A recent article in the Huffington Post, "Religion In College: How Has Your Faith Changed?" proposes that while college students today are less engaged in religious and spiritual activities than in previous generations, they are more likely than others in the same age bracket who do not attend college to exhibit interest in such activities. This is an interesting finding for us at Hillel, where we focus less on religion or spirituality, and more on helping Jewish college students find a particular voice.
While many college aged students today are committed to notions of universalism, Hillel takes a strong stance that universalism is empty without particularism. To put it differently, Hillel values universalism. Our own mission statement insists that our success rests on students contributing to the larger world, writ large. But, if we only help students think about what they have in common with the rest of humanity, they will never move towards clarifying what is uniquely special about them.
As Ze'ev Maghen explained in his 1999 article in Azure magazine, "No one gets turned on by 'universal' love. It doesn't get you up in the morning, it doesn't give you goose-bumps or make you feel all warm and tingly insideâ€¦In short, 'universal love' isn't love at all. Because love means preference. The kind of love that means anything, the kind of love we all really want and need and live forâ€¦is love that by its very nature, by its very definition, distinguishes and prefers."
Maghen claims - and I agree - that we need to have particular preferences, particular interests, in order to be human. The Huffington Post article explains that college students today know this intuitively.
The students' interest in religion or spirituality, I believe, is actually a desire in finding their own expression within the larger world. College students feel a particular affinity to their own narratives and their own traditions. Hillel's goal is to reinforce this instinct and to help them explore and connect to their own Jewish narrative - on their own terms, while they learn how this narrative is informed by Jewish values. Through our work with students on 550 colleges and universities around the world, our vision is to inspire Jewish students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.
Abi Dauber Sterne is Hillel's Vice President for Global Jewish Experience at the Schusterman International Center.