Hillel opens doors to non-Jews, campus at large

Hillel centers on university campuses were viewed not long ago as little more than the local Jewish hangout, a place where students could come for kosher meals or socialize with other Jews.

But in a move that Hillel leaders say has been forced upon them by this generation’s altered social landscape, the organization is throwing open its doors to everyone, designing programs that appeal to Jews and non-Jews and hyping its contribution to university — not only Jewish — life.

Examples of the shift are abundant.

Rabbi Joshua Feigelson, the self-described “campus rabbi” at Northwestern University, has designed a campus-wide program called “Ask Big Questions” that stresses the value of Jewish wisdom in addressing contemporary challenges. Other Hillel chapters are organizing interfaith programs, like Jewish-Muslim coexistence houses or trips to rebuild the Gulf Coast. And it’s becoming more common to find non-Jews serving on local Hillel boards or as regular attendees at Shabbat dinners.

The shift is even evident in Hillel’s changed mission statement. Prior to 2006, the organization sought to increase the number of Jews “doing Jewish with other Jews.” Now it seeks to “enrich” Jewish student life, the Jewish people and the world.

“Most of the students that we have are not interested in doing Jewish with other Jews,” Feigelson said. “They’re interested in doing Jewish with their friends who are doing Catholic and Puerto Rican and Turkish — their friends and their family. The challenge for us is how do you create expressions of Jewish life that students will deem to be authentic at the same time as they are not exclusive or tribal.”

Beginning under the leadership of Richard Joel, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life sought to expand its reach beyond the minority of students with strong Jewish identities who naturally gravitated to the local Hillel chapter.

But Hillel leaders say increasingly that to reach the majority who might view the organization with anything from disdain to indifference, it must actively counter the perception that its chapters are “Jews-only” venues.

As it attempts to do so, Hillel finds itself negotiating a tricky line between Jewish particularism and universality, between the twin imperatives of creating uniquely Jewish programming and protecting the fluidity of personal identities that today’s college students see as their birthright.

“We’re in a world that has no boundaries — no boundaries and infinite choices, literally,” said Beth Cousens, Hillel’s director of organizational learning and the author of a 2007 monograph, “Hillel’s Journey: Distinctively Jewish, Universally Human,” which lays out guiding principles for Hillel in the coming years.

“It is just dumb, it’s counterproductive for us to create boundaries,” Cousens said. “The way to make Jewish life vibrant, and help people fall in love with Judaism and discover who they are Jewishly, is not to be afraid.”

Much discussion at Hillel’s recent summit in Washington, D.C., focused on the peculiarities of so-called millennials, the generation born after 1980, and their unique set of cultural dispositions: globally minded, skeptical of institutional authority and unwilling to have their identities narrowly defined.

At the summit’s opening plenary, Robert Putnam, the Harvard University professor who authored “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” described how he could name the religion of every person in his high school class because faith defined the limits of his generation’s dating pool. High-schoolers today, he contended, couldn’t perform a similar feat.

“It’s not that people have stopped being religious, it’s just not that big a deal anymore,” Putnam said. “That line has been somewhat deconstructed.”

For those who worry about the threat of intermarriage to Jewish continuity, the rise of the millennial generation, and Hillel’s response to it, is likely to keep them up at night.

Hillel responds that it simply has no choice, that if an intermarried couple doesn’t meet at Hillel, they will meet at a party or in the classroom where the organization will have no influence on them.

“Hillel is acknowledging that we don’t live in a Jewish bubble,” Cousens said. “If we don’t do this, we’ll be irrelevant.”

Putnam has written extensively on the decline of community in America, and he urged the 675 summit participants — most of them Hillel professionals — to look for ways to create social connections that stretch across the boundaries of race or ethnicity.

In interviews on the sidelines of the summit, evidence emerged to suggest that process is already well under way.

At Syracuse University, the election of a non-Jewish student to the Hillel board occasioned some opposition. But while a meeting must sometimes pause to explain a particular Jewish phrase or practice, student leaders mostly say the addition has been positive.

“I think it’s been a mutually beneficial experience for not only him and the board, but for also the community at large to see that we’ve reached beyond the Jewish student, that we’ve reached beyond what Hillel’s stereotype is, and to bring in other types of people, and to really let ourselves realize that Hillel isn’t just for one type of person,” sophomore Jillian Zarem said. “It’s for as many different people as we can reach out to.”

At the Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, a Korean student who regularly attended Shabbat dinners at Hillel managed to recruit his Jewish roommate who previously wouldn’t set foot inside the building.

“How did he do it?” asked Aaron Weil, the executive director of the Pitt center. “He said, ‘John, I’m a Baptist. I’m Korean. I’m going to Hillel. Don’t you think it’s a little bit odd that I’m willing to go to Hillel and you’re not?’ He didn’t have a comeback for that, and he came in and saw the open community.”

“The benefit to us,” Weil continued, “is by making ourself a place that is open to all, Jews are going to feel more comfortable to go there because they’re not going to a place that is Jewish only. Jews are looking today, in general, for opportunities to be Jewish but not to be separate.”

Don’t build walls to keep out non-Jews

A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Americans are switching religions more than ever. As many as one of every two adults does not practice the religion in which they were born or raised.

Evangelical and nondenominational Protestantism are the winners. Catholicism and mainline Protestants are the losers. As an aging religious group, it is time for Jews to take heed of the changes affecting religion in America because they are Americans, too, and no major trend passes them by.

Pew refers to the “marketplace” of religions in the United States, and that is exactly right. People shop around for the religious theologies, practices and communities that suit them. Some may try on a number of faiths until they find the one that fits.

This is one of the great benefits of the nonestablishment clause of the First Amendment, freedom from the government sanctioning any particular religion and allowing many faiths to thrive. The result has been a healthy competition, a country relatively free from the religious strife that plagues so many societies.

At a time when other religious groups are seeking adherents and promoting their religious faiths, Jewish organizations and institutions generally are so afraid of decline and loss that they turn inwards. The result, is that these very insular approaches end up ensuring that decline and loss occur.

The reason is that Jews, like other Americans, crave free choice. We are more likely to retain more people because they feel they want to be Jews, not because they have to be.

The Jewish communal response to this expression of religious freedom is locked somewhere in another time or place — Europe and North Africa in the 1700s, for example. We keep having the same tired discussions about “preventing intermarriage” or “strengthening Jewish identity” or saving the Jews from assimilation with the right kind of, or enough, Jewish education.

Again and again we respond with rhetoric, ideas and programs that circle round and round in the same orbit — how do we keep Jews in? Hundreds of years of discrimination, violence and murder take a huge toll. They create a psychology of fear that results in Jewish isolation, a construct of us and them, insiders and outsiders, Jews and enemies. And with unabashed and straight-faced boldness, as if no one else is listening, we ask how do we keep strangers — meaning all non-Jews — out of our families, out of our synagogues. Out.

We don’t want to be part of the marketplace of religious ideas and practices, thank you, we just want to be left alone to marry each other and keep everybody inside, safe and secure.

This, of course, is an illusion.

Still, we fantasize that if we inoculate our young people with enough Jewish education, then they will reject the 98 percent of other Americans they might fall in love with or not be attracted to Zen Buddhism. What nonsense. We all have seen the numbers to prove that the head in the sand, return to the ghetto and hope the non-Jew will go away strategy is not going to work. No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition.

It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in. Right now it is largely a one-way street because we cling to dangerously obsolete ideas, attitudes and practices about conversion. We do not welcome people with open arms but rather we stiff-arm. We still question people’s sincerity — do they really want to be Jewish?

Yes, of course we need standards and procedures — and to say that making Judaism more accessible means abandoning rules of admission is a straw argument to cover up how suspicious, off-putting and unfriendly we often are to those who want to be part of the Jewish people.

Openness and excitement do not mean that learning and ritual requirements to become a Jew should be abandoned. Just the opposite is the case. Spiritual seekers are looking for meaning, content and purpose. Becoming a Jew can be a deeply intellectual and emotional experience, and spiritual seekers are willing to engage in rigorous education about Jewish life, rituals of conversion and rites of passage to become a Jew.

Some rabbis do a great job in dealing with potential converts; many do not. Our synagogues often are less welcoming than we think. And our newspapers, sermons and sociological literature are filled with hysterical reprimands and dire predictions about the demise of the Jews that result from gentiles breaking through our traditional walls.

We have a theology that has no intermediary between the individual and God. That is appealing. We have a set of daily, monthly and yearly rituals that provide guidance and purpose. That is appealing. We have rich liturgy, beautiful prayers, deep roots in Israel, a strong communal system. All appealing. By being attractive to others, we will also be more attractive to born Jews. What are we afraid of?

We are checkmated by our own notion of ourselves that Jews don’t do that — we don’t compete for newcomers. Maybe Jews in 18th century Poland did not — and with good reason. It brought the wrath of the church and the state on them.

But this is 21st century America, not 18th century Poland or 20th century Germany. Pew tells us that Americans are switching religions like never before. Do we want to enter the competition armed with our wonderful 3,000-year-old history, or kvetch about assimilation, intermarriage and our dwindling numbers?

Those who choose to join the Jewish people will enrich us with their ideas, energy and passion. And born Jews who choose to embrace their Judaism in an open marketplace also will enrich Jewish life. It is time to embrace the America in which we live. We must abandon the paradigm that our children and grandchildren are potential gentiles and promote the new belief that America is filled with potential Jews.

Gary Tobin is the president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco and writes frequently about American and Jewish philanthropy.

Deep Spiritual Rift Grows in Prague

He fought a desperate battle against communism, crafted award-winning plays and books and functioned as an intellectual and spiritual compass for Prague’s Jewish community for more than a decade.

But in late June, something extraordinary happened: Karol Sidon was forced out as the community’s chief rabbi.

Leaders from Jewish Community of Prague, the governing body that dismissed him, said that the Orthodox rabbi could no longer perform his duties. Although Sidon will keep his post as the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, three other rabbis will share local religious and leadership duties. But while Sidon’s dismissal from his important leadership role — just weeks before the community celebrates the High Holidays — shocked local Jews, it also exposed a profound ideological rift between the country’s aging Orthodox community and a tidal wave of younger, liberal worshippers.

“We are an old community with a death rate of about 80 people per year,” said Tomas Jelaapluralistic community.nek, leader of Prague’s Jewish community. “To attract the hundreds of Czech Jews who are not affiliated, we have to build a pluralistic community. We need a different approach. No one group should have a monopoly.”

Such is the debate among Prague’s Jews, a community of about 1,600 averaging 58 years of age. As many 10,000 Czech Jews live in the country today, but secularism has taken its toll, and to the members of Prague’s leadership, a large segment of the country’s Jews remain frustratingly unaffiliated. Some think the community will dwindle even further if a new approach is not taken.

While Reform and Conservative Jewish groups attract new members at a swift pace, membership in Prague grows at a crawl. Many wonder if the community can survive without members of different sects. Some even see signs that it will soon be forced to include members without Jewish mothers or Jewish grandparents.

Deep Secularism

In the eyes of halacha, Martin Smok is definitely a Jew.

Born to a Czech Jewish mother who unveiled her heritage after the fall of communism, Smok knows his way around a Prague synagogue, can navigate the nuances of Hebrew prayer and song and is familiar with the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat. But despite his comfort with the religious rituals — developed after his mother revealed her secret — Smok remains uneasy with the spiritual side of Judaism.

“If I was in this country and I was trying to live a religious life, I would feel like I was putting up a theater show,” Smok said. “It’s really about the religion not being a part of me in my formative years. I feel that I would be faking it — it’s not who I really am.”

Such is the outlook of many Jews in what is now the Czech Republic, home to the same Jewish community that included Franz Kafka, Rabbi Loew and the legend of the Golem. If the attitude of today’s Czech Jews could be captured in one phrase, it would be this: Jewish in heart, secular in spirit.

“I think the rule here, especially in Prague, is that the Jewish tradition has always been to not have any Jewish tradition,” Smok said. “What I have observed is Czech Jews not interested in being Jewish, and non-Jews extremely interested in being Jewish.”

After Hitler murdered 85 percent of the country’s Jewish population, the surviving community of Czech Jews found themselves driven toward secularism once the communists took over and institutionalized religious persecution. Many Jews simply surrendered their religious heritage to intermarriage and assimilation.

But when the last of the Soviet tanks finally rolled out of the Czech Republic in the late 1980s and democracy took a foothold for the first time in decades, many Czechs surprised their families by revealing a Jewish heritage.

“My mother, like many, ‘came out’ after communism fell,” Smok said. “But she worshipped in her own way, which sort of combined Christian and Jewish symbols.”

Such a patchwork of religious practices is typical, if there is even a religious element at all: for many Czech Jews, the decades of religious oppression stripped their Judaism of its spirituality, leaving them with cultural roots but no desire to actually worship. With so many Czech Jews declining to embrace their religious legacy, the community has begun exploring ways to expand its membership beyond the traditional definitions of what it means to be a Jew.

A recent post-communist influx of non-Orthodox organizations like the Reform group Bejt Simcha and Conservative group Bejt Praha, have encouraged many Czech Jews to challenge the notion that one must have a Jewish mother to be fully accepted as Jewish. These younger organizations court halacha Jews, but also younger, liberal Jews who might have a Jewish grandparent or might have no Jewish ancestors at all.

“A lot of this is happening because there is so much intermarriage, that even people with a Jewish background do not have a Jewish mother,” said Rabbi Arnold Turetsky, one of the co-founders of Bejt Praha. “There is a lot of desire to convert.”

An Uncertain Future

If you were to take a lunchtime stroll into the building that houses the Jewish community’s leadership in Josefov, you would most likely find a large, cavernous lunchroom filled with a few small clusters of members talking quietly. Despite the large space and many tables filling the building’s cafeteria, most of the chairs sit empty. To Barash, this practically empty room is an obvious symbol of the failure by the community to capture the hearts of Czech halacha Jews.

“The community for the last eight years has had a membership between 1,500 and 1,600,” said Chabad Rabbi Manis Barash, who recently replaced Sidon as the official rabbi for the Old-New Synagogue. “There has never been a real campaign to try and get new members into the community. People who do come here come on their own accord, almost as if it is discouraged to do so. The only benefit to join right now is a subsidized lunch, and even then there are only about 10 regular members who take advantage of this. There is a feeling toward those who want to join the community that, ‘We don’t want you to be a part of our community — this is my community, not yours.'”

But Barash still maintains that halachic Jews are the key to the group’s survival.

“We have a real opportunity to make this community grow,” Barash said. “I’m not talking about non-Jews. There are enough [halachic] Jews here, but surely the community can do better than it has done. Anything would be better.”

Many blame the community’s membership woes on the application process itself, saying that becoming an official member of the Jewish community is far too complicated and intimidating, even for Czech Jews born to a Jewish mother.

“The community has the potential to be one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe,” Barash said. “But it is easier to become a Czech citizen then to join the community. You have to provide proof of a Jewish mother, and it is a complicated process. As Jews, we have to have the [physical] security to protect ourselves. But we should be welcoming in other ways — especially to those who seek us out to join.”

There are some promising signs that the community is opening itself up to non-Jews.

Jelaanek says he has been working since September 2001 to expand the official community beyond membership, and points to a recent development in which the community began to offer affiliate membership to those with a Jewish grandparent. But to the liberal groups on the outside who receive neither funding nor support from the community itself, the move simply isn’t enough. They say that the leadership should represent the typical Prague Jew.

“Why should we be in secular Prague with an Orthodox rabbi?” said Sylvie Wittmann, leader and founder of Bejt Simcha, a Reform Jewish congregation based in Prague made up of more than 145 Czech Reform Jews. “Everyone is interested in their roots, but we are a secular community. The roots of Czech Jews are not Orthodox.”

Western Influence

Today’s Czech Jews face a question they never had to confront until the early 1990s: explaining which type of Jew they are. Before the Velvet Revolution forced the communists from power in 1989, Jews were simply Jewish. But, with the Iron Curtain drawn back, several Western groups moved in and put down roots in the Czech Republic during the tumultuous and exhilarating years of the early 1990s, Smok said, inadvertently fracturing the community.

“The activists moved in after the fall of communism and began using these labels,” Smok said. “Now, if you are labeled as a Reform Jew, it’s often used as an excuse not to learn certain things. Many of the liberal Jews show up to the synagogues, happy to embrace the Jewish faith. But in the end, they sometimes don’t even know how to pray.”

If you strip away the confusion brought on by Western-style labels, however, some say that the community’s fractious discord is less an issue of theology and more an issue of authority over the restored Jewish monuments and memorabilia that remain in Prague. After the Nazis and communists stripped Czech Jews of nearly all of their prized property — from synagogues to artwork — the community spent the years since the fall of communism attempting to regroup and reclaim it, said Tomas Kraus, leader of the nation’s Federation of Jewish Communities. This important responsibility continues today, but the various groups disagree over who exactly would do the best job handling it.

“This is how we started in the 1990s,” said Kraus, of the small group of Jews who banded together after communism to rebuild the community. “No social network, no organization. We had to start from scratch. Of the properties taken during the Holocaust, 90 percent were not returned. We had to fight for them and are still fighting for them.”

While different factions argue over the future of these historical and religious sites, Reform groups like Bejt Simcha feel completely left out of the decision-making process.

But here is increasingly distant hope among community leadership that Czech Jews would ever fill these synagogues, however, even if the synagogues stayed places of worship. With diminished birthrates across the country, some Czech Jews feel that the millions of dollars earned by tourist visits to Prague each year should be used to recruit members into the community. But whether that recruitment focuses on Reform, Conservative or Orthodox members still remains to be seen.

“Right now, we have a complicated system where not everyone is equal,” Jelaanek said. “But if change is going to be made, it has to be made soon. If we don’t get to people now, we will die out.”

Jennifer Anne Perez is a former Los Angeles Times reporter now working as an international freelance journalist based in Prague. Andrew Steven Harris is a former Los Angeles Times editor who now teaches journalism at the State University of New York’s international campus in Prague.

Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families

According to the released portions of the 2000-2001 National
Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), 1.5 million non-Jews live with Jews. Who are they? How do they relate to the Jewish community? How
should the community respond to them?

Against the backdrop of a Jewish population that the NJPS
describes as declining and graying, the decisions that interfaith couples make
about the religious identity of their children are critical to the future
vitality of the community. I believe that every attitude, every practice, every
policy should be evaluated primarily by this standard: Will it increase the
likelihood that the children of interfaith families will be raised as Jews?

About 30 percent of interfaith families are sadly lost to
the Jewish community, choosing not to be involved in Jewish life and instead to
raise their children exclusively in a different faith. But the majority of
interfaith families — up to 30 percent who are engaged in Jewish life and say
they are raising their children exclusively as Jews, and the roughly 40 percent
who say they are doing “both” or “neither” — offer fertile ground in which to
grow the American Jewish community.

If we want interfaith families to raise their children as
Jews, we need to welcome them. As Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Cummings Foundation
has said, people can tell when their welcome is genuine. When people who are
intermarried hear Jews talk about intermarriage as a negative — “bad for the
Jewish people,” “communal suicide” and the like — they are made to feel worse
than unwanted. The result is that fewer children are raised as Jews.

If we want interfaith families to come into our community,
we shouldn’t stand at the door saying, “You can’t come in unless you convert.”
Conversion is a wonderful personal choice that should be encouraged, but
promoting it too aggressively and too early pushes away people who might
otherwise come in, resulting in fewer children raised as Jews. The less
aggressively we promote conversion, the more likely that people who are
intermarried will choose it.

Non-Jewish parents who raise their children as Jews should
be more than just welcomed, they should be the object of profound gratitude
from the Jewish community. Instead of barring a non-Jewish parent from the bima
at his or her child’s bar or bat mitzvah, we should be honoring that parent for
the contribution to Jewish continuity.

As the intermarriage debate reopens, I am deeply concerned
about arguments that question the quality of the Jewish life of interfaith
families. After all, we don’t make in-married Jewish families pass an
observance test before we include them without reservation in our community.

A child of intermarried parents who exclusively attends a
synagogue school and becomes bar or bat mitzvahed should be presumed by all to
have an unambiguous Jewish identity. We should do everything we can to get more
interfaith families to raise their children like that.

Telling intermarried parents that even if they raise their
children Jewishly, their children won’t really be Jews — they will be “Jewish
and something else” — will discourage them from even trying. The result will be
fewer children raised as Jews.

Yes, the nature of Jewish life in interfaith families
involves intimate exposure to other religious and cultural expression.
Thousands of children raised as Jews have Christian relatives and participate
in their holiday celebrations.

This may not “compute” as Jewish life when viewed from the
perspective of a traditionally observant Jew, but it doesn’t make a child
raised as a Jew “something else.” Jewish leaders who think otherwise are out of
touch with the thousands of interfaith families raising their children as Jews,
while honoring their non-Jewish relatives.

In the words of Barry Shrage, president of the Combined
Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, we need to make Jewish life so vibrant, so
magnetic, so attractive that people will want to get involved. Continuity programs
aimed at doing so should be strengthened and expanded.

We can simultaneously invite interfaith families to
participate in those programs, as well as provide programs specially aimed at
welcoming interfaith families themselves. Every evaluation of intermarried-outreach
programs shows that the Jewish involvement of participants increases, whether
measured by self-assessed degree of involvement, decisions to join synagogues,
decisions to raise children as Jews or decisions to convert. But outside of Boston,
San Francisco, Metrowest New Jersey and a few other areas, there is almost no
federation support for outreach programs.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) has not included
outreach to the intermarried in the program for the pre-General Assembly “Hadesh”
conference, at which participants learn about successful continuity programs in
various communities. We need not only to provide programs but to publicize
their existence — and the message that the Jewish community welcomes the
involvement of interfaith families.

When the UJC announces the NJPS’ intermarriage rate at the
General Assembly in a few weeks, the American Jewish community will once again
be confronted with the reality of intermarriage — regardless of whether the
rate is somewhat higher or lower than the 1990 survey’s published figure of 52
percent. It is our choice whether to engage in old, negative, counterproductive
and self-defeating strategies or to seize an opportunity to expand and enrich
our community by doing what is necessary to increase the numbers of interfaith
families who raise their children as Jews.

This article originally appeared in The Forward. Â

Edmund Case is president of the InterfaithFamily.com and co-editor of “The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life” (Jewish Lights, 2001).