In addition to more funding and more personnel to expand projects of the pluralistic kind that I’ve described, what we need now is a paradigm shift in our educational vision and our methods. We must ask ourselves: which behaviors, skills, and dispositions are we hoping to cultivate among young Jews, and how might they best be imparted?
I would urge a focus on six things. Starting with the instrumental and moving to the substantive, here is my list:
(1) Jewish social groups. From smoking and weight loss to voting patterns and beyond, a mounting body of research testifies to the profound effect of social networks on human behavior. It matters who your friends are. It changes how you act. Jewish college students are no different in this respect: the single greatest predictor of participation in Jewish campus life is the extent of one’s Jewish social group. A student with Jewish friends will be far likelier than one without such friends to come to a Shabbat dinner, attend a service, or travel to Israel. If the young adults with whom we work emerge impressed, informed, and inspired by our ideas but have no Jewish friends, that work may well have been in vain.
(2) Jewish mentors. In common with social networks, mentoring relationships play a critical role in shaping the moral imagination of young adults. Especially for Jewish students with only one Jewish parent, an older role model is invaluable in envisioning for oneself a future Jewish life.
(3) Encounters with other Jews. For many, college is the only venue in which they will have the time, the space, and the resources to interact with Jews of radically different backgrounds from their own. Facilitating such interactions is a prime means of cultivating a diverse, tolerant Jewish community for the next generation.
(4) Torah. The study of Torah is a sine qua non of Jewish life. For a generation of Jews blessed with the opportunity of higher education, Jewish textual illiteracy is inexcusable. All, whether religious, agnostic, secular, on none of the above, should be enabled to study Torah for its own sake. Better the sacred texts of the tradition should be known and evaluated than unknown and neglected.
(5) The Jewish calendar. Anchoring an individual in a unique way of life, the calendar tells the story of the Jewish people through collective ritual. Like the study of Torah, it also leaves room for diverse practice. One person may scrupulously follow each of the commandments of Sabbath observance, while another may choose to honor the day through kiddush and dinner. Both can share a table together.
(6) Jewish service. The consumer market, its temptations and its demands, penetrates every aspect of the lives of today’s young people. But consumerism, as a mentality and as an orientation to life itself, tolls the death-knell of any authentic spirituality. We may not agree among ourselves about Jewish law or Jewish theology; nor, within reason, is consumption itself a sin. But we should be able to agree that what the Jewish way ultimately asks of us is not to consume but to serve—be it God, the Jewish community, the Jewish people, or the Jewish state.
Of course, this sketch of an educational vision is only a beginning, and deserves elaboration. But I would hold that it can form the basis of a robust, pluralistic Judaism rooted in depth, rigor, and solidarity while remaining capacious enough to be embraced by Jews of any background, of any denomination or none, of any degree of prior knowledge or interest.
Rabbi Daniel Smokler, “Why Hillel Matters More Than Ever”, Mosaic Magazine (November 2014) [http://mosaicmagazine.com/response/2014/11/why-hillel-matters-more-than-ever/]