Countering the Crisis

Sitting inside a student center of a major American university, speaking with a colleague, another Jewish man identified as such wearing a kippah like me, a couple walked over and shared that they are looking for a “very Jewish campus” for their daughter.  This was not unique in of itself. It’s been the case for decades.  My parents had the same concern, as did others a generation before.

What’s changed substantially is that in my day we looked for a “very Jewish campus” to provide a comfortable cultural and religious environment in which to affiliate, to find a home away from home. Yet challenges facing American Jewish students today are at a critical juncture. Parents look for campuses that are safe to be openly Jewish, where BDS and other anti-Israel activities are rare to non-existent. With assimilation and intermarriage at alarming rates, and challenges to Jewish campus life veiled in anti-Israel activities but often threatening Jews as Jews, it’s shy of a miracle that Jews identify or affiliate on campus publicly.

In my day, the cause of American Jewish students was saving Soviet Jewry; today the cause is saving American Jewish students.

At the GA this past year, the annual gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America, I was dismayed to hear similar concerns from previous conventions I attended 15 and 20 years ago.  I was dismayed to hear things have gotten worse for Jewish students.  I heard over and over American Jewish leaders looking for the next best, newest thing to counter the growing demographic crisis of assimilation among millennials.

I couldn’t help think that the answer is not in the newest best thing, but a return to something timeless that’s kept us Jewish as a people for thousands of years.

Despite odds that nobody in Las Vegas would ever take, we continue to thrive as a people. But the crisis before us is very real. It’s not just a concern of American Jews but of Jews worldwide.

Whether we live in America, Israel, or anywhere else in the world, the well-being of the most prosperous diaspora Jewish community is something all Jews should care about.

I’ve spoken to Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform leaders all of whom care deeply. One friend who is an active member of a Reform congregation shared her theory that if we were to have pogroms in America, God forbid, that would unite us all. I countered by asking slightly rhetorically whether we were not at that crisis situation already simply losing Jews to assimilation.

I’ve spoken to rabbis, Hillel directors, Federation staff and leadership, of all different backgrounds and affiliations. Given the crisis, I’ve asked, can we, as a broader Jewish people, come together to tackle it without regard for one’s religious affiliation, or what color kippah, hat, or lack thereof someone is wearing.

Facing a demographic reality of assimilation in excess of 70% it’s inevitable that the sand will run out of the American Jewish hour glass. While it may not be popular to say, but unless something changes profoundly, the only question remains when.

On a recent trip to the US, I visited people whose work on major university campuses to turn the tide is noble, inspiring, successful, and is clearly part of the solution.

Marking its bar mitzvah year, MEOR provides intellectual Jewish outreach and leadership development among 4500 Jewish college students on 21 major American college campuses and alumni centers, every year.

I spoke with dedicated staff which motivates, connects, and inspires young Jews to the reality that Judaism is important, and relevant, in their lives. I’ve spoken with students at the peak of their intellectual curiosity who get to learn from inspiring educators for whom sharing a Jewish perspective on contemporary issues is their raison d’être. They offer academic level classes in a non-academic setting, and one on one learning and counseling to engage the students individually.

I’ve met and interacted with too many students to tell each of their stories but was inspired by them all.

As a student leader in the Soviet Jewry movement, I was particularly touched to meet a young woman who was born in the former Soviet Union whose parents were able to leave because they were Jewish, but for whom any sense of Jewish knowledge or tradition was absent. Through MEOR she began attending classes, met with staff one on one, and became inspired to investigate on her own. On Yom Kippur she fasted for the first time, but did not attend a synagogue. But she understood that millions of Jews were fasting on this day and she wanted to give it a try, connecting to tradition as she attended classes.

I met another whose parents gave him the option to continue with a Jewish education following his bar mitzvah. He chose not to. But attending college with Jewish students whose experiences and knowledge were much more substantive, he connected with MEOR in order to learn about his faith, his people and “to reestablish a connection with God.”

I was inspired meeting an Ivy League senior who met her boyfriend through MEOR. She expressed something profound. She said that she and her boyfriend, soon to be fiancée, had built a close relationship because of the experiences they shared learning about themselves and Judaism together. She added their relationship was far more substantial than relationships of other friends who have been dating for far longer. It was beautiful to see not only how the MEOR program impacted them, but gave them a foundation to build a Jewish home together.

I also visited parents of MEOR students and alumni who literally went out of their way to express their appreciation for MEOR giving their children the opportunity to connect with their Judaism in a personal way.

MEOR’s programs provide a traditional Jewish view on a range of contemporary issues such as the purpose of life, spirituality, Israel, giving, community, holidays, Talmud, teshuva, practical Halacha, relationships, and more.

In sharing about all this, a friend said he wished he had MEOR when he was on campus.  The truth is, so do I.

The students I met seem to be smart and at the peak of their intellectual curiosity.  But when it comes to Judaism, they often know little to nothing.  Rather than rejecting Judaism or being intimidated because they don’t know about it, MEOR gives them the opportunity to learn, explore and carry Judaism forward another generation, embracing our values and traditions throughout their lives.

MEOR is connecting thousands and inspiring future Jewish leaders who care. If you know someone on campus who would appreciate this opportunity, please visit MEOR and refer them here.

About the Author
Jonathan Feldstein made aliyah in 2004, married and raising six children in the Judean mountains. He is a long time Jewish non-profit professional and works closely with many Christians who support Israel.