As a Jewish college professor at a large university without any institutional Jewish campus life, I have a unique opportunity to engage with the few Jewish students I encounter. Now in my third year as a professor, I am strongly considering engaging in more Jewish activities to provide some on-campus resources. But the options for a professor in a situation like mine, at a university without a campus Hillel or Chabad, mostly revolve around political, Israel-based engagement— a topic most of my students certainly do not want to wade into.
And they are not alone. A recent report authored by Tufts professor Eitan Hersh for the Jim Joseph Foundation reveals that Jewish students on college campuses are more eager to engage directly in Jewish material life, culture and tradition than to discuss politics. They want to connect with their Jewish identity through food and the experience of Shabbat and holidays, socializing with other Jews, Jewish textual learning and volunteer opportunities in the spirit of tikkun olam.
According to the Jewish students Hersh surveyed, the types of events that they were least interested in were “politically oriented events;” in other words: events that explicitly tie Jewish identity to political behaviors.
Yet, while Jewish students on campus mostly just want a place to be fed and hang out with other Jewish kids, Jewish organizations that target college students on campuses like mine are overwhelmingly focused on Israel.
The most notable example is StandWithUs, which is an Israel advocacy organization with a large campus presence that includes within its mission statement a dedication to on-campus advocacy. The group often highlights anti-Zionist activities on college campuses to its 400,000 followers on Instagram.
Other organizations such as Young Judaea, Hasbara Fellowships and Israel on Campus Coalition similarly state in their missions that they are dedicated to making Israel a centrality of Jewish life. In 2020 alone, Hasbara Fellowships gave out over half a million dollars to students engaging in on-campus Israel advocacy. In fact, amongst the many popular organizations that organize Jewish events on campus, only Chabad on Campus International does not explicitly reference Israel in its mission.
Certainly, some Jewish students on campus are interested in being vocal supporters of Israel. But the data doesn’t lie: the overwhelming majority of Jewish college students do not find these events to be the most meaningful. And aside from wondering why so many these well-resourced organizations are focused on mobilizing students to engage in political work when the students themselves are more interested in opportunities to learn Jewish texts and eat some schnitzel than recite a five-point defense of the Jewish state, people like me and my students are also left high and dry. And we are not alone. Countless universities across the country do not have an on-campus Hillel or Chabad, both of which provide extensive programming beyond Israel-focused and political activities. And without more options to engage in cultural, food-based, and spiritual activities, Jewish students cannot connect with their Jewish identity on their preferred terms.
For many college students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, college is the first and last time that they will have the opportunity to live in a walkable, dense community filled with aesthetically beautiful spots to relax and learn. College campuses are built to generate social interactions, intellectual growth, and identity formation in ways that often do not happen naturally in other environments where learning is not a primary focus and self-segregation is common. Many students will begin to ask questions such as, “why am I here, where did I come from, and who do I want to be,” while sitting with friends on the quad in the moments between classes or while in a laundry room waiting on their clothes to dry.
Jewish college students live on campuses across the United States and are losing out on the ability to form a Jewish identity during a critical period in their lives. Rather than limit campus Jewish life to Israel-centered work, large Jewish organizations who purport to speak for Jews on campus need to zero in on what Jewish students actually want: Jewish life as it is materially lived and experienced.
More pickles, less politics.
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