Rabbis Diversify To Connect To Students; Just Don't Bring Up Israel

May 19, 2015
Originally published on May 31, 2015 10:17 pm

Rabbi Evan Goodman runs Hillel, the campus Jewish center, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In recent years, he's had to rethink his job.

"Years past, when I was in college," he says, the Jewish organization "was a rabbi at a campus that put up a schedule of classes ... and drew the same 10 students to everything all year."

These days, chances are good that half the Jewish students he works with have a parent who's not Jewish. One in three of them says Judaism isn't his or her religion.

The number of young Americans with no religious affiliation continues to grow, recent studies show. A record 36 percent of young millennials say they don't have a faith.

For clergy who work with college students, these are challenging times.

"Our model is very different now," Goodman says.

Campus rabbis are finding new ways to connect Jewish kids to their roots and to each other.

"So if Israel is a connection, that's great," he says. "If Shabbat services are a connection, that's great. If the kosher food here is a connection, that's great."

That means less prayer, more food; less Torah and Talmud, more cake decorating, open mic nights and service projects.

"We call it tikkun olam in Hebrew — perfecting the world or improving the world. If that ethical foundation is what they want to do, then any of those are great options as to how to be connected."

At a recent service marking the end of Shabbat, anyone who showed up got a coupon for a free dinner. Goodman's broad strategy seems to work: Forty percent of the university's 2,500 Jewish students attended a Hillel event last year.

But it's clear not everyone feels welcome. And Goodman says that's caused tensions.

"Our tent is broad," he says. "It spans from the left to the center to the right, but it's not infinitely broad."

The tensions are not about religion. The issue is Israel. Grad student Emily Schneider founded the Santa Barbara chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports boycotts against Israel to protest treatment of Palestinians.

"I felt that if he were to find out what I believed or some of the work that I've been involved with, that it would be a very tense and awkward interaction," she says.

Hillel International guidelines say its 550 chapters shouldn't host speakers that support sanctions or partner with groups like Schneider's.

"This is what was always emphasized in my Jewish upbringing," she says, "to make the world a better place, to care about people who don't have the same rights as me and to do everything I can to make sure they do have the same rights as me. So, standing up for Palestinians just seemed like an extension of those Jewish values."

But the sanctions movement feels hostile and anti-Semitic to Jewish students like Alyssa Scott, a Santa Barbara sophomore. Scott wants peace in the Middle East, but she fought a student resolution to sanction Israel.

"I have a lot of friends at other schools that say once it's passed, they don't feel as safe, they feel singled out," Scott says. "And nobody should have to feel like that on their campus. Their campus is supposed to be their home and where they feel safe and where they can be themselves."

Hillel staff members stood by her side to defeat a resolution in the student Senate this spring, calling for the University of California to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

They were also there for her last Memorial Day weekend, when a gunman went on a bloody rampage and killed six students near the campus.

The tragedy put Hillel leader Goodman into an old, familiar role as pastor.

He opened Hillel as a crisis center for the entire university. At an interfaith memorial service in a packed stadium, he gave the opening prayer:

"May each one of us be a blessing to each other, and by doing so may we give the lives of these six precious souls everlasting meaning and purpose. Amen."

He says several Jewish students came up to him after the ceremony, including kids he'd never seen at Hillel. They told him they were glad he was there.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Jewish campus organization Hillel International is trying to build a big-tent Judaism for secular and religious students alike. The move is an attempt to address the fact that a record 36 percent of millennials say they don't have a faith. But that tent may not be big enough, as Monique Parsons reports.

MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: Rabbi Evan Goodman runs the Hillel, the campus Jewish Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He's had to rethink his job.

EVAN GOODMAN: Years past, when I was in college, Hillel was a rabbi at a campus that put up a schedule of classes at the Hillel and drew the same 10 students to everything all year.

PARSONS: These days, chances are good half the Jewish students he works with have a parent who's not Jewish - 1 in 3 say Judaism isn't their religion.

GOODMAN: Our model is very different now, so if Israel is a connection, that's great. If Shabbat services are a connection, that's great. If the kosher food here is a connection, that's great.

PARSONS: So less prayer, more food. Less Torah and Talmud, more service projects.

GOODMAN: We call it tikkun olam in Hebrew, perfecting the world or improving the world. If that ethical foundation is what they want to do, then any of those are great options as to how to be connected.

(SOUNDBITE OF HILLEL SHABBAT SERVICE)

PARSONS: At a recent service marking the end of Shabbat, anyone who showed got a coupon for a free dinner. Goodman's broad strategy seems to work. Forty percent of the university's 2500 Jewish students attended a Hillel event last year. And Goodman says all are welcome, but he acknowledges there have been tensions recently.

GOODMAN: Our tent is broad. It spans from the left to the center to the right, but it's not infinitely broad.

EMILY SCHNEIDER: I felt that if he were to find out what I believed or some of the work that I've been involved with, that it would be a very tense and awkward interaction.

PARSONS: It's not about religion. The issue is Israel. Grad student Emily Schneider founded the Santa Barbara chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports boycotts against Israel to protest treatment of Palestinians. Hillel International guidelines say its 550 chapters shouldn't host speakers that support sanctions or partner with groups like Schneider's.

SCHNEIDER: This is what was always emphasized in my Jewish upbringing - was to make the world a better place, to care about people who don't have the same rights as me and to do everything I can to make sure that they do have the same rights as me. And so standing up for Palestinians just seemed like an extension of those Jewish values.

PARSONS: But the sanctions movement feels hostile and anti-Semitic to Jewish students like Alyssa Scott, a Santa Barbara sophomore. Scott wants peace in the Middle East, but she fought a student resolution to sanction Israel.

ALYSSA SCOTT: I have a lot of friends at other schools who I've talked to who say that once it's passed, they don't feel as safe. They feel singled out. And nobody should have to feel like that on their campus. Their campus is supposed to be their home and where they feel safe and where they can be themselves.

PARSONS: Hillel staff stood by her side to defeat a resolution in the student Senate this spring, calling for the University of California to divest from companies with ties to Israel. They were also there for her last Memorial Day weekend when a gunman on a bloody rampage killed six students near the campus. The tragedy put Hillel leader Rabbi Goodman into an old, familiar role, pastor. He opened Hillel as a crisis center for the entire university. At an interfaith memorial service at a packed stadium, he gave the opening prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOODMAN: May each one of us be a blessing to each other, and by doing so, may we give the lives of these six precious souls everlasting meaning and purpose. Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Within the sound of silence...

PARSONS: He says several Jewish students came up to him after the ceremony, kids he'd never seen at Hillel. They told him they were glad he was there. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.