Reform Judaism Goes Back to School: What I’m Learning About Reform Jewish Education from College Students
by Rabbi Heath Watenmaker
If you’re reading this article there is a good chance you belong to a Reform synagogue. Have you ever thought about what that means? Why do you belong to a Reform synagogue? Why are you a Reform Jew? What makes you a Reform Jew? Now, think about your children or grandchildren. Have you explained why you belong to the Reform movement? Have you talked about the Jewish choices that you have made in your life? Have you talked to them about what it means to be a Reform Jew?
As the Reform Outreach Initiative Rabbi at Rutgers University Hillel, I strive to engage our Reform Jewish students in thinking about how they might answer this question. Often times, they don’t have an answer; it is not a question that is on their radar. But together, we begin a dialogue searching for that answer.
What I hear from my students on campus is that we don’t spend enough time educating our children about what it means to be a Reform Jew and talking about what makes Reform Judaism special and unique – before they reach their b’nai mitzvah. We cannot wait until they are in high school, when many of our children have already opted out, to have these conversations about the value Judaism brings to their lives. We need to celebrate our Jewish identity – our Reform Jewish identity – and we need to be loud and proud about it if we want our children to care.
In my conversations here at Rutgers with Reform Jews from a variety of backgrounds, I have encountered a similar story over and over again: Reform Jews arrive on campus, having been involved in Jewish life at their synagogues, and encounter Orthodox Jews (maybe for the first time in their lives). Even with rich Reform Jewish upbringings, our students have a tendency to feel that their Reform Jewish experience either isn’t authentic or that they “don’t know enough.” Really they don’t “know” Judaism in the same singular way that many Orthodox Jews “know” Judaism and their confidence wanes. As a result, many of them participate in the Orthodox outreach learning programs on campus like the Maimonides program, which offers a stipend to students who complete this program. In this moment of need, when our students are struggling to find their Jewish footing, the organized Reform Movement seems to have very little to say to them. This is in stark contrast to the Orthodox world, which understands that college is when students make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives. From the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program to the Meor/Maimonides programs, the Orthodox world provides a myriad of college-based initiatives on many campuses throughout the country.
Rutgers Hillel, in partnership with Reform rabbis and generous donors throughout New Jersey, created the Reform Outreach Initiative – the first and only Initiative in the country to bring a full-time Reform rabbi onto campus uniquely dedicated to the needs of liberal and Reform Jewish students. With a full-time staff person and the grassroots support of the New Jersey Reform community, Reform Judaism has a growing presence at Rutgers University. There is now an address for students to build their Jewish self confidence. Students are able to come to me (or, in many instances, I reach out to them) and together we explore the many ways in which Reform Judaism is authentic and meaningful.
Why am I a Reform Jew? I am a Reform Jew because I believe that Jewish tradition is always changing and evolving. At every moment of Jewish history, Jews took our tradition as they understood it and made it meaningful for their generation, often adapting it or exploring it in new ways to make it relevant. I believe in an ongoing dialogue with our tradition – one that didn’t stop because someone or some group arbitrarily decided that it should. I explain to my students that Reform Judaism offers an inspiring, modern brand of Judaism that respects tradition and provides new ways of exploring our ancient texts and rituals, allowing them to bring their full selves and experiences to Judaism. Through leadership development, inspiring study, soulful prayer, and meaningful community service, the Rutgers Hillel Reform Outreach Initiative demonstrates to students that Judaism (and, more specifically, Reform Judaism) can bring holiness and meaning to every facet of their lives.
College is a time of crucial identity formation, when many students are deciding to opt in or out of participation in the Jewish community. We should be preparing them for this crucial moment throughout their entire lives. We must start, from an early age, giving them the Jewish building blocks that will instill in them the ability to articulate their Jewish needs so that they can take ownership of and responsibility for their Judaism as they grow up and become independent young adults. We need to give our children the tools they need to understand why Judaism is meaningful to us and why we are Reform Jews, so that they can make informed Jewish choices in their own lives that give them meaning and confidence. If we cannot share with our children a compelling reason for why we are Reform Jews, why Judaism matters to us, how can we expect it to matter to them?
Rabbi Heath Watenmaker is the first Reform Outreach Initiative Rabbi at Rutgers University Hillel in New Brunswick, NJ. The Reform Outreach Initiative is a grassroots effort between Rutgers Hillel and Reform rabbis, lay leaders, and donors throughout New Jersey that provides Reform Jewish students on campus with a Reform rabbi uniquely dedicated to meeting their needs and building a Reform Jewish presence on the Rutgers campus with 6,000+ Jews. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.