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Keeping the faith

Jewish groups increasingly active on campus in effort to connect college students to roots


By Jeffrey Weiss / The Dallas Morning News

Andrea Roth surprised herself this year with the depth of her preparation for Passover.

The 19-year-old University of Texas student searched Austin for foods tied to the eight-day holiday that begins Wednesday evening. And she made arrangements to attend two Seders - the ritual meals that celebrate the liberation of the Israelites described in Exodus.

Darnell Jean
Rabbi Bentzi Epstein displays a piece of parsley as he explains the meaning of the Karpas to a group of college students during a mock Passover Seder at Dallas' Jewish Community Center.

Getting ready for Passover was a springtime routine when she was growing up with her family in Dallas. But Ms. Roth had half-expected college life would impose other priorities.

"Passover was always important to me," she said. "But I thought that when I went to college, it would be too hard to do."

Many Jewish leaders would be delighted that she changed her mind. Some have worked for more than a decade to find better ways to connect Jewish college students with their faith.

"Twenty years ago, it was a wasteland," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the United American Hebrew Congregations, the central organization of Reform synagogues. "Today, we've made good progress, but we're still struggling to find the right model."

Ms. Roth was the beneficiary of the most ambitious program ever to reach out to her age group. The goal of Birthright Israel, a nonprofit organization, is to offer a free 10-day tour of Israel to all North American Jews between the ages of 15 and 26.

Ms. Roth was among one of the first groups to take that trip, one of 6,000 students who traveled to the ancestral homeland of the Jews this winter. Another large group is scheduled to travel in May, and there's a waiting list for future expeditions.

The feelings stirred by her trip pushed Ms. Roth into Passover preparations this year, she said.

"When I was there, it wasn't so moving to me as other people said it was going to be," she said. "But somehow, I've been able to relate to my trip every day of my life after I got home."

Organized Judaism's drive to connect with college students includes a revitalized Hillel Foundation - a presence on American campuses since 1923 that had become a haven mostly for young Jewish activists, said Jeff Rubin, Hillel's director of communications.

Wake-up call

The Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements also have created outreach programs over the last 10 years. The wake-up call for all of them was a survey taken in 1990 that showed record numbers of Jews assimilating, intermarrying or otherwise losing touch with their religion.

College was a particularly difficult time, when the press of new distractions crowded out attention to Jewish rituals and beliefs for many students. Other faiths also have focused on strengthening connections with college-age members. Many Christian denominations have special college outreach programs, and some churches give seminars to prepare high school seniors for the freedoms and choices of college life.

Jewish leaders felt a special urgency because they worried that if too many college-age Jews lost touch with their faith, it could endanger the very underpinnings of the American Jewish community.

"This is the final shot we've got at some of these folks," said Richard Moline, director of college outreach for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Marrying later

Traditional Jewish institutions had focused on childhood education, then picked up with programs aimed at young married people. But Jewish students are following the national trend of marrying later and having children even later - or not at all.

"People tend to affiliate with synagogues when they need them. And when do they need them? When they have kids," Mr. Moline said. "But the gap went from 18 to 25 years old, to 18 to 35, to 18 to never."

Since about 80 percent of Jewish children go to college - about 400,000 this year - U.S. campuses became a new focal point for Jewish organizations.

In North Texas, the Hillel operation at Southern Methodist University has become particularly active. Last week, for instance, it sponsored a "chocolate Seder" educational program for Jewish and non-Jewish students. And in the last year, the local Jewish Federation has financed an effort to spark Hillel organizations on other North Texas campuses.

One result of that effort was a mock Seder held Sunday at the Jewish Community Center in Dallas. The dress rehearsal included many of the foods and rituals of the real thing: the unleavened bread known as matzo , the combination of apples, nuts and wine called haroset , the special prayer book called the Haggada . For about two dozen students from several local colleges, this was a chance to learn more about the holiday and to prepare for real Seders later in the week.

A rabbi from the Dallas Area Torah Association walked the students through the Seder, explaining rituals and answering questions.

"Many of the students have expressed that they just aren't educated about Judaism," said Merideth Einsohn, a college undergraduate and the interim director for the North Texas Hillel outreach, which organized the Seder.


A decade ago, the Hillel Foundation was known mostly as a place where active Jewish students could meet on campus. But many more Jewish students never came.

"Today, the focus is on finding ways to go where they are rather than have the students come to Hillel," Mr. Rubin said. The organization's mission statement is to "maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews."

Conspicuously absent is any judgment about the kind of Judaism to be done. That has allowed Hillel to work with representatives of the various Jewish movements who sometimes have trouble finding common ground. It is one of 14 organizations working together on Birthright Israel, a $210 million program that is also funded by philanthropists and the Israeli government.

Birthright Israel's goal is to offer Jewish students a tangible link to the history of their people at a time when the openness of American life is, paradoxically, shifting these students away from their heritage, said Michael Papo, the group's executive vice president.

Anti-Semitism kept many parents of baby boomers out of the American mainstream. Most of those barriers have fallen, leaving Jews free to lose their identity in the majority culture, Mr. Papo said.

"Why not get caught up in the melting pot? Why not get melted down?" he said. "The beauty of America is that it's not an 'either-or.' "

Birthright Israel

Two prominent Jewish philanthropists, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, jump-started the financing for Birthright Israel's five-year program.

Ms. Einsohn was one of the Birthright Israel travelers in December. She has kept in touch with others who were on her tour. Like Ms. Roth, some report finding ways to inject a new level of Jewishness into their everyday lives.

"I had students call me and say, 'Merideth, I went to the store and bought a challah [bread] and lit candles and said a barucha [blessing],' " she said. " 'Granted, I went out afterward and went to a bar with my friends, but I had Shabbat [Sabbath] with my family.' "

While some more ritually observant Jews might be appalled at the relative lack of follow-through, other Jewish leaders consider newfound commitment to Jewishness significant.

"Birthright Israel is just part of a puzzle to give college kids a meaningful experience in what being Jewish means in this day and age," Mr. Papo said.

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