparts.) What’s more, these students moved from being simply engaged as Jews to becoming connectors of students to Jewish life, or even organizers of Jewish life.
The good news, not just for Hillel but also for the entire Jewish community, is that these very factors are the best predictors of longer-term commitment to Jewish involvement and leadership.
Of course, there’s a catch: these encouraging trends didn’t simply happen. Over the last several years, we realized we had to meet students where they are rather than insist they fit into an age-old model of programming that doesn’t really speak to them.
So, beginning with a new strategy we enacted six years ago, Hillel placed big bets on new approaches to engaging the Millennials, and those bets paid off. And we have every reason to believe that many other Jewish communal institutions (and even non-Jewish groups) can — or, dare I say, should — employ them successfully as well. Our bet was that peer networks bring more breadth by creating a multiplier or network effect (friends who invite friends, who invite friends, and so on). It’s the same dynamics that has powered the enormous growth and potential of online social networks such as Facebook. We also bet we could increase the depth of engagement in Jewish life by creating more meaningful learning opportunities for students through their peer relationships, and by exposing them to skilled Jewish educators and mentors.
Over the past four years, through Hillel’s new strategy of peer-to-peer engagement, 900 trained and employed student interns have built 35,000 relationships with uninvolved Jewish peers on more than 70 campuses, helping them explore and connect to Jewish life on their own terms. And on 10 campuses we placed experienced Jewish educators or rabbis, not to perform religious services, but rather to build learning communities, engage in conversations with students to inspire their Jewish growth and infuse Jewish content into the activities of the campus Hillel.
This relationship-based, peer-to-peer approach doesn’t advocate any particular way of being Jewish or the expectation to “come to Hillel.” Instead, the formerly uninvolved students are now reporting involvement in Jewish activities in greater numbers, and the interns are honing their Jewish leadership skills, for now and for the future.
We’re really only beginning to see these trends unfold and we are still learning the many lessons we need to guide future engagement strategies. And we’re embarking on the next logical phase of this journey, which is to expand what we’ve done so far on many dozen campuses to hundreds more across the country.
The biggest lesson is that the sight of Jewish students in cap and gown should not induce a sense of futility or puzzlement about what comes next. Unless, that is, we fail to respond appropriately to what may be the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time to revitalize the Jewish community.
Wayne L. Firestone is president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.