Getting first-year students in the door is the first and often most difficult hurdle for campus Jewish organizations. Many young people “think Hillel is too dorky,” admits University of Texas junior Michal Katz, a Hillel leader who is also active in Texans for Israel, an on-campus pro-Israel group.
“They think that’s where you go for services. They don’t see the social action work; they don’t see Texans for Israel,” adds her friend Mimi Hall.
But the popularity of birthright israel on their campus has helped break the stigma, both students say.
“It pulls people in,” Hall says.
The birthright israel program, which has so far sent 88,000 young people from around the world on free trips to Israel, drew 80 students from the University of Texas campus in Austin last year. This winter, the school is asking for 120 slots.
“We use birthright as a way to meet students we wouldn’t ordinarily meet,” says Margo Sack, Austin Hillel’s associate director. “Going to Israel is secondary — it resonates, but not with all of them.”
Jewish activists on several campuses acknowledge that they look at birthright as a marketing tool for their own organizations, especially when it comes to first-year students.
Students who say they’re “not interested” in anything Jewish are nevertheless often eager to sign up for a free trip to Israel. Those who do take part, according to a 2005 Brandeis University study, feel a heightened sense of Jewish identification years after their trip.
It’s up to campus groups to parlay that warm and fuzzy feeling into long-term involvement.
“One hundred percent of them come back and get involved,” says Mike Fuld, Hillel president at New York University and a Reform student activist. Fuld went on birthright last December, and says the program is very effective at getting Jewish students connected to campus Jewish life.
That’s particularly important at a campus like NYU, he says. With 6,500 Jewish undergraduates, one-third of the study body, many Jewish students feel that because they are in such a Jewish city, they don’t need to affiliate with the campus Jewish community.
Inbal Naveh is the Jewish Campus Service Fellow at NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, the umbrella for most campus Jewish activities. She took 20 students to Israel on birthright last winter, and hopes to make it 40 this year.
Inbal organized a birthright informational meeting at the Bronfman Center in September. Few of the 35 students who showed up that evening were Jewishly involved, except for the eight who went on birthright last winter and showed up to talk about it. All of the returnees are now connected to Jewish life on campus in some way, which they attribute directly to their Israel visit.
“I’m, like, Reform Jewish, and I didn’t do anything Jewish at NYU before I went on birthright,” one young woman tells the crowd. “That’s how I broke into it, through this trip.
“But,” she hastens to add, “it’s not a ‘Jewish’ trip. It’s really fun.”
Two second-year students at the meeting say they’re not involved in Jewish life, but have only come to find out about birthright.
“I’ve never been to Israel, and this is the first opportunity my parents will let me go, so I’m grabbing it,” says Sarah Cooney.
Freshman Josh W. from Ridgewood, N.J., says he took part in Hillel’s scavenger hunt through Manhattan that week.
“It was awesome,” he reports, adding that he showed up this evening because he’s “looking for social connections.”
He’s not sure about birthright yet.
First-year student Svetlana Keselman is sure. Her brother went last year, and loved it, “so I most likely will go.”
Her family sometimes attends the synagogue around the corner from their Brooklyn home, and she doesn’t know whether she’s interested in any Jewish activities on campus.