How They Choose to Be Jews

OK, we know some of the things that college students, especially college freshman, want. But put aside the clichés, the risqué jokes and careerism for a moment. It turns out that many Jewish undergrads also seek a connection both to Judaism and to Jewish peers.

How this translates into a Jewish future is a subject of much debate. But there’s also an opportunity here — both for the students and those who care about them.

In this higher education package, correspondent Sue Fishkoff examines the campus Jewish scene at UCLA and elsewhere. Jane Ulman looks at the Jewish seen, literally, through something called And Education Editor Julie Gruenbaum Fax details two new academic programs, including a major in Jewish studies, where some people might not expect it.

Campus Outreach 101

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon at the end of September, and more than 300 student groups have set up tables on the UCLA soccer field for what the university accurately calls the Enormous Activities Fair.

Thousands of students, most in their first year, are milling about, eyeing each other as often as they glance at the brochures spread out by various clubs vying for attention.

Over at the Jewish Students Union table, Arlene Miller, Hillel’s assistant director of programming, is standing in front of a large blue-and-white Israeli flag, handing out honey sticks for the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

“I’m not Jewish,” says an Asian American student, as she first takes and then awkwardly tries to give back one of the candies.

“That’s OK, have some honey to bring in the new year,” Miller tells her with a big smile, pressing the honey stick back into the young woman’s hand.

Turning to another group of students who are Jewish, Miller thrusts a signup sheet in front of the overexcited bunch and says, “We’re having a party in the dorms the Monday of Rosh Hashanah. Want tickets?”

Across the country, similar scenes played out at hundreds of colleges and universities early this fall, as students headed back to school. And there’s purpose behind the outreach.

There are about 250,000 Jewish undergraduates on U.S. college campuses, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Twenty-seven percent of them attend Hillel activities. Since Hillel’s umbrella includes nearly every on-campus Jewish student group, except Chabad and Jewish fraternities, that means close to two-thirds of Jewish college students are not part of Jewish life on campus.

That has Jewish professionals — and Jewish parents — worried. Largely to address those concerns, the Hillel staff in Washington embarked a year ago on a strategic planning effort to find out who these Jewish students are, what they want and how campus Jewish organizations can better serve them (See related story). Hillel, which provides services to students at more than 500 colleges and universities in North America, released those findings at the annual gathering of North American federations this week in Toronto.

One thing students want, it turns out, is to meet other Jewish students, and that holds true for students at the University of Texas at Austin; New York University; Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college near San Jose, and certainly UCLA, as well as other Southland schools such as USC and Cal State Northridge.

At UCLA, where more than 3,000 Jewish students make up close to 10 percent of the student body, one might think students don’t need a campus organization to meet their fellow Jews. But apparently they do.

On this day, at least, many students are eager to take advantage of a plethora of Jewish-related activities and organizations. With such a large Jewish student population at UCLA, there’s the luxury of dozens to choose from, each catering to a specific ethnic, religious or political interest. Such groups range from the Progressive Jewish Students Association to the Persian American Student Organization, which serves UCLA’s large Iranian population, about 25 percent of the Jews on campus.

Seventeen-year-old Vanessa Stark of Orange County is moving from table to table, picking up information first from the Progressive student group and then chatting with Rabbi Yonasan Quinn, one of the three rabbis at UCLA sponsored by the Jewish Awareness Movement, a Southern California-based organization for newly observant Jews.

“I want to get involved,” Stark says. “I’m not really religious, but it would be cool to get involved with Jewish people on campus.”

Stark says that although she’s given her name to two activist Jewish groups, she’s “interested in social events, not religious services.”

Freshman Mor Toledano from Sacramento says he chose UCLA partly because of its large Jewish student population. He’s interested in Hillel, because “they have a lot of meals on Friday, and it’s really social.”

His friends Justin Goldberg and Matt Ross agree.

“I want to meet Jews that have something in common with me,” Goldberg says.

Some students who were active in their high school Jewish groups say they want to continue in college. Amy Katznelson was social action vice chair of her Reform congregation’s youth group in Tarzana, and says she “definitely” wants to stay connected at UCLA.

She says she also plans to get in touch with the Muslim student group.

“I want to get people from the different religions together, because indifference and intolerance stem from misunderstanding, from not realizing what we have in common.”

Many of those who stopped by Hillel’s table came from intermarried families.

“I want to get more involved in Jewish culture,” says one such student, Danielle Cohen from Orange County. “My heritage is Jewish. My grandpa is a Holocaust survivor, and it would mean a lot to him if I learned more about it.”

UCLA’s Hillel president is Andy Green, who says he’s trying to make the organization more welcoming to non-Orthodox students. Like other schools with large, active Orthodox populations, Green says UCLA Hillel can be “intimidating” to a nonobservant student who walks in for the first time “and sees all those students in yarmulkes.” It’s natural that Orthodox students congregate at Hillel, he says, since “it provides a space for them to engage in the religious activities they already do, like prayer and study.”

To attract less Jewishly connected students, UCLA Hillel hosts barbecues and ice cream socials like other campus Hillels, but also brings Jewish life right to the students, throwing parties in freshman dorms and bringing in kosher food.

“It’s a great way to engage nonreligious students, because there’s no pressure, it’s just socializing with other Jews,” Green says.

Even those tactics don’t attract everyone. Jane Levich of Lafayette, Calif., was one Jewish student who walked right by the Hillel table. She says she goes to synagogue on the holidays, but isn’t interested in campus Jewish life.

“I’m not against connecting, but I don’t think I’d necessarily seek it out,” she says. “The Jewish community is kind of overbearing. You’re either committed or you’re kind of shunned.”

She says she would, however, go to lectures about Israel and the Middle East — but the social and religious aspects simply don’t appeal to her.

Jews In Texas

The University of Texas in Austin, with 37,000 undergraduates, is the campus of choice for young Jewish Texans. During welcome week in late August, Hillel Jewish Campus Services fellow Julie Unger, a recent college graduate hired by Hillel to reach out to students, has set up her information table in the lobby of the Towers dormitory.

Towers is known as “the Jewish dorm,” and Hillel activists say it’s more than 60 percent Jewish. Many incoming freshmen are already running into friends from their Houston or Dallas high schools in the Towers lobby.

“There are 4,000 Jewish students here, and 500 to 1,000 come to our events,” Unger says. “But there are 3,000 others who don’t come. They think Hillel is just for religious students. It has some kind of stigma. Those are the ones I’m trying to reach.”

Frances Shwarts is one of the first students to stop by Unger’s table. A Dallas native, she finished 12 years of Hebrew school at her Conservative synagogue; was active in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth; in BBYO, the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, and she went on a teen trip to Israel.

“They forced me all the way,” she laughs. Shwarts says she’ll “definitely” go to Hillel activities, because she likes Friday night services and “likes being surrounded by Jewish people. It’s really comfortable.”

Shwarts’ comments reflect what students on other campuses most say they want from Jewish organizations: Jewish friends and a place to go for holiday services when they can’t get home.

“I’m not terribly religious, but it’s a good place to connect with like-minded people,” says Houston native Jonathan Graber, who graduated from his Conservative synagogue’s Hebrew high school. “I have tons of Christian friends, but it’s nice to have that Jewish connection — it’s one less obstacle to overcome.”

Some freshmen like Graber and Shwarts want to join Jewish groups to continue the social life they knew in high school. Others who were active Jewishly in high school get burned out by the time they hit college, and don’t want anything to do with campus Jewish life, says junior Mimi Hall, an activist in Texans for Israel, a campus pro-Israel group.

Unger, the Hillel representative, says Austin is “a big party school,” unlike her alma mater, UC Berkeley. Whereas Israel activism is high on the Jewish agenda at Berkeley to counter the large pro-Palestinian presence there, Unger is focusing more on social programming at Austin — bagel brunches, barbecue get-togethers, ice cream socials.

At the group’s first such event, a welcome brunch, first-year student David Auslender is one of four dozen new and transfer students to attend.

“I thought it would be a good way to meet people,” he says, adding that he thinks the synagogue his family goes to in Poquoson, Va., is Reconstructionist. He goes to services with them occasionally, but says he isn’t particularly interested in services or in Israel while he’s in college.

A few freshmen at the brunch say they do want regular religious services. Roommates Adina Neustein and Carly Robalin of El Paso say they want to “do Shabbat” once a month in their dorm room.

“Judaism has always been very dear to my heart, and I want to maintain that here,” Robalin says.

Both young women come from affiliated families — Robalin’s parents are active in their Reform congregation, and Neustein says her family belongs to Reform and Conservative congregations and Chabad.

Chabad also does outreach during orientation week. Chabad outreach on U.S. college campuses has grown dramatically in recent years. More than 70 campuses across the nation currently have active Chabad houses, including UCLA, of course, where Chabad is a significant presence.

Jews at a Jesuit College

Santa Clara University is a far cry from UCLA, even though it’s just a six-hour drive north. Nestled in the hills outside San Jose, it’s a private Jesuit college. Most of the 4,700 undergraduates are Catholic; 163 are Jewish. There is no kosher food option, no Torah classes and no on-campus Shabbat services.

“The students who come here are not looking for a Jewish environment,” says Vanina Sandler, director of student life for Hillel of Silicon Valley, which runs Jewish activities at four area colleges, including Santa Clara, through each campus’ Jewish Student Union. On such campuses, Sandler says, some students prefer to blend in with their non-Jewish peers, while others seek out Jewish affiliation for the first time in their lives, precisely because they’re at an openly Christian campus.

Those students who stop by the Jewish Student Union table at Santa Clara are often quite tentative, even shy, about asking questions. Many of them aren’t even Jewish. Sandler says of 55 students who signed her contact list one particular day, only 12 were Jewish.

“The Jewish students don’t want to ‘come out’ on a Jesuit campus until they see their non-Jewish friends sign up,” she says, adding that the non-Jewish students “like to come to our Shabbatons,” but don’t tend to become active in the organization.

The co-president of the Jewish Student Union, Katie Wampler, says she chose Santa Clara because “it’s a good school,” and only developed her Jewish identity after arriving on campus, when she started going to the local Chabad house. Now possibly the only Shabbat-observant student at the school, Wampler says she met lots of Jewish freshmen the first week of classes.

“They didn’t come here with the intention of being Jewish,” she says. “They want to suppress that. But once they’re on campus, they’ll start to seek us out.”

“I didn’t think I’d be the only Jew, but I knew there’d be very few,” says Anne Butterfield of Oakland, who stopped by Wampler’s table to pick up some brochures.

Butterfield comes from an intermarried family, and says her family stopped attending their Reform synagogue when she was a child. She thinks “it would be fun to go bowling together, or other social activities,” and she also thinks “it would be great to have a place to celebrate the holidays” on campus.

Carolyn Healy, a hurricane transfer student from Tulane University in New Orleans, says she is looking for Shabbat services, as well as a Jewish community on campus. Pointing to the silver hamsa, the five-fingered Sephardic symbol she wears on a chain around her neck, she says, “I’ve been asked four times today what this necklace means, if I’m a Muslim or what.”

For all of these young people, the Jewish Student Union provides a social haven, a place where they don’t have to explain their holidays, food or jewelry. It’s also a place where they can learn more about who they are.

Cassandra Schwartz has stopped by the table to ask about Birthright Israel, the program that sponsors free trips to Israel. Wampler hands her a brochure, saying, “You’re part-Jewish, right?”

“Half,” Schwartz says. “But it’s not my mom, so it doesn’t count.”

“Of course it does,” chimes in Sandler.

Wampler and Sandler take turns telling Schwartz about Shabbat services, the Birthright program and Jewish holiday parties planned for later in the semester.

“What do we get Friday night?” Schwartz asks skeptically.

As Wampler rattles off the list — roast chicken, pizza, matzah ball soup — Schwartz breaks in, “Oooh, I love matzah ball soup. In December do we get latkes?”

As she walks away from the table, Schwartz shakes her head and says, “It’s so sad, I’m learning more about this here than I ever learned at home.”

Even in New York City

Across the country at New York University in Manhattan, many Jewish students feel that because they are in such an overtly Jewish city, they don’t need to affiliate in order to “do Jewish.”

“It’s tricky just getting them in the door,” says NYU senior Isaac Rothbart, president of Kesher, the Reform movement’s campus organization. Most Jewish first-year students at NYU who do get involved are looking for services, especially for the holidays, he says.

“Others are just looking for friends, and some want to learn about Judaism,” he adds.

Freshman Josh Welikson from Ridgewood, N.J., says he took part in Hillel’s scavenger hunt through Manhattan during the first week of school.

“It was awesome,” he reports, adding that he’s “looking for social connections.”

Dyanna Loeb was raised as a Reform Jew in Oakland, and seems excited about campus Jewish life.

Would she go to Jewish lectures? Depends on the topic, she says. How about Shabbat services or meals? She’s not sure: “I’m just here to find out more.”