Our World Is Changing and So Must We; Otherwise We Are Negligent

Since our arrival in Waltham in 2001, two drastic changes have occurred at Brandeis, though they are not exclusive to Brandeis. Firstly, tuition has gone up from the mid $30,000-a-year to close to $70,000 today. Fifteen years ago, that was approximately 20% below the median income, today it’s close to 20% above it.

When the cost of one’s education exceeds what an average person earns in a year, an underlying pressure exists to achieve a net return on this investment. Often that comes at the cost of excluding other valuable enriching opportunities. This is evident in the recent surge of business majors at Brandeis, now becoming one of the largest majors, contrasted with the sharp decline in Judaic studies majors. It is also evident in the decline of enrollment of students in post college yeshivas in Israel, or the need to combine summer yeshiva learning with internships.

This has turned the formative years of college into a preparation for the marketplace of jobs instead of preparing students for the jungle of life.

Secondly and far more consequential, is the invasive presence of other people into one’s life brought on by the computers glued to one’s hand and the social media web it casts. This results in one’s attention being endlessly drawn to other people’s stories, often feeling inadequate unless sharing one’s own experiences, and then measuring oneself by the responses it attracts.

The absorption into the world outside of oneself has created a significant increase in anxiety and insecurity, reduced attention spans, weakened the ability to persevere with what is not stimulating, and at times even nurtures narcissism.

Chanie, my wife and co-founder of the Chabad House, and I have noted a sharp change in students over the past seven years. It seems that previously students were more casual and curious about learning for the experience itself, pursued meaningful conversations, and sought out social events to meet others.

At first we thought perhaps we had changed, after all we’re getting older while the students remain 18 to 22. Recently however, two major pieces on the subject were published. First in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly titled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and later in a NY Times Magazine feature story titled, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” Both confirmed our observation of the changes since 2011.

No small wonder that less and less students are engaging in a mature pursuit of Judaism, that is unless they are paid to take a class, are offered an internship while studying in yeshiva, given a free trip to Israel, or a delicious home cooked meal with friends on Shabbat.

There is another point to consider. In an era when there is an app that can do anything one likes, there is an underlying question people ask, especially students, “What does it do and how does it benefit me?” Judaism is no different. “What does it do and how does it benefit me?” is a fair question to ask especially since Judaism is so demanding.

The usual reasons given to engage in Judaism for meaning and community are falling short since opportunities for both abound outside of Judaism. Likewise the claim of responsibility to our past is rapidly fading with the passing of the last remaining Holocaust survivors.

We are realizing that our objective at Chabad to create positive Jewish experiences for students so that they in turn will pursue a more committed Jewish life is passé. The assumption that, “build it and they will come,” was built on a 1970’s model that held very true then and continued to carry true until recently. Yet today, students are taking the positive experiences given to them for free, saying thank you and moving on to the next stimulating opportunity. However they are not investing, pursuing, and personalizing what is being provided for them.

We need to change our objective and respond to the changing world around us. If we don’t, we are negligent as well as enablers of the passive-provide-for-me Judaism students are expecting and receiving from all directions.

A great opportunity lies ahead of us. As the Judaism of responsibility to the past fades, and the one of belonging or meaning in the present crumbles, a new-future oriented Judaism can give rise. One that also addresses the underlying question of what does Judaism do and how does it benefit me?

Simply put, Judaism creates a distinctive personal independence by integrating into oneself the one independent Being. This is achieved in part by imagining within everything, particularly yourself and other people, the presence and mystery of the independent Being that continuously animates all. Additionally, it is achieved by adapting practices that are independent of the expected norm, for instance in diet (kosher) and time (Shabbat).

The result is an individual with humility, courage, and clarity. Who respects and connects with everyone, including the less fortunate and those with whom one disagrees with. Who can overpower the insecurity that generates greed and arrogance, replacing it with a desire to share and care even beyond one’s seeming capacity.

We each posses that personal independence; it’s our soul. However unless it’s nurtured, like our mind, it will waste. And a soul is a terrible thing to waste.

This requires personal investment and hard work but the result is liberating. It will empower today’s youth to thrive in the jungle of life. To engage in social media and have the courage not to be enslaved to it. To harness the power of the information at one’s fingertips yet remain curious and humble.

Don’t assume this new approach will be rejected. To the contrary, over the past two months as we have shared with students our pivoted approach and began demanding of them to invest in their Judaism a light turns on in their eyes. They appreciate this refreshing approach and respond to the clarity and vision it provides.

One last point, Chabad is uniquely positioned to lead this change. Our presence on a college campus exemplifies independence rooted in the one independent Being, and results in humility, courage, and clarity. This is why we independently move to a college campus despite not necessarily being invited, with no guaranteed salary – ever, and raise our children there despite the isolation. Still, we find no greater joy than continuing until we have impacted every last student.
As long as we are willing to disrupt the comforts of habit, roll up our sleeves and work hard, the future of our people and the world is very bright.

About the Author
HaShliach Rabbi Peretz Chein is co-director of the Chabad House at Brandeis University, which he co-founded with his wife Chanie in 2001. In 2021 they co-founded M54, an educational startup that shifts the learning content from text to participants' life experiences, allowing them to discover new language and voice from which increased vibrancy emerges.
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