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Hillel Developing New Guidelines for Students of Intermarried Families

June 3, 2005
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In an effort to strengthen outreach to students from intermarried homes, Hillel, the nation’s largest Jewish student organization, is compiling a set of national outreach guidelines for its campus directors. The guidelines should be in place this fall.

It’s not a completely new direction for an organization that already prides itself on being "accessible, welcoming and inclusive," says Clare Goldwater, director of Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.

What is new, she says, "is trying to coordinate the conversation" on a national level.

In March, Goldwater convened an internal consultation for campus directors and other Hillel professionals at the group’s Washington headquarters to explore the idea of national guidelines.

The "best practices" guidelines will be for internal use, she says, and will deal with things like "the do’s and don’ts of working with students from intermarried homes."

A rough draft of the document cautions Hillel directors to recognize that every intermarried family is different, so there is no single model of such students. Another section suggests they provide learning opportunities that are low-key and unintimidating.

A third section urges directors "to be careful about branding, to help the students pick names for themselves in a way that’s appropriate for them," Goldwater says, noting that students at two Hillels have formed separate groups called "the Half-Jews" and "the Goyim."

"Many of these students come with stereotypes and negative baggage from their childhood," she says. "They have particular needs in terms of accessibility. Hillel tries to show them they’re welcome, they can belong, they can have a positive Jewish experience."

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, 45 percent of college students who identify as Jewish come from intermarried families.

Of those, 65 percent "feel very positive about being Jewish." But just 15 percent of them participate in Hillel activities, in contrast to 36 percent of students with two Jewish parents.

Hillel, Goldwater says, wants to reach the rest.

Not everyone believes this should be Hillel’s goal.

Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, an interfaith expert who spoke at the March meeting, notes that Hillel originally was created by B’nai B’rith as a way to bring young Jewish men and women together, presumably to meet and marry.

"I am very concerned that Hillel not abandon its mandate to encourage in-marriage," she says.

Fishman also questions the amount of negative stereotypes these students bring with them. She believes it is less than what their parents experienced a generation ago.

"One could argue that the cultural norm has switched around," she says. "In some cases, the intermarried families are the dominant model."

Hillel campus directors interviewed for this article disagree.

"Some people think Hillel is like J-Date, that everyone I meet there will be someone I’d take home to meet my parents," says Rabbi Joseph Topek, who has been the Hillel director at SUNY at Stonybrook, N.Y., for 23 years.

Why hold Hillel responsible, he asks, for making sure your kid dates Jews? "Come on, you send them to a secular university, they live in the dorms, of course there are going to be non-Jews there," Topek says with a laugh.

"Non-Jewish students participate in Hillel activities. Their friends go and they want to check it out. It’s not as ghettoized as when we were in college."

Still, he supports the push for a more coordinated outreach. "There’s an emerging population of students with one Jewish parent or grandparent who feel a connection to the Jewish community. It may be strong, or they may be ambivalent, but there are more of these students on campus, and they’re more interested."

Michelle Blumenberg, Hillel director at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says, "There is a need to be sensitive to our language, how we welcome people."

She says that a 2002 demographic study of Tucson’s Jewish community found that 46 percent of married Jews in the city were intermarried — a typical finding in the West, and one that Blumenberg feels Hillel directors need to recognize.

"Should we be saying, you want your children to come to Hillel so they will marry Jewish, when half the population to whom we’re speaking probably isn’t?" she wonders.

Blumenberg says national guidelines for outreach would be helpful, "so everyone is on the same page."

Or Mars, Hillel director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the only way he knows which students come from intermarried backgrounds is if they choose to tell him.

"It’s not an issue unless they make it one," he says. "In terms of coming to Hillel, if you say you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish, and we want to interact with you."

He does say, however, that "some students struggle with it" on a personal level. "Sometimes it comes up when they want to become observant, or want to make aliyah, and their status becomes an issue. Some want to figure out how to honor both their parents and their own identity."

While Mars isn’t sure about the need for any overarching "engagement mechanism" for Hillel directors, he likes Goldwater’s use of the phrase "coordinated conversation."

"If it means one Hillel professional will learn from another about this delicate phenomenon, then that’s great," he says.

One thing that might make a coordinated approach more difficult is the fact that Hillel directors span the denominational spectrum, from Orthodox rabbis to Reform rabbis to people who are themselves intermarried. Some wonder how an Orthodox rabbi could be expected to welcome non-halachically Jewish students with the same enthusiasm as a non-Orthodox director.

For some directors, there could be a distinction between children of intermarriage who have a Jewish mother, which makes them halachically Jewish, and those with only a Jewish father, who can be Jewish according to the Reform and Reconstructionist streams.

But Goldwater says that different observance levels don’t affect campus outreach.

"Even for those directors who have a halachic problem with intermarriage, I don’t know one who wouldn’t want to be accessible, welcoming and inclusive," she says. "They don’t check family connections at the door. If they did, they would not be Hillel directors."

Rabbi Avi Orlow took up his position as assistant director of Hillel programs at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., a year ago, just after his Orthodox ordination. While he says he would be "all too happy" if Jewish students joined synagogues, he feels it’s not his job to promote Orthodoxy, but to help students engage Jewishly and find a "model for Jewish living that will work for the next 10 years after college."

Noting that he’s married to a Reform cantor, Orlow says Hillel "is an institution that can hold my belief system, even though it is not my belief system," and he appreciates the organization’s nuanced approach to Jewish identity.

"So we won’t all be together on Friday night," he says. "I’ll go to my services and you go to yours. But this is the place where we all come together" afterward, he says.

Still, he acknowledges that his job is a balancing act. While he would never "push halacha" on students from mixed backgrounds, he also doesn’t "think it’s fair to send them out the door thinking that everything is hunky-dory. That will not equip them for the next 10 years."

His students know he’s an Orthodox rabbi, and they also know he’s there to help them make Jewish connections.

"We’re trying to deepen people’s commitment to the Jewish project, and that’s not the same as conversion," he says.

It’s not just Orthodox directors that feel the heat of denominational differences. "Don’t think there aren’t Orthodox students who ask me how dare I permit a non-Orthodox service at Hillel," says Topek from Stonybrook.

Like Orlow, however, Topek says it’s not Hillel’s mandate to decide who is a Jew. "We just build the big tent and invite them all in."

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