Originally Published April 23, 2013 in The New York Jewish Week
Special To The Jewish Week
Spring — and the hearts of Hillel directors across the country turn toward hiring Jewish students for next year to serve as ambassadors for Jewish life.
The Peer Network Engagement Initiative (PNEI), which is now in its fifth year, builds collegiate Jewish life through social networking rather than old-fashioned programs like Shabbat dinners and Sunday bagel brunches. Cadres of students are trained at an annual conference (held each summer at Washington University in St. Louis) to reach out on a one-to-one basis to other, marginally affiliated Jewish students on their campuses.
Invite them for coffee, they are told, and use the ensuing conversations to encourage your friends and acquaintances to talk about what being Jewish means to them. Then try to get them to take the next step in their “Jewish journey” — not necessarily to come to Hillel, but to go on a Birthright Israel trip or an Alternative Spring Break jaunt, take a course in Jewish studies, or volunteer for a Jewish cause. Reaching out to more Jewish students, studies conducted by Hillel show, has led to a surge in the number of students who participate in Jewish life — from 33 percent in 2005 to 45 percent in 2012.
This social networking approach is a kind of updating for the Facebook and Twitter age of the community organizing techniques of Saul Alinsky, who pioneered the one-to-one method in the late 1930s in order to identify shared issues and concerns that could mobilize the residents of blighted urban neighborhoods to work together for change. (Barack Obama famously followed in Alinsky’s footsteps in his community organizing work in Chicago.)
Hillel’s adaptation of it, publicized in Ron Wolfson’s book, “Relational Judaism” (published last month by Jewish Lights), is being widely copied throughout the Jewish world. Reform and Conservative congregations, Moishe House, Birthright NEXT, and many other major Jewish organizations now foster one-to-one conversations as a way to build community in an organic way. At a time when so many Jewish institutions are in a downward spiral, the key, according to Wolfson, is “putting people before programs.”
The social networking paradigm has transformed the work of Hillel directors like me. Now, instead of putting most of our energies — and funding — into organizing group activities, we promote and maximize individual meetings between Jewish students who tend to define their Jewish identity in cultural rather than religious terms, who may never set foot in the Hillel building during their entire four years on campus, and for whom their Jewishness is just one aspect — and often not the most salient one — of their overall identity. After all, the members of the “iPod generation,” as it has been called, constantly reshuffle their memberships and priorities like songs on a digital playlist.
Yet much of this new approach is counter-intuitive. Don’t we need to encourage people to go somewhere and do something in order to connect more deeply to a Jewish community? Isn’t Judaism built on group ritual and activity rather than simply a shared sense of culture and history? Wasn’t what happened at Mount Sinai a model “program” that set the stage for all future Jewish social interaction? (I’m thinking of the Jewish dating website, SawYouAtSinai.com — I’m tempted to print up T-shirts that read SawYouAtHillel). And yet, perhaps because I’m old enough to be their parent, I’m doubtless out of touch with the current generation of students, who need to define — or not define — their Jewish identity in their own way, free from the sense that the Jewish community has any kind of claim on them.
A close friend of mine manages a branch office of a major national life insurance company. He tells me that finding the right agent is extraordinarily difficult — it takes a particular kind of person to succeed in having the kinds of conversations with potential clients that lead to sales. Life insurance simply isn’t what people want to think about or spend money on, even though they know on some level that it’s important. Perhaps it’s a similar situation with Jewish college students in terms of their Jewish identity, and the challenge of motivating them to spend time and energy exploring their heritage.
And yet, who’s to say that social networking won’t pay hefty dividends in the future, helping to create a generation of Jewish students who know how to relate to each other in Jewish terms, to speak a common language of cultural Jewish identity?
Ted Merwin, who writes about theater for the paper, directs the Hillel chapter at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.