Hillel Readies Plan of Attraction

The Jewish college student of today is likely to be more interested in discussing religion than in practicing it. Therein lies a challenge and an opportunity, and Hillel, the college Jewish organization, says it’s ready to respond.

It was in the summer of 2004 that Hillel began work on a five-year plan to attract the two-thirds of Jewish college students who say they don’t go to Hillel activities. That troubling statistic has been one of the most talked-about findings from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS).

To find out more about the mindset of today’s Jewish college students, researchers culled current literature on “the millenials,” people born since 1982. They looked at studies, including the NJPS, Linda Saxe’s 2002 “Jewish Freshmen” study and the recently released “I-Pod Generation.” They also consulted executives from Jewish federations, Hillel staff and lay leaders; ran focus groups on six campuses, and analyzed responses from 603 Jewish undergraduates who answered a random survey.

Hillel President Avraham Infeld discussed the group’s findings at the General Assembly of Jewish organizations this week in Toronto, and Hille’s strategic pla will be released in 2006.

Millenials, both Jewish and non-Jewish, “tend to be very focused on accomplishments,” said Julian Sandler, chair of Hillel’s strategic planning committee. “They’re very capable, they have high regard for the values of their parents, they’re hypercommunicative and they tend to shun denominational labels.”

On religious attitudes, they have a more individualized worldview, a lack of interest in traditional institutions and an interest in diversity. Which translates to that preference for discussing religion than practicing it.

Above all, they are constantly multitasking. As one expert put it to Sandler, “They may have multiple windows open simultaneously to their identity, and being Jewish is just one of those windows.”

The Hillel team also concluded that Jewish students in the survey “were more likely to self-identify as Jewish by ethnicity, rather than by religion,” said Graham Hoffman, Hillel’s director of strategic resource management.

At the same time, students say they feel proud of their Jewish identification and are willing to publicly identify as Jews by displaying Jewish objects in their rooms, such as menorahs, mezuzahs and Israeli posters, and by wearing Jewish items, such as chai necklaces, Stars of David and T-shirts with Jewish slogans. (Wearing a kippah was not included in the survey’s list of Jewish items.)

Perhaps the most interesting data to emerge from the study, Sandler and Hoffman said, is what students described as the top barriers to their involvement with Jewish life on campus. Hoffman noted that an overwhelming number of Jewish students said they want Hillel to be “more welcoming,” a finding that validates increased efforts to be inviting, while also hinting at a need for further tweaking.

“Hillel has always been home to a certain group on campus, those who come with strong Jewish identification and strong Jewish values,” Sandler said. “We need to find those who are proud of their Jewishness, curious about their Jewishness, but not sure how to translate that into making their Jewishness an integral part of their lifestyle.”

One strategy has been to offer non-Jewish-specific activities or Jewish activities that also are open to non-Jews. Hillel at the University of Washington co-sponsored an outdoor showing of the film, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” during this fall’s welcome week.

And then there’s “hookah in the sukkah,” a program where Hillel builds a sukkah in the middle of a campus and invites all students, not just Jews, to join them for a meal.