A recent study of Jewish college students showed that the American Jewish community has a long way to go in engaging and empowering its young members. But if the American Jewish picture is troubling, the European Jewish community is bleak. In North America, there are more than 500 active Hillels on campuses, as well as initiatives from denominations and other Jewish organizations. In Europe, the number of professionals specifically working with and for students is no higher than 50.
Had the same study been carried out across Europe, the findings would have been even more convincing: According to the European Union of Jewish Students, there are close to 200,000 Jewish youth between the ages of 18 and 30. Especially in Western Europe, a large majority of youth identifies themselves as strictly secular — for instance in the Netherlands, more than 90 percent of Jews born since 1981 define themselves as such.
Furthermore: More than 50 percent of these Dutch Jews have one Jewish parent. Practically, this means that events aimed at increasing Jewish marriages could offend as many as half the target population.
While this group is in university, most of its members are not connected to the Jewish studies departments of their institutions or to Jewish student organizations.
At the same time, these departments are going through a period of growth. Interested non-Jews and unaffiliated Jews are taking the opportunities available to them to study Judaism from a more academic viewpoint, and their affiliated Jewish counterparts are not involved.
The communities need to take this to heart: Young Jews are generally highly educated — again in the Netherlands, 80 percent of young Jews have a university or equivalent degree, compared to 20 percent of the general population — but they are simply not challenged by their community, not shown that Judaism is as complex, diverse and enriching as a university degree. Seen in this light, the unwillingness to affiliate is not surprising.
Jewish history, culture and heritage are enriching and challenging, and they could even (God forbid!) be a stimulant for Jewish continuity — showing that Judaism is something worth preserving, rather than being reduced to denominational squabbles or little cliques of people in search of a life partner.
This approach is needed in Europe, as it is on the other side of the Atlantic. However, Jewish communal leaders refrain from supporting it, believing it would undermine their institutions’ rabbinic viewpoints. The efforts to implement it are hampered by a lack of research into Jewish communities across the continent. This absence of data has been used for too long to postpone difficult decisions. Studies and research centers like Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, as well as multidisciplinary projects need to be created and supported, becoming community resources for the discovery of trends and developments, and countering a disastrously high assimilation rate.
European Jewish communities need to invest in their well-educated youth, not by increasing the number of dance parties for Jews, but by creating opportunities for young people to become involved in the kind of active life they look for, from a Jewish perspective.
We need to strengthen young people’s Jewish knowledge, to create awareness of the fact that their desire to be moral leaders is inspired by their Jewish roots. European Jewish communities need to commit to financing and supporting Jewish student endeavors, and not just those directly geared toward creating Jewish marriages.
But first of all, the Jewish communities of Europe need to find out where the students are, and what they want. Research is the first, most important step.
Gidon van Emden is the Policy Officer of CEJI, the European Jewish Information Centre, and a member of the Steering Committee of Project Yesod, a new European project that aims to connect Jewish studies and heritage professionals to Jewish communities.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.