Engagement: The Jewish Way

According to Cohen’s analysis, the level of fundamentally Jewish content in young adult programming is not as critical as the need to just bring young Jewish adults together as often as possible. He quoted statistics showing that Jews who attend universities with large numbers of other Jews, live in neighborhoods with other Jews or have many Jewish friends have a much higher likelihood of marrying another Jew. He said those with fewer social Jewish contacts have higher rates of intermarriage.

In Heneson’s experience, however, intermarriage and a sense of Judaism can coexist.

She grew up in a small town in Connecticut, where many of her friends came from interreligious marriages but were still “the most Jewish” kids she knew. According to Heneson, an intermarried couple can raise Jewish children if they have a Jewish home and make Jewish values a part of their family life.

Council 2434, which is split into professional and lay leadership groups, is trying to get a sense of what the young adult Jewish community looks like and what kinds of activities are offered through the various organizations that target this group.

“I like to think of it as a think tank,” Heneson said of the lay leader group, currently in its beginning stages. “The community and young adults are constantly going to be changing and evolving. We’re going to keep coming up with new, innovative ideas to try.”

Embedded in most people’s minds when they think about a campus Jewish community, the Chabad-Lubavitch model provides a “home away from home” and a comfort zone for any Jewish student on campus, said Rabbi Eli Backman, 45, director at University of Maryland Chabad since 1995. Backman takes a balanced approach in engaging students. The relevance of Judaism needs to be more than just a series of events, he said. Students are more often asking the question: “Where is this going to get me in the rest of my life.”

“I think you need to focus on ‘social’ in a college setting,” said Backman. “And if you look at Judaism as a whole — the joke is, each holiday it’s the same thing: They attacked us, we won, let’s eat — latke or matzah, we are social. There is a built-in, inherent social component to Judaism. We can use that and get to students that way. … You can continue to do social things, but then extend the experience and conversation.”

Backman and his wife, Nechama, host Shabbat dinners each week — two each year are themed, such as an Italian Shabbat and a Chinese one, and approximately 200 people attend — and offer one-on-one study, kosher BLTs (bagels, lox and tefillin) and many social and holiday events at dorms, Greek houses and their Chabad House.

Backman explained that often students arrive at college with a Jewish background and identity that may be strong but still elementary. They have been bar or bat mitzvahed, but their Jewish learning stopped there. Chabad works to provide opportunities and tools that allow students’ Judaism to mature, to grow with them as they grow older, whatever their background.

“Chabad is always anchored in tradition,” said Backman. “But we don’t expect everyone to be traditional. We want to help facilitate the next step. Where you go is your choice.”

Hillels on campuses across the country are also deeply involved in engaging young Jewish adults. Rabbi Josh Snyder, 24, has been the director of Goucher College Hillel since 2008. Goucher has about 1,400 students; an estimated 400 are Jewish. The philosophy for Hillel, he said, is to allow students to direct programming. The staff is there to guide and help with funding, but the driving force grows out of the very population Hillel targets.

“We empower students to be leaders,” said Snyder. “We let them guide and own programming and outreach. We give them the tools to shape what their Jewish adulthood will be like [when they leave school].”

Snyder said there isn’t a “silver bullet” of how to engage young Jewish adults and that it’s also a moving target.

“That’s what is often both the challenge and the blessing for programming for young people,” said Snyder. “Interests shift so often that you have to be very flexible and agile in your programming in order to meet what their interests are. There’s no one thing that works all the time.”

The most important thing, he said, is to keep an ear to the ground to discern those interests. That requires regular and frequent communication with students.

“Because so much comes so quickly to this generation,” he explained, students “want to see where things are headed in terms of their journeys at a much earlier stage now. They need to have more milestones along their path to maturity in order to ensure that they’ll continue to take the steps toward Jewish growth.”

One of those major milestones for many young Jewish adults is attending college, such as Johns Hopkins, which has about 5,000 undergraduate students; approximately 600 are Jewish.

“More than anything else Jews do, they go to college,” said Jon Falk, director at Hopkins Hillel. “About 91 percent of American Jews go to universities. So for me, this is where we’re catching them.”

Falk said that this generation, the millennials, is looking for personalized engagement. He said for some that means the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip; for others it is a Shabbat dinner at an off-campus apartment or in the basement of a fraternity, or it might simply be meeting for coffee. No matter the event, the goal is to remain engaged with other Jews.

Hopkins sophomore Ariel Zahler, 19, “didn’t step foot into a Hillel” her entire freshman year. It wasn’t until she attended services there, and Rabbi Debbie Pine asked her to coffee that Zahler became involved. Engaged conversation is what lead to her further involvement.

Now, Zahler is an engagement intern for her school’s Hillel. Her task is to meet with as many Jewish students as possible, going out once or twice a week for a casual coffee date, engaging her interlocutors in Jewish conversation. Zahler said they typically talk about the importance of Jewish identity.

“At school many Jews don’t have an affiliation,” said Zahler, an applied math and statistics major and philosophy minor. “So we talk about it a little and see if they want to get involved and let them know there’s a community here for them. Whatever they want to discuss, I’m there to facilitate the Jewish conversation.”

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