Can young Jews become more Jewish without much Judaism?

September 26, 2011

Washington, D.C.

Samantha Perilstein is a bubbly hospitality major at the University of Delaware and deeply connected to Jewish life on campus. Which is a change from where she started.

To Rabbi Jeremy Winaker, that made Perilstein a perfect candidate for an ambitious national experiment to bring college Jews back to Judaism.

Under a $17 million program sponsored by the national Jewish campus group Hillel, students like Perilstein are hired to help their less Jewishly inclined peers achieve some kind of “meaningful Jewish experience.” The upcoming High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 28-29) and Yom Kippur (Oct. 7-8) are a natural time to engage Jewish students.

“Samantha was able to articulate that she avoided Judaism because she was trying to be the Jew she thought she should be and not the Jew she is,” said Winaker, a Conservative rabbi who works at the University of Delaware Hillel. “Her message to her peers became, `Be the Jew you are.’”

The program is aimed at the two-thirds of Jewish college students who claim little connection to Jewish culture or religious observance on campus. After starting on seven campuses five years ago, the program now operates on 17, from UCLA to the University of Kansas to New York University. Overall, more than 50,000 Jewish students have been involved.

About 85 percent of Jewish students attend college ā€• that’s a target audience of about 400,000 young Jews who are currently enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, according to Hillel.

The program, funded mostly by the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation, breaks with the traditional strategy of enticing students with user-friendly holiday services or tasty kosher meals. That model works with students who are ready to jump into Jewish campus life, but not with those on the sidelines.

Jennifer Zwilling, Hillel’s associate vice president of student engagement, said the new strategy relies on students who are particularly good at relating to other students.

“We are engaging students who are indigenous to the campus to activate their own social networks and enliven them with Jewish conversation and Jewish experience,” said Zwilling. Hillel calls them “Campus Entrepreneur Interns,” or “CEIs.”

On 10 campuses, the CEIs partner with “a senior Jewish educator” like Winaker who can deepen the Jewish aspects of whatever activities the interns dream up. The teams do not set “Jewish goals” for Jewish students, but rather help foster more “meaningful Jewish experiences” than they otherwise would have.

“We meet students where they are,” Zwilling said.

Perilstein said she appreciated that Winaker understood her relationship to Judaism.

“Jeremy knows that if I’m thrown into a room with a prayer book, it’s not going to make me want to be there,” she said. “But put me in a room with a great discussion about something in the prayer book, and I’m in my element.”

Isabel Shocket, who worked as a CEI at Virginia Tech last year, explained how she approached Jewish students who she knew might turn her down.

“Sometimes I’d say, ‘I’m going to Shabbat dinner tonight, you want to come? It’s Chinese food.’ And if they say ‘That’s too religious,’ I’d say ‘OK’ and try to figure out what their interests are. I’d contact them again and say, ‘Hillel is going on a hike, want to come?’”

One student told Shocket he was “only half Jewish” and rebuffed her several times. But then she learned of his interest in nutrition and the environment, and asked him to share his knowledge at a meal to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the holiday commonly referred to as Jewish Arbor Day. He did and loved it, she said.

For those paying for the program, that kind of interaction more than counts as a “meaningful Jewish experience.”

The program is built around teams of about 10 interns per campus. In exchange for the approximately $1,700 each intern receives as payment, they are expected to engage about 60 Jewish students who have no or little connection to campus Jewish life.

The Jim Joseph Foundation ā€• which focuses on the education of Jewish youth ā€• commissioned an independent report to evaluate the program's reach, and concluded that it’s working.

“Students with weaker Jewish backgrounds exhibit high levels of Jewish growth. Those who are already active in Jewish life tend to take more leadership on campus,” said Al Levitt, the foundation’s president. “These are promising, exciting results.”

According to the report, the program is succeeding in part because it recognizes today’s Jewish students are part of a generation that feels more at home on Facebook than in a synagogue. “At the same time,” the report continues, “they are openly proud of being Jewish.”

Winaker said that means students like Perilstein want to celebrate Hanukkah in a way that’s meaningful to them, not necessarily in the way they’re told. Uncomfortable with the Hanukkah prayers, Perilstein likes to light the candles of her menorah without saying the traditional blessings.

“It is the beginning of the rewriting of Samantha’s Jewish story,” said Winaker.

That’s good enough for Winaker, but also for people like Rabbi Kenneth Brander, who heads the Center for the Jewish Future at the more traditional Yeshiva University in New York.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Brander said of Perilstein’s blessing-free candle lighting. “This generation is thirsting for purpose and meaning, and you have to create spiritual rendezvous points for students where they are.”

“And who knows,” he added. “Maybe one day she will recite the blessings.”

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