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What Do Students Want? on College Campuses Across U.s., Jewish Freshmen Seek Community

November 11, 2005
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It’s “move-in” weekend at the University of Texas at Austin. First-year students and their parents are busy unloading clothes, boxes and electrical appliances. Most are too rushed to notice a Hillel table set up outside the dorm, with its blue-and-white poster, brightly colored brochures and a smiling young woman handing out lollipops. But Julie Unger, 22, is persistent. A recent graduate herself, Unger is a Jewish Campus Service Fellow hired for a year by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to reach out to Jewish students. Her business card sports her phone number and the message, “I’ll take you out for ice cream.”

“It’s part of my job,” Unger says, as she flashes a smile at a crowd of passing students. “I have my first coffee date Monday. I’m real excited!”

Austin, with 37,000 undergraduates, is the campus of choice for young Jewish Texans. The Towers dormitory, where Unger has positioned herself, is close to 60 percent Jewish. Many incoming freshmen are already running into friends from their Houston or Dallas high schools right there in the lobby.

“There are 4,000 Jewish students here, and 500 to 1,000 come to our events,” Unger says. “But there are 3,000 others who don’t come. They think Hillel is just for religious students; it has some kind of stigma. Those are the ones I’m trying to reach.”

There are about 250,000 Jewish undergraduates on American college campuses, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Twenty-seven percent of them attend Hillel activities. Since Hillel’s umbrella includes nearly every on-campus Jewish student group, except Chabad and Jewish fraternities, that means close to two-thirds of Jewish college students are not part of Jewish life on campus.

That has Jewish professionals — and Jewish parents — worried.

Largely to address those concerns, the Hillel staff in Washington embarked a year ago on a strategic planning effort to find out who these Jewish students are, what they want and how campus Jewish organizations can better serve them.

Hillel, which provides services to students at more than 500 colleges and universities in North America, will release those findings at the annual gathering of North American federations next week in Toronto.

The JTA asked those same questions of more than 75 first-year students at four U.S. campuses this fall — the University of Texas at Austin, New York University, the University of California at Los Angeles and Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college near San Jose, Calif.

From the informal survey, students overwhelmingly say they are looking for a Jewish social circle.

In Austin, Frances Shwarts is one of the first students to stop by Unger’s table. A Dallas native, she finished 12 years of Hebrew school at her Conservative synagogue, was active in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth, in BBYO, the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, and she went on a teen trip to Israel.

“They forced me all the way,” she laughs.

Shwarts says she’ll “definitely” come to Hillel activities because she likes Friday night services, and “likes being surrounded by Jewish people; it’s really comfortable.”

Shwarts’ comments reflect what students on these four campuses most say they want from Jewish organizations: Jewish friends and a place to go for holiday services when they can’t get home.

“I’m not terribly religious, but it’s a good place to connect with like-minded people,” says Houston native Jonathan Graber, who graduated from his Conservative synagogue’s Hebrew high school.

“I have tons of Christian friends, but it’s nice to have that Jewish connection — it’s one less obstacle to overcome.”

Some Jewish freshmen, like Graber and Shwarts, want to join Jewish groups to continue the Jewish social life they knew in high school. Others, who were active Jewishly in high school, get burned out by the time they hit college, and don’t want anything to do with campus Jewish life, says junior Mimi Hall, an activist in Texans for Israel, a campus pro-Israel group.

Unger, the Hillel representative, says Austin is “a big party school,” unlike her alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. Whereas Israel activism is high on the Jewish agenda at Berkeley to counter the large pro-Palestinian presence there, Unger is focusing more on social programming at Austin — bagel brunches, barbecue get-togethers, ice cream socials.

At the group’s first such event, a welcome brunch, first-year student David Auslender is one of four dozen new and transfer students to attend.

“I thought it would be a good way to meet people,” he says, adding that he thinks the synagogue his family goes to in Poquoson, Va., is Reconstructionist. He goes to services with them occasionally, but says he isn’t particularly interested in services or in Israel, while he’s in college.

A few freshmen at the brunch say they do want regular religious services.

Roommates Adina Neustein and Carly Robalin of El Paso, Texas, say they want to “do Shabbat” once a month in their dorm room.

“Judaism has always been very dear to my heart, and I want to maintain that here,” says Robalin.

Both young women come from affiliated families — Robalin’s parents are active in their Reform congregation, and Neustein says her family belongs to Reform, Conservative and Chabad.

Chabad also does outreach during orientation week. Chabad outreach on U.S. college campuses has grown dramatically in recent years.

More than 70 campuses across the nation currently have active Chabad houses.

Junior Craig Gremont, who lives in an all-Jewish fraternity also a place for Jewish connection, he says — is president of the tiny Orthodox minyan at Hillel. Since the group doesn’t meet on Saturday, in his freshman year he started going to the Chabad House run by Rabbi Yosef and Rachel Levertov.

The Levertovs, who have been in Austin for 21 years, say they often find freshmen through their parents, who e-mail or call the Chabad couple during the summer to give the rabbi their children’s names. Parents know this is a party school and they don’t want them to “forget about being Jewish,” Rachel Levertov says.

For some students, college is their first opportunity to be in a strong Jewish social environment.

“There aren’t a lot of Jews in Baton Rouge, and I thought I’d like to meet some,” says freshman Carrie Binder of Louisiana, who says she’s not interested in Israel or religious services.

“I want to hang out with Jewish people,” she says simply.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *** * *

Hanging out with Jewish people is no big draw at the University of California at Los Angeles, which has more than 3,000 Jewish students, about 10 percent of the student body. The percentage is the same as at Austin, but Los Angeles itself is a more “Jewish” city, students say, so they don’t need a campus group to meet their fellow Jews.

Still, most freshmen interviewed said they want to go to Jewish events to meet others like themselves. And with such a large Jewish student population, there’s the luxury of dozens of organizations to choose from, each catering to a specific ethnic, religious or political interest. Such groups range from the Progressive Jewish Students Association to the Persian American Student Organization, which serves UCLA’s large Iranian population, about 25 percent of the Jews on campus.

All these groups were represented at the end of September at UCLA’s Enormous Activities Fair, where more than 300 campus organizations set up tables on the soccer field to vie for the allegiance of thousands of passing students.

Two hours after the fair began, eight students had already signed up for the Progressive student group, and more had given their names to the two Orthodox groups. But the Hillel table was by far the most popular, with small groups of students milling around throughout the afternoon.

Freshman Mor Toledano, from Sacramento, Calif., says he chose UCLA partly because of its large Jewish student population. He’s interested in Hillel because “they have a lot of meals on Friday and it’s really social.”

His friends Justin Goldberg and Matt Ross agree. “I want to meet Jews that have something in common with me,” Goldberg says.

Some students who were active in their high school Jewish groups said they want to continue in college. Amy Katznelson was social action vice chair of her Reform congregation’s youth group in Tarzana, Calif., and says she “definitely” wants to stay connected at UCLA.

She says she plans to get in touch with the Muslim student group. “I want to get people from the different religions together, because indifference and intolerance stems from misunderstanding, from not realizing what we have in common.”

Many of those who stopped by Hillel’s table came from intermarried families.

“I want to get more involved in Jewish culture,” says one such student, Danielle Cohen, from Orange County in California.

“My heritage is Jewish. My grandpa is a Holocaust survivor, and it would mean a lot to him if I learned more about it.”

UCLA’s Hillel president, Andy Green, says he’s trying to make Hillel more welcoming to non-Orthodox students.

Like other schools with large, active Orthodox populations, Green says UCLA Hillel can be “intimidating” to a non-observant kid who walks in for the first time “and sees all those students in yarmulkes.”

It’s natural that Orthodox students congregate at Hillel, he says, since “it provides a space for them to engage in the religious activities they already do, like prayer and study.”

To attract less Jewishly connected students, UCLA Hillel hosts barbecues and ice cream socials like other campus Hillels, but also brings Jewish life right to the students, throwing parties in freshman dorms and bringing in kosher food.

“It’s a great way to engage non-religious students, because there’s no pressure, it’s just socializing with other Jews,” says Green.

Even those tactics don’t attract everyone. Jane Levich of Lafayette, Calif., was one Jewish student who walked right by the Hillel table at the UCLA fair. She says she goes to synagogue on the holidays, but isn’t interested in campus Jewish life.

“I’m not against connecting, but I don’t think I’d necessarily seek it out,” she says. “The Jewish community is kind of overbearing. You’re either committed, or you’re kind of shunned.”

She says she would, however, go to lectures about Israel and the Middle East — but the social and religious aspects that don’t appeal to her.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Santa Clara University is a far cry from UCLA, even though it’s just a five-hour drive north. Nestled in the hills outside San Jose, it’s a private Jesuit college. Most of the 4,700 undergraduates are Catholic; 163 are Jewish. There is no kosher food option, no Torah classes and no on-campus Shabbat services.

“The students who come here are not looking for a Jewish environment,” says Vanina Sandler, director of student life for Hillel of Silicon Valley, which runs Jewish activities at four area colleges, including Santa Clara, through each campus’ Jewish Student Union.

On such campuses, Sandler says, some students prefer to blend in with their non-Jewish peers, while many others seek out Jewish affiliation for the first time in their lives, precisely because they’re at an openly Christian campus.

Those students who stop by the Jewish Student Union table at Santa Clara are often quite tentative, even shy, about asking questions. Many of them aren’t even Jewish. Sandler says of 55 students who signed her contact list one particular day, only 12 were Jewish.

“The Jewish students don’t want to ‘come out’ on a Jesuit campus until they see their non-Jewish friends sign up,” she says, adding that the non-Jewish students “like to come to our Shabbatons,” but don’t tend to become active in the organization.

The co-president of the Jewish Student Union, Katie Wampler, says she chose Santa Clara because “it’s a good school,” and only developed her Jewish identity after arriving on campus, when she started going to the local Chabad house.

Now possibly the only Shabbat-observant student at the school, Wampler says she met lots of Jewish freshmen the first week of classes.

“They didn’t come here with the intention of being Jewish. They want to suppress that. But once they’re on campus, they’ll start to seek us out.”

“I didn’t think I’d be the only Jew, but I knew there’d be very few,” says Anne Butterfield of Oakland, Calif., who stopped by the Jewish Student Union table to pick up some brochures.

Butterfield comes from an intermarried family, and says her family stopped attending their Reform synagogue when she was a child. She thinks “it would be fun to go bowling together, or other social activities,” and she also thinks “it would be great to have a place to celebrate the holidays” on campus.

Carolyn Healy, a hurricane transfer student from Tulane University in New Orleans, says she is looking for Shabbat services, as well as a Jewish community on campus. Pointing to the silver hamsa, the five-fingered Sephardic symbol she wears on a chain around her neck, she says, “I’ve been asked four times today what this necklace means, if I’m a Muslim or what.”

For all of these young people, the Jewish Student Union provides a social haven, a place where they don’t have to explain their holidays, their food or their jewelry. It’s also a place where they can learn more about who they are.

Cassandra Schwartz has stopped by the table to ask about birthright israel, the program that sponsors free trips to Israel. Wampler hands her a brochure, saying, “You’re part Jewish, right?”

“Half,” Schwartz says. “But it’s not my mom, so it doesn’t count.”

“Of course it does,” chimes in Sandler.

Wampler and Sandler take turns telling Schwartz about Shabbat services, the Birthright program and Jewish holiday parties planned for later in the semester.

“What do we get Friday night?” Schwartz asks skeptically. As Wampler rattles off the list — roast chicken, pizza, matzah ball soup — Schwartz breaks in, “Oooh, I love matzah ball soup. In December do we get latkes?”

As she walks away from the table, Schwartz shakes her head and says, “It’s so sad, I’m learning more about this here than I ever learned at home.”

* * * * ** * * **

Across the country, at New York University in Manhattan, many Jewish students feel that because they are in such an overtly Jewish city and because the 6,500 Jewish undergraduates make up one-third of the student body they don’t need to affiliate in order to “do Jewish.”

“It’s tricky just getting them in the door,” says NYU senior Isaac Rothbart, president of Kesher, the Reform movement’s campus organization. Most Jewish first-year students at NYU who do get involved are looking for services, especially for the holidays, he says.

“Others are just looking for friends, and some want to learn about Judaism,” he adds.

Freshman Josh Welikson from Ridgewood, N.J., says he took part in Hillel’s scavenger hunt through Manhattan during the first week of school.

“It was awesome,” he reports, adding that he’s “looking for social connections.”

Dyanna Loeb was raised as a Reform Jew in Oakland, Calif., and seems excited about campus Jewish life.

“I am trying to get involved with the Bronfman Center,” she says of the Jewish center there. “So far we had lunch with Holocaust survivors, and other than that, social gatherings.”

Would she go to Jewish lectures? Depends on the topic, she says. How about Shabbat services, or meals? Maybe, she’s not sure.

“I’m just here to find out more,” she says.

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