Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox College Students: Off Whose Derekh?

Several years ago, as part of my Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi’s follow up with alumni, I stayed for Shabbat on a campus with a relatively modest Orthodox student population. The local Chabad house hosted Friday night dinner for the Jewish community while Shabbat lunch took place at Hillel. Afternoon Mincha services took place at a nearby Orthodox synagogue followed by the third meal, Seudat Shlishit, and the end of Shabbat services.

At Seudat Shlishit, I sat at a table occupied by a variety of students. The vast majority of students in attendance at the Orthodox synagogue did not grow up that way. Yet, of the many, say 20 or so, students who had gone through the Orthodox school system, most were absent. This experience is hardly unique. I have the privilege of often visiting college campuses to spend time with former students. Many campuses with large Orthodox populations do maintain strong programs and attendance at various events is high. But, as the Avi Chai Foundation documented in 2006, denominational identity to some extent is in flux:

“The great majority of Jewish students surveyed identify with a denomination, and just over 70% of these maintain the same denominational identity that they had while growing up. Denominational affiliation results in tensions between religious and non-religious Jewish students. Three of the Hillels in our study have tried to create interdenominational dialogue groups to deal with these issues. And a few Hillels have, in fact, managed to create peaceable pluralism within the building. At the others, tensions continue unabated.  Given that college is a time of personal transitions, it should not be surprising that almost 30% of Jewish college students change their denominational identification while at college.” ( , p. 15)

At one campus, a self-identified active student informed me that of the 25 or so graduates of yeshiva high schools, only 10 were fully Shabbat observant. This number did not include synagogue attendance which an even higher percentage avoided.

No doubt that campus culture varies from college to college. While at some campuses maintaining a vibrant halachic Jewish is completely against the grain, others maintain multiple daily services and even full yeshiva classes all day and into the night.

Many hope that the American Orthodox educational system which in general includes years of day school and yeshiva high school education, a year or more learning in a yeshiva or seminary in Israel, summers spent at Jewish camps, and other types of Jewish programs, will prevent a drop off of affiliation in college and post-college. Maintaining this system costs parents hundreds of thousands of dollars for those who can afford it. Many parents must beg for whatever scholarship money exists.  The monetary, emotional, and academic strain created by the system has been the subject of great debate in recent years.  Yet, the results aren’t, nor perhaps can be, 100%. As Avi Chai’s report points out:

The direction of movement varies. For example, one-quarter of the students who come to college as Orthodox Jews report that they have changed their denominational identity while at college. About half of these chose Conservative Judaism. Similarly complex patterns are seen in the other denominations as well. “

Religious fluctuation seems almost inevitable. Yet, at the same time, and as was shown a decade ago in the Avi Chai study, the movement is multi-directional.

Recently, an article in Haaretz cried foul over the strong investment and impact Orthodox programs are making before, during, and after Birthright trips. “Though the overwhelming majority of Birthright participants are not Orthodox Jews, Orthodox-affiliated trip providers account for a growing share of Birthright recruitment.” After being questioned as to the reason Birthright dropped the Reform movement as a service provider, Birthright CEO Gidi Mark turned the question on its head:

When asked to explain why the Orthodox organizations have become so dominant in the recruitment process, Mark said the question should be directed elsewhere. ‘You need to ask the participants who go with the other trip providers why they prefer them, and you need to ask the Reform movement – and the Conservative movement, which was also a trip provider until about 10 years ago – why they are not attracting enough participants.’”

Orthodox programs from Chabad to the OU’s JLIC to Aish HaTorah and others are beginning to dominate campuses. (Full disclosure, I was one of the founders of JLIC.) Partially, this has to do with the willingness on the part of Orthodox donors to invest in college students. To wit, around the same time that the OU began to invest in creating and growing its campus arm, JLIC, the Conservative movement cut most funding to its college program called Koach. At this point, as JLIC reaches almost 30 campuses worldwide, the Conservative movement, once the holder of the lion’s share of affiliated Jews, hasn’t maintained a Birthright program for 10 years.

To be fair, many non-Orthodox donors choose to support Hillel. However, Hillel, in its quest to be all things to all Jews, has been embroiled a series of controversies. Instead of allowing a full range of speakers, Hillel International published guidelines against allowing participation of organizations who are against the state of Israel. This policy not only has forced some Jewish students to go outside of Hillel but they have also backfired to disallowing representatives of Israel an opportunity to speak. In the case of Princeton University, Chabad, despite its complex relationship with the State of Israel, came to the rescue. In the backdrop of this debacle stands a $22 million partnership between Hillel and an organization representing the Israeli government. The apology by Hillel International’s director serves to highlight the precarious home for all Jews created by Hillel.

Putting all this together, we see a significant drop off from religious engagement by students raised Orthodox, a tarnished Hillel organization, lack of financial investment by non-Orthodox groups on campus, a parallel investment by Orthodox groups, and newfound popularity and growth of these Orthodox organizations among the non-Orthodox.

We lack an accurate picture of the exact numbers of Orthodox students who leave Orthodoxy during college and the number of students who join the ranks of traditional Judaism. As we know, according to the latest studies, the number of Jews abandoning religious Judaism is higher than those moving from one movement to the other. It does seem, however, that closer attention to best practices and an analysis of which programs are impactful is direly needed. Why are so many Orthodox students turning their backs on their upbringing, why do so many non-Orthodox students prefer Orthodox programming, and most alarming why are so many, despite the time and investment by the Jewish community, leaving altogether?

A popular colloquial expression mentioned in Orthodox circles used in reference to Jews who leave tradition behind is “off the derekh” literally “off the path”. For Jews of every stripe, the real question is whose “derekh” are they on and what can we do about it.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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