Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Higher yearning

by Sue Fishkoff and Johanna Ginsberg
JTA and NJJN Staff Writer

May 22, 2008

For Hillel and other campus groups, outreach to Jewish students begins even before orientation week. When Arielle Walzer, a Livingston High School senior, was applying to colleges last fall, she was thinking not only about academics; she was also thinking about Jewish life on campus.

She pored over a Web-site set up by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, particularly its on-line guide to Jewish life on campus, which provides data on more than 500 North American colleges and universities.

Walzer is one of an estimated 75,000 Jewish graduating seniors who in recent weeks have made their final decisions about where to attend college. This fall, they will be part of the largest incoming freshman class in American history.

Many of them will not consider their Jewish needs on campus until their first Jewish holiday rolls around or a friend drags them to a Shabbat dinner at Chabad or a Purim party at Hillel.

But that’s too late, said Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president for communications, and many of the campus newcomers recognize that. “Jewish students often make decisions about what they’ll be involved in during the first week or two on campus,” he said.

To aid such students in this process, Jewish student organizations are now reaching out to incoming Jewish freshmen even before they hit campus after having spent much time and money in the past decade beefing up their campus programs, Rubin said.

“By reaching out to them ahead of time, we increase the likelihood of their being involved,” he said.

Do high school students care? It’s a “significant criteria” for kids at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, according to head of school Dr. Joyce Raynor. “For different kids, the emphasis can be on different things, but most are looking at the number of Jewish kids on campus, whether or not Hebrew or Jewish studies classes are offered, and whether or not there is a Hillel or other extracurricular Jewish activities center. Some are looking at more than one criterion. And for some, the ability to eat kosher food on campus matters. But it is very important for students in this school,” she said.

Walzer, who was an elementary school student at Solomon Schechter in West Orange and attended Jewish summer camp, said, “I feel very culturally connected to Judaism. That, combined with the fact that I live in Livingston, means I’m used to being with Jewish people. I have non-Jewish friends, and I look forward to making new ones, but it’s important to me to stay connected to the Jewish community.”

Walzer will attend Emory University in Atlanta, which has a Jewish enrollment of 33 percent.

Her mother, she said, encouraged her to look for schools with Jewish populations of over 10 percent, “so I wouldn’t feel awkward being Jewish and would be able to find people to celebrate holidays with.”

“As long as the community was active enough to have events for holidays,” Walzer said, “I didn’t need a huge population.”

Not all Jewish high school students are as motivated to stay connected, educators say. And not all of them go to colleges that have a strong Jewish student life.

“There are 12 to 15 universities where the most active Jewish students go, and after that it’s hit or miss,” said Richard Moline, the director of Koach, the Conservative movement’s campus organization.

Two years ago, Hillel launched a major effort to bridge the gap between high school and college in partnership with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization; the Jewish Educational Service of North America; and the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish youth movements.

In 2006 Hillel began publishing an Internet e-zine, Chai Wire, filled with information about Jewish life on campus, which it sends quarterly to 50,000 high school juniors and seniors. Last year it held focus groups and sent out a survey to 20,000 Chai Wire readers to find out what those teens wanted.

Six hundred readers responded, Rubin said. Three-quarters said Jewish life on campus was an important factor in their college choice. Nearly 40 percent said they had consulted Hillel’s on-line guide to Jewish student life during the application process.

Last summer, Hillel began to collect names of Jewish high school seniors and pass them to Hillel directors at the schools they would be attending, so those directors could communicate with the students over the summer.

By the fall of 2007, Hillel had 5,000 names. This year it hopes to collect even more.

Rubin said the process is arduous. Some names are provided by high school youth groups or, less often, by synagogues. Some can be accessed through lists of incoming freshmen at private universities; public universities don’t collect such data.

Hillel also solicits names through Chai Wire, asking students to e-mail their contact information and where they are attending college.

Andrew Getraer, Hillel director at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, with 5,400 Jewish undergraduates, said the project really just started last year.

“There’s a bigger, more aggressive push this year, but we’re not relying on that for our efforts,” he said. “About 1,250 Jewish freshmen will come to Rutgers this year. Until we have all of them, we need to increase our efforts.”

He uses Facebook, e-mail, flyers distributed on campus, students trained as peer recruiters, staff recruiters, and massive efforts during the first few weeks of school, “when students are the most open to checking everything out and getting involved,” Getraer said.

He said he wishes local communities were more involved in identifying Jewish students coming to campus. “Synagogues don’t send names. Youth groups don’t send names. Camps don’t. I wish they did, but most are understaffed and underfunded. It’s a difficult thing for them to do, on top of their own work, although it makes sense.”

Orthodox connections
Tova Diamond, right, studies with Shoshana Porath of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program at Rutgers

Tova Diamond, right, studies with Shoshana Porath of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program at Rutgers.

Outreach efforts have intensified in the past two years with the introduction of Chai Wire and with JESNA asking the heads of its 55 community Hebrew high schools to send the names of graduating seniors to the Hillel directors on the campuses to which they were headed.

Devorah Silverman, who heads that project at JESNA, said the Hebrew high schools sent about 350 names last year.

Also last year, the Orthodox Union launched an internal effort to funnel Orthodox high school students to appropriate Jewish groups on campus.

“For 15 years I’ve been telling the OU they need to do this,” said David Felsenthal, who heads the OU’s new alumni department of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

Some 6,000 high school seniors are involved either in NCSY or in Jewish Student Unions, the OU-sponsored Jewish clubs in public schools. Felsenthal said he had gathered 300 names by May 1; his goal is 1,000 by the end of the month.

Chabad does its own outreach to incoming freshmen, said Rabbi Hershey Novack, the codirector of Chabad at Washington University in St. Louis. Community Chabad emissaries tell campus emissaries about incoming freshmen via an internal Chabad on-line system, and the 125 Chabad college representatives do personal outreach to the new students when they reach campus.

Collecting and passing on names is only part of the overall effort to involve Jewish students in Jewish life on campus, however.

“Honestly, even if a Hillel director follows up, that doesn’t mean the kids will be meaningfully engaged,” Silverman of JESNA admitted. “But it’s a start.

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