Reform-ing the College Campus



I was on the phone a few months ago with Marshall Einhorn, executive director of Brown-RISD Hillel, discussing a talk I was asked to give at Brown, where my younger son is currently a junior and of which my older son is an alumnus. As an aside, I asked Marshall who would be leading the campus Reform services for the High Holy Days. When he said he had asked a number of people but without success, I offered to help.

“That would be great!” Marshall said. “Let me know if your networks surface someone interested.”

“No,” I told him. “Maybe I could help” – as in, “Maybe I could come and lead services.”

It was this fortuitous conversation that led me to one of the most eye-opening experiences I have had so far as president of the Reform Movement. Much of the time, I sit with my colleagues in meeting rooms, strategizing about the Jewish future and how to excite young people about Jewish life via our Campaign for Youth Engagement. By leading Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services at Brown-RISD Hillel, I would have the opportunity to learn more directly, in a hands-on way, about the challenges Judaism faces on college campuses.

I started preparing for my time on campus by looking up Brown University in Reform Judaism magazine’s “Insider’s Guide to College Life,” which provided me a startling statistic: Of the approximately 1,300 Jewish students at Brown, only a hundred or so are active in Jewish groups on campus. With this data in mind, I knew that I wanted, in my time at Brown-RISD Hillel, to get a firsthand look at why this may be and what we’re dealing with – and perhaps come up with some new ideas about how to lower barriers to entry and be more welcoming to students who are currently uninvolved in Jewish campus life. Over the summer, I participated in the National Hillel Institute in St. Louis, which helped me better understand the smart strategies so many Hillels are employing to “get outside the walls of Hillel buildings” to engage students where they are: their dorms, fraternities or sororities, etc.

With Brown-RISD Hillel’s staff and student interns, we planned engaging, dynamic, and interactive High Holy Day services. This wasn’t a “sit out there in the congregation and zone out while the choir sings” service; it was a “get involved, have substantive conversations, and see how Jewish traditions and ideas are relevant to your life as a college student” service – a holistic experience. As a contributor to Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative, I decided to frame our tefillot with “big questions” that emerged from the students, and to make sure we were current with the most innovative liturgy, we piloted the CCAR’s new High Holy Days machzor. We also brought in musician Max Chaiken, a teacher at the Rashi Reform Jewish Day School, who added his signature warmth and spirituality to the entire experience.

My goal was to attract students who otherwise wouldn’t have participated; we met that goal and then some. At times, leading discussions during the services with students and faculty felt like a philosophy or literature seminar, with ideas from a broad religious spectrum. The young man who lifted the Torah had shoulders as broad as our bimah. I suggested he bend his knees and get down under the scroll before lifting, but he smiled as he popped the Torah off the lectern and hoisted it above his head without any strain whatsoever.

“Are you on the football team?” I asked. He nodded yes. “Offensive line,” he told me –and I told him that holding the Torah on Yom Kippur would give him extra strength for the upcoming game against Georgetown. (Brown 37-Georgetown 10!)

After Kol Nidrei services, I joined Hillel’s Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, an exceedingly open-minded Orthodox rabbi who was supportive in every way, in a dialogue on the challenges and opportunities of Jewish pluralism. And on Yom Kippur afternoon, when most people are itching for a nap, a group of students from across the religious spectrum gathered for a Talmud study session titled “From Roman Gladiator to Talmudic Sage: A Narrative of Transformation.”

For the final shofar blast and havdallah, the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform services joined together. There was a palpable feeling of k’lal yisroel, Jewish peoplehood, as we prayed and studied together as one people.

In all, hundreds of people attended these campus High Holy Days services – not just Brown and RISD students, but faculty and staff, Hillel Board members, parents, and members of the community. Based on past years’ turnout, the Reform Rosh HaShanah service took place in Brown-RISD Hillel’s smaller upstairs space, while the Conservative students occupied the larger social hall – but given the turnout on Rosh HaShanah for the Reform service, we switched spaces for Yom Kippur. Nobody was turned away – and the services were as distinctive as each of the people who showed up.

Reform students from Rutgers Hillel welcome previously unengaged Jewish students to get involved (Photo from Facebook)

Developing a serious, effective long-term strategy for our Movement on the college campuses of North America is no simple task, but it is one we are committed to creating. A number of Hillels (Rutgers, Cornell, Mizzou and Bradley come to mind) are trailblazing new Reform engagement strategies, and the national Hillel leadership is committed to engaging more of our Jewish students on a deeper level. There are plenty of opportunities for most college students to experience Orthodox Judaism but not nearly enough non-Orthodox experiences that can ignite the heads and hearts of those who are spiritually at home in our Movement. I hope 5773 is a year of growth and discovery for our college students – and for all of us who care deeply about the Jewish future.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

About Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.

5 Responses to “Reform-ing the College Campus”

  1. avatar

    Thank you – this sounds like a beautiful, wonderful, hands-on experience. But what did you find out? Why aren’t most Jewish students coming and how can we change that? How do we find them, attract them, engage them, and retain them? To get a more realistic picture, try showing up on a random Shabbat and seeing what the turnout is like, and which ‘High Holiday Jews’ come back (trust me, you won’t be needing larger prayer areas). Stand in the back and observe, and talk with the student leaders and with the students who don’t come, and you’ll start figuring out what their needs and gaps and desires really are. Over the past 2 years I’ve spent Shabbat at more than 30 campuses (including Brown) and spoken with thousands of students, and I’m just scratching the surface – but I can agree with you that we have our work cut out for us :)

    • avatar

      Oh, yes… I have exactly the same questions. Thank you for asking them. By the way, Pew recently indicated the same trend among Protestants. Is the trend reflective of broad institutional disillusionment/distrust among GenXers and millenials? Is there anything a congregation of any faith can do to dent such a powerful cultural shift? What have YOU learned in your 30 campus visits?

      • avatar

        There was a study done of study of uninvolved Jewish college students from 2 years ago asking them why they’re not more Jewishly involved. The #1 answer is because they’re intimidated by the more involved students, and #2 is because their friends aren’t doing it. So a lot of this seems to be a social problem; not that people don’t care about Judaism/Jewish life, and we don’t need to trick/bribe/force them to come – we just need the more involved students to be their friends, and to reach out and welcome them into their comfortable and meaningful experiences and community. It’s also proven that the #1 key is building relationships, but just 1 or 2 H/Ch staff can’t do it themselves – so you need to empower the Jewishly passionate, motivated, and educated students to take ownership, reach out, and engage their peers. That might mean temporarily leaving the institutional structures and creating multiple micro-communities which can serve as portals of entry towards further explorations of Jewish life. It reminds me of Occupy Wall Street: you have strong core communities inside of Hillel/Chabad due to Jewish day schools/camps and strong Jewish social networks, but the majority (maybe not 99%, but at least 60-80%) are left on the outside. So it’s about decentralizing, sharing the wealth of Jewish social capital and knowledge, and building a stronger Jewish community and stronger Jewish identities.
        The main project we (Heart to Heart) do is having students run intimate Shabbat dinners for their uninvolved friends – these dinners are part of a whole strategy which is based on relationship-based engagement, experiential education, and community organizing. So far it’s been working on dozens of campuses for thousands of students…

  2. avatar
    Alice & Arthur Siegal Reply October 9, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    Hillel at the University of
    Washington has an excellent interactive program with the Jewish students on campus. Their events are well publicized and attended. Also, most events and activities attract a sizable number of Jewish adults from the community. My wife and I enjoy them and feel rewarded for our efforts and contributions. Recent staff leaders are Reform Rabbis.

  3. avatar

    I think the answer lies in NFTY…kids who are involved in NFTY-I mean involved, head over heels, crazy for NFTY involved….get nothing like it once they have gone to college…surely there must be some NFTY withdrawl? Used to seeing their regional BFFs at least 4 times a year, not to mention at camp, when they get to college and beyond, there is nothing really so organized until they reach major adultood and maybe get attracted to Sisterhood or Brotherhood, if they even walk into a synagogue…and it’s not the same, and we have lost most of them. NFTY works. we should try to use that model on a slightly more adult level and keep these kids connected to each other (they want that) and to our Reform movement too.

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