Helping grads on their Jewish journey
As a Hillel director for the last seven years, I have come to love this time of year. Graduation is the moment to celebrate not just academic learning, but the personal growth and discovery students experience during their university years. Sitting among the friends and family watching the ceremonies, I can sense the feeling of optimism for what the future holds.
As much as I share that excitement, I have a simultaneous feeling of anxiety and nervous energy — like a parent sending my children off into the world. For the last four years, when these students have needed a welcoming Shabbat dinner, a comfortable place to decompress or a supportive and compassionate ear, Hillel has been there to fill the need. All along the way, Hillel has worked with them, pushed, them, challenged them and supported them on their Jewish journeys.
From now on, they’ll be on their own. It will be their job to create their own Jewish expression. If they want Shabbat dinner, they’ll have to make it. If they want to meet Jewish peers, they’ll need to make the effort. If they want to find Jewish learning, it’s up to them. If they want Jewish community, they’ll need to find it — or build it.
But should it be that way? Shouldn’t the Jewish community make an active effort to welcome these young people, to embrace them, to connect them? So many Jewish opportunities exist for these graduates. But how to connect them? As a Hillel director, how can I hand off these graduates for the next stop of their Jewish journey? The organized Jewish world lacks such a mechanism. We need one.
Every fall, I struggle with the same problem at the beginning of the college experience. I am always surprised to meet great numbers of new students who have been involved in youth groups or Jewish camps during high school, but who seem unaware of what Hillel does. And it’s rare for a rabbi, school administrator or camp director to make contact in advance to alert me of students bound for our campus. (Many private universities do share names of incoming Jewish students with Hillels and campus Chabads, but most public institutions are less forthcoming.)
Throughout our lifetimes we move along a Jewish journey. We might begin with a preschool at our local synagogue and then participate in a youth group or attend a Jewish summer camp or attend a Jewish high school and then head off to college. The Jewish community invests countless resources in all these experiences, working to deepen Jewish identity. Where we fall short is in connecting them. How often do preschool directors actively communicate with day school principals, Jewish after-school programs, youth group directors and camp directors?
It is a rare occurrence when I get an e-mail from a Jewish high school, youth group or summer camp director notifying me of the students bound for my campus. For those that have been active in our Jewish communities, don’t we owe it to them to make the transition to living a Jewish life on college campuses easier? And after they graduate, Hillels and Chabads should have routine methods for connecting graduates with local boards of rabbis, JCCs, Moishe houses and Jewish federations. In order to best serve our youth, we need to move from working in silos and understand this simple idea: The more we communicate and share information, the more vibrant our community will become.
When we don’t, we create several problems. We invest so much money in Jewish teens and youth and then just hope for the best. It is a misuse of funds unless we do everything possible to ensure that Jewish youth make the transition to the next stop of their Jewish journey. Jewish campus life would be that much stronger if, every fall, campus Jewish professionals knew of Jewish student leaders who were starting college. On a merely practical level, knowing the different experiences of the variety of students attending campus in the fall would help Hillels plan accordingly and better serve students’ needs.
I know that I am far from alone in this feeling. Every year at Hillel national conferences, directors and program professionals speak about the greater impact we could have if we knew the Jewish students coming to our campuses. We could be proactive and reach out to them to welcome them to campus, to let them know we are here to ease the transition, and to continue their Jewish journeys.
Of course, these kinds of contacts happen in small and episodic ways, but what we lack is a central, strategic solution. At a minimum, Jewish summer camps, Jewish day schools, youth groups, Hebrew High schools, synagogues or any Jewish organization supporting Jewish youth should actively work to connect students with their local Hillel or Chabad. They rarely do.
Just recently, an educator at a local Jewish high school phoned to ask if I would come speak to his graduating seniors about Jewish life on campus. If only this weren’t an anomaly but rather part of my regular spring schedule. The work in May and June for all Hillel professionals should be meeting with Jewish students graduating high schools across the country.
Just imagine if every Jewish student in the country received a welcome letter from the Jewish community on his or her college campus. How much more meaningful and easy might the transition be? And imagine if communities reached out to every new university graduate headed their way. Then, attending future graduations, I could watch the graduates cross the stage, excited about their futures, and filled with confidence and assurance that the students whose lives I touched would continue their Jewish journeys and continue to enrich the Jewish world.