Friday, April 04, 2008

Hillel opens up to non-Jews

Without a doubt, the opening of Hillel to non-Jews is one of the saddest commentaries on Jewish life in America. Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life is responding to a social reality. Jewish college students are not sufficiently interested in "doing Jewish with other Jews" - a previous mission of Hillel under the leadership of Richard Joel.

According to Ben Harris' JTA article, "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."

What does all this mean? In a nutshell, it means that there are fewer young North American Jews who are comfortable to define themselves as Jews. They don't understand the power of Am Yisrael, of belonging to the most unique people in history. The trend is micro-reflected in the words of a young college student, a very close relative of mine. When asked to describe his religious views on his Faceboook profile, he posted, "I do not participate". Not surprisingly, despite growing up with two Jewish parents and a liberal Jewish education at least through Bar Mitzvah, he has a non-Jewish girlfriend and no feeling for being part of the Jewish people.

The ability to understand the relevance of Judaism is dying among college students. I don't blame Hillel. They are reflecting a trend rather than creating one. Reactive, not proactive. They are trying to stay alive in the face of diminishing influence on campus.

But oh! How it breaks my heart that so many Jews view not only Hillel, but their very Jewish identities, "with anything from disdain to indifference."

Just one more sign of the waning of Jewish life in America.


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