When I arrived on campus as a freshman in 2008, I was an ice hockey addict, a classical cellist enthusiast, and everything Jewish. I remember the opening student life fair—it was on a picturesque sunny afternoon, situated adjacent to the gigantic university library. Among the organizations that grabbed my attention was Hillel, the self-proclaimed “center for Jewish life on campus.” I filled out the info card, carefully selecting which Jewish movement I most affiliated with (Conservative), and tried to locate my student ID card so I could get on the email listserv. The blue sheet, stamped with a miniature Israeli flag, boasted that Friday night Shabbat meals were free, the Student Alliance for Israel was alive and well, and registration for High Holiday services was open. At last I had provided solace to my anxious brain waves—I had joined at least one club. Yet, looking back, I can see how a nonaffiliated Jewish student, who had never interacted with any rabbi, Shabbat service, or shul, would see this interaction as a lackluster attempt at engagement.
Just because Judaism stems from ancient roots doesn’t mean that its major campus affiliate has to be archaic in its marketing approach. Instead of listing service times for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what the info card really needed was a listing for Bagels, Lox, and Shmear with Your Favorite Jewish Queer (an event where students can hear firsthand LGBTQ Jewish coming out stories). Rather than highlighting the Student Alliance for Israel’s weekly meetings, there should have been a promotion for Israeli music and an open mic night. And certainly, the captain of the men’s Hillel basketball or coed intramural softball team would have aided in attracting unaffiliated students’ attention.
Hillels across the country are trying desperately to catch up to the needs of 21st-century students with innovative events and catchy program titles. But they still lag behind on a macro level by trying to force students into a preconceived Jewish mold.
As BU Hillel’s 25-year-old director of student life, I can assure you the Hillel flyer I was handed was quite similar, if not identical, to that given out at peer institutions nationwide. In a more positive light, I know for a fact that my colleagues are headed in the right direction: scrap the model and completely rethink the approach to student engagement. We are dealing with dual- and triple-identity Jewish students with a plethora of backgrounds and interests. No longer can we pull from a traditional spectrum of Judaism; instead, we must be fresh, innovative, and relevant.
Hillel professionals must go outside of their walls, literally and figuratively, to form new relationships with a diverse population of students. Flyers and Facebook are only so effective. It is human interaction that will stimulate interest, intrigue, and involvement from the unaffiliated. When the lesbian Jew with one Jewish parent and African-American racial roots who is a prolific poet and enjoys spiritual meditation becomes the next Hillel student president, we can feel satisfied. The stakes have never been higher, as the future of the Jewish movement depends on the ability of Hillel professionals to reach beyond their purview.
Who are these students and what identities are they bringing to campus in 2015? Race, sexuality and gender, marital status, education, and financial capacity are all familial factors that largely define who students are on arrival. Adding to the complexity, student interests are more diverse than ever in our truly global world. Barriers need to be shattered, not broken, and preconceived notions eradicated. Start with a bottom-up approach and be open to untraditional methods for creating faith-based life at institutions of higher education.
This is why Jewish campus professionals and organizations should take to the proverbial streets and listen to the students they hope to serve. A coffee date may be the most valuable asset in forming reciprocal, open relationships with unaffiliated students. It takes effort and creative thinking, but Hillel must rise to the challenge. Only when campus professionals embrace innovation, exploration, and uncertainty will campus Jewry be vivacious in all respects.
Ethan Sobel (COM’13) is the director of student life at Boston University Hillel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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