Importance of emotional Jewish life on campus pushed at Hillel conference


WASHINGTON — Amid worries about fraying religious ties among Jewish college students and campus rifts over Israel, a conference held here this week probed the interplay between American academia and Jews.

“Inspiring Values, Creating Leaders: The Summit on the University and the Jewish Community,” hosted by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, drew more than 600 university leaders, professors, students and Jewish professionals to dissect such issues.

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If Jewish life on American campuses is facing troubles, they stem from causes deeper than academia, many participants suggested.

Rabbi Jeff Brown of Temple Solel in the San Diego suburb of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif., does outreach to college-age children of congregants.

“It’s a question of them consciously or subconsciously exploring whether Judaism is relevant to them,” said, Brown, 27, when asked to name the central problem for Jews of college age. “Does having a connection to our 5,000-year-old heritage matter to them at all?”

The director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, Leonard Saxe, who studies Jewish college students, suggested a strategy to re-engage these youth: “kishkes, kortex and kinesthetics,” deliberately tweaking the spelling of cortex.

That means offering experiences rich in emotional and sensory elements, intellectual heft and leadership opportunities, Saxe said in an interview.

“Jewish education hasn’t touched all the senses,” said Saxe, a panelist at “A New Generation’s Culture and Its Impact upon the Jewish Future,” the final session of the conference. “There are things which have Jewish intellectual content, but they’re not emotionally engaging.”

“You can be taught about Shabbat, but unless you live a day separate from the rest of the week, you don’t understand and appreciate it.”

Yet many speakers at this week’s gathering described the Jewish scene at American universities in upbeat terms.

Summing up the conference theme at the opening plenary, the outgoing president of Hillel, Avraham Infeld, said it is possible to be “universally human” and “distinctively Jewish” in academia.

Pointing to a honorary doctorate he received that morning from Lutheran Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., he said, “At Muhlenberg and around the world, we have not only been able to strike a detente between these two worlds, but we have been able to achieve” friendship.

Jewish students can find kosher food, take Jewish studies classes and attend religious services at most of the nation’s best universities, Infeld said.

He and fellow panelist Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College, said that academia encourages both diversity and freedom of speech.

While Jewish students should enjoy the same freedom of expression that everyone else has, “Hillel and the academic world should not promise our students a comfortable and quiet intellectual environment,” Infeld said, arguing that such calm would not serve their education.

Cohen contended that college campuses do not pull young people away from Judaism. In fact, he said, those with more advanced degrees are more engaged in Jewish life and more likely to marry other Jews.

Also at the conference, Hillel pledged to double its numbers over the next five years. In its five-year strategic plan released this week, the largest campus Jewish organization in the United States pledged to double the number of students involved in Jewish life, double its annual campaign, double its funding to local Hillels, and launch an aggressive recruitment and retention program for campus professionals.

To help fund the effort, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center will increase its endowment from $10 million to $100 million. Hillel also pledged to strengthen its relationship with university administrations, Jewish Studies departments and Jewish communities near campuses where it works.

On Monday, the literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, zoomed in on Israel as he addressed the thorny question of “How to Defend (And Not to Defend) the Jews.”

Calling for “intellectual honesty” by campus backers of the Jewish state, he urged a return to “first principles” about Israel’s reason for being.

“Zionism is simply what used to be called, in the good old days, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Full stop,” said Wieseltier, who also affirmed the right of Jews to differ with Israeli government policies.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz weighed in on “Balancing Individual Rights and Communal Responsibilities” via video remarks for a plenary panel Monday.

While defending free speech, Dershowitz called for “ism equity” and the “circle of civility” in campus debates.

“You can’t have one rule for men, one rule for women, one rule for blacks, one rule for whites, one rule for Jews, one rule for Muslims,” he said.

“The rules have to be identical, symmetrical. I’m afraid that’s not going on, on many campuses today. I think we’re seeing a double standard.”

Meanwhile, the president of San Francisco State University, Robert Corrigan called for campus administrators publicly to counter hate speech on campus.

“Presidents have a significant responsibility to ensure there is a culture of tolerance and support on their campus,” said Corrigan, citing a letter he distributed outside a campus talk by Nation of Islam figure Khalid Mohammed, who has drawn heat for statements widely viewed as anti-Semitic.

Hillel’s president-elect, Wayne Firestone, praised such proactive moves by university leaders and suggested that they need to “create safe space for difficult discussions” on campus.

Sunday evening’s discussion on “Spirituality, Religion and the University” drew a panel of three university presidents, including Mark Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System, who decried a “systematic demeaning of the role of religion in public life” by scholars at secular universities.

Yet university presidents “have to be willing to be role models and willing to inspire students,” said the president of Yeshiva University, Richard Joel, who served 14 years as Hillel International president, citing the involvement of his university in the Save Darfur Coalition aimed at solving the refugee crisis created in the African region when government-sponsored militias killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Drawing applause, Georgetown University president John DeGioia noted his public stand during February’s Palestine Solidarity Movement gathering there. He said he spoke out for free expression on campus, but also told the university community that Georgetown opposed divestment from Israel.

“I can’t remember an issue that required more care and attention from the university” and its staff, he recalled, citing his meetings around the country to prepare for it.

On the other hand, DeGioia said last month’s International Prayer for Peace conference hosted by Georgetown showed students how a multitude of religious traditions can come together. He recalled the closing ceremony’s “breathtaking sight” of priests, rabbis, imams and others joining arms and walking from their respective houses of worship onto campus.

In that vein, Rosa Kramer, 27, a Brandeis University student working toward master’s degrees in business administration and Jewish communal leadership, highlighted views about Israel on her campus, which recently canceled an art show of Palestinian works curated by an Israeli student.

“Israel can pose a problem among Jews because even among passionate Israel supporters, we have vastly differing views,” said Kramer, adding, “Rallying around a common goal can be a source of tension when everyone’s rallying from a different perspective.”

(Eric Fingerhut and Debra Rubin of the Washington Jewish Week contributed to this report.)