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Meeting the Needs of Jewish Millennials on Campus

by Hillel News |Apr 14, 2010|Comments

By Lori Yadin and Susannah Sagan
From the Ohio Jewish Chronicle

Apple picking.

For some, "March Madness" conjures thoughts of tournament basketball, but for thousands of high school seniors who make their daily visit to gather the envelopes that hold college decisions, the end of March signals a new phase of life. In a recent conversation, we discussed the college process of our growing children who belong to the so-called "Millennial Generation," that is, those born after 1980.

According to the Pew Research Center's recently released portrait of Millennials, this generation is, "confident, connected, and open to change". Among Millennials, 26 percent cite no religious identity adding, however, "not belonging does not mean not believing". When naming their life priorities, Millennials say that "being a good parent, having a successful marriage, and helping others in need" are most important. They are looking to be part of societal conversations, believing that "social change" is the answer to "greater change."

For us, their parents, the college process is a time of awakening and realization that the child who once hung on to our every word, and then transitioned to a teen who often wanted to hang us with those same words, has one foot in the door and one foot out, and will soon walk onto a college campus as an emerging adult. As Jewish parents, we anticipate and encourage their exploration, while hoping they find a place that is filled with a sense of belonging, reminiscent of those comforts, messages, and experiences of home.

As parents, we know that each child is unique and will require different things from the university. The job of full time mentoring and shepherding is out of our hands. The university will now provide the environment that supports our student's search for meaning, purpose, and faith as he or she pursues a higher education focused on discovering a fulfilling career and life. What is often a surprise to parents is the equally complex and mentoring role that Hillels serve on campus, often seeing Hillel through a lens of their own outdated college experience, rather than the realities of meeting the pluralistic needs and desires of today's Millennials.

Hillel's place on the college landscape has always addressed the needs and desires of students. Today, Hillel is rising to the challenge of the Millennials. These young people distrust institutionalized organizations and prefer to be an active part of shaping their own experiences and connecting to their own networks. The Hillel professional's role is to be thoughtful mentors and guides, building relationships with students to connect them not only to opportunities to be involved in Jewish experiences that are relevant to them, but to be in dialogue with the Jewish faith, beginning the conversation on their terms.

This relational approach means that while students themselves must find meaning in Jewish life and make decisions on how being Jewish informs their own personal and professional decisions, they don't have to make those decisions alone. Hillel professionals are there to support their journey.

We do so by mentoring students in ways that allow for dialogue with their Jewish experience, memory, history, and tradition. Hillel professionals guide students to become observers of their world so that they can move beyond the self-absorbed space of young adulthood and take responsibility for their own identity. We help them to become intimately united with their inner Jewish voice - a voice that uniquely connects their personal life experience to a source of understanding, trust, hope, and faith. When they apply that voice to their daily lives, they will create a Jewish life that is relevant to them.

Today's Hillel recognizes that students find many entry points into their Judaism. Hillel provides both a Jewish context and content to help students connect to their interests in community service, leadership and career development, advocacy, dialogue, spirituality, community, culture, and Israel. This generation arrives on campus with a strong global perspective but not the intimate connections to Jewish history of previous generations. Hillels have responded by creating space where students can ask difficult questions so that they can gain a new sense of history and understanding of complex Jewish questions and our place in the world.

Additionally, Hillel recognizes the power of student social networks and is utilizing this new asset to exponentially expand its reach and dramatically enhance Jewish life on campus. Two of the most innovative engagement models, employed by nearly 50 campuses this year, are the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI) and Peer-Network Engagement Internship (PNEI). Starting with the premise of social entrepreneurship - that students are the best connectors, these two models hire a core group of students with broad social networks to build relationships with significant numbers of uninvolved Jewish students. Acting as peer mentors, these interns engage their friends in Jewish conversations and connect them to personalized opportunities that allow them to experience Jewish life, values, rituals, and traditions in their own way.

These internships are enhanced by the Senior Jewish Educator Initiative, piloted on ten campuses (OSU is one of them), through the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation. Hillel's Senior Jewish Educators initiative places innovative teacher-mentors steeped in Jewish learning on campuses to develop meaningful relationships with at least 180 Jewish students each and to infuse Jewish content throughout the Hillel enterprise.
By creating this multi-leveled mentoring environment, Hillel is connecting "our Millennial children" to Jewish life. As parents, we all dream of the moment the college acceptance letter arrives. At the same time we approach our children's transition with mixed emotions, filled with pride and anxiety as we watch them move from their familiar home and community to a new place where they will be charged with creating their own life map. Hillels can be an effective partner in our children's development, a partner who understands the variety of our children's lives and backgrounds. They will not be alone on campus. Rather they will have the opportunity to learn that living a Jewish life is valuable and, perhaps, to make an enduring commitment to the Jewish future.

With 85 percent of Jewish high school graduates attending college, today's young adult Jews have the potential to dramatically impact the future landscape of Jewish life and the world at large. As Hillel professionals, we are proud to be part of a worldwide organization that has the opportunity to mentor our future Jewish leaders, community builders, inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, healers, teachers, and philanthropists. As parents, we are grateful that as we watch our children take their first real independent steps onto college campus, that there are Jewish educators and mentors who are prepared to greet them, understanding the value that each individual they meet represents not only to their families but to the future of the Jewish world.

Lori Yadin is director of the International Hillel Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative and the mother of four Millennials. Susannah Sagan is associate director of Hillel at the Ohio State University and the mother of two Millennials

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