A 25 year-old man, sporting a blue velvet kippah and tzitzit, approaches me asking:
“Are you Rabbi Sykes?”
“Well, maybe you can help me. I want to come and do a presentation at the Center.”
“What kind of presentation are you interested in making,” I ask.
“I grew up in Conservative synagogue and went to a Jewish day school. In all those years, I was taught that science and the Torah disagree in so many places. But I recently learned that this is not the case.”
“Really? So true! Tell me more.”
“Rabbi, did you know that the Torah knows all about science? The Torah predicts the dinosaurs, the real age of the world and even evolution. It is all right there in the Torah. I want to teach your students about this.”
“Thank you Chaim (a pseudonym). Tell me, where did you learn all of this.”
“Well Rabbi, I learned it on an incredible program called…”
“Aha!” I thought to myself. It all makes sense now. Chaim’s passion and enthusiasm are based on a foundation of learning. Because he loves Judaism and being Jewish, and because he is excited about these new revelations, he wants to share them. That he is learning is great. It is the way in which the faculty of these trips presents their version of Judaism as “scientific fact” that concerns me.
During winter break, college students from North America arrive in Israel on a variety of programs. While the overwhelming majority joins Taglit Birthright Israel, there are many who, enticed by enormous subsidies, excellent marketing materials, or a pursuit of deeper connections to and answers from Judaism about serious existential questions, choose to come on trips sponsored by kiruv-oriented organizations.
Visit the websites of these programs and you see attractive, non-Orthodox looking college students. Guys wearing kippot in the pictures wear crocheted and colorful ones, often resting in ways that make it clear that this is not the student’s regular garb. The girls wear rolled up Capri pants and shorts! These look like our emerging adults, not ultra-Orthodox kids. What could I possibly be worried about?
Such trips offer entertaining itineraries including:
- Snorkeling in Eilat
- Desert Hiking and Rappelling
- Visits to IDF bases, etc…
Sounds fun, no?
But wait, there’s more! You also learn about dating and the Jewish tradition, ethics, and the secret codes of the Torah that predict all. Like a “free” trip to a time share in Florida where you get to attend a ninety minute “no-obligation-to-buy” sales presentation, on this trip you get to attend a seminar purporting to address “the science of belief,” resolving any perceived conflicts between Torah and science using “scientific” methods as well as approaches developed by the Mossad.
Claiming thousands of participants annually, I don’t know what the “success” rates of these programs are or even how they define success:
Is it success when participants sign up for the next-step program offering?
Is it success when a parent, thrilled that their college student is doing something Jewish, sends a donation check?
Is it only a success when a participant becomes ultra-Orthodox?
Kiruv organizations are, after all, in the dual business of creating more adherents while sustaining, funding and growing their own ventures. On some level, success must be measured by how many average college kids choose to look and live like the staff of these programs: ultra-Orthodox.
While I find these groups problematic at best and duplicitous at worst, I admire the fact that they put Jewish content front and center: in their marketing materials, in their itineraries and in their descriptions. I disagree with their ideology. I disagree with their worldview. I disagree with the way the Jewish sessions are presented and described. Yet, there is no embarrassment about or shying away from real Jewish content. That is something to respect.
What don’t I worry about regarding these trips? I don’t worry that large numbers of students attending kiruv trips to Israel suddenly decide to become ultra-Orthodox. It just doesn’t happen.
I do worry that those of us who value Jewish learning, commitment to Jewish living, to Covenant, to Mitzvot and to values like egalitarianism, honest weaving of real academic/scientific tools with traditional Jewish learning approaches continue ceding this area to kiruv-oriented organizations.
Do we not believe that college students actually want to be exposed to a variety of Jewish answers to the existential questions with which they grapple?
Are we comfortable sub-contracting Jewish involvement during the most crucial developmental years – the college years – to others, confident that they will present a variety of answers and not just their own parochial ones?
Do we not have sufficient confidence in our approaches to Judaism to present college-students with an Israel experience that includes plenty of soulful Jewish content along with all the fun?
One thing is clear: There are plenty of college students seeking deeper Jewish connections, soulful connections. They seek meaning in and answers from Jewish tradition about issues that concern them the most. Sadly, too few campus professionals raise questions of the soul with college students; rather they focus their efforts on terms like “engagement,” “continuity,” “innovations” and other buzzwords du jour.
Into this vacuum step the “kiruv” professionals and organizations. They connect with students on personal levels. They ask them how their souls are doing. They connect them to Jewish answers to the tough questions of life. And then they offer them trips to Israel for $300.
If those of us not in the kiruv, Orthodox camp believe that our approach to Judaism has meaningful answers to the deepest challenges of life; if we honestly believe our understanding of Torah is of value; if we are serious about passing on our approaches to the next generations because we believe they will make a difference in perfecting the world, we must:
- Learn from the “kiruv” world.
- Ask students how their “neshamas,” their souls, are doing.
- Build substantial and ongoing relationships with them.
- Share Jewish content with them that provides a variety of answers to their life concerns…
We have to send them to Israel on trips that encounter Judaism in a deeper way, one which truthfully approaches questions of tradition and faith, science and Torah, ethics and meaning in a manner reflecting the intellectual/spiritual world in which college students live. Such trips should be for post-Taglit Birthright Israel trip alumni or those who did not attend Taglit trips: college juniors and seniors who are thinking about their futures; who are on the cusp of making major life decisions; who, if cultivated and engaged in an ongoing way by Jewish life mentors, will make meaningful Jewish living and learning part of their future.
Students in college care about content. They want the highest quality. Moreover, they want content to address their lives and the real day-to-day questions with which they struggle. Given that, according to their own numbers, college students are registering in large numbers for kiruv-oriented trips that do not shy away from telling people up front about content, it is safe to conclude that Jewish content does not scare away Jewish college students.
If we want to do more to ensure the Jewish future, a future infused by and lived with meaning and depth, we must create more college Israel trips that do not shy away from putting deep, meaningful Jewish content front and center, along with fun attractions. These trips must align with the intellectual values of our college students. They have to be excellent – in itinerary, content, leadership and staffing. And they must reflect our Jewish religious values, anchored in Jewish sources, reflected through the lens of current knowledge.
College students want these kinds of experiences. After all, they already go on kiruv-oriented trips.
We owe them a broader menu of Jewish content-based trips because alternate winter break trips to Israel are entry points for college students. They serve as ways to begin conversations, explorations, life-long Jewish journeys and relationships with mentors.
We owe it to college students to be asked, front and center, “How is your soul doing today?” because they want to be asked, because their souls are hungry for answers and Judaism has them.
And we owe them a setting where they can start the process of being immersed in Jewish answers and even more life, Jewish questions. That setting has to be disruptive. It has to be different. The setting itself has to be part of the search. What better place to be challenged, to be fulfilled, to search than in Israel.
Jewish college students seek to discover the meaning Judaism can hold for them, the answers it can provide, and the richness it can add to their lives.
It is up to us to offer them the kinds of Jewish discovery programs they deserve.