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Trends 101: The New Jewish Life on Campus
by Gabrielle Birkner

"Hava Nagila" isn't what you'd call standard fraternity party fare.

And yet...last spring, nearly 200 University of California, Berkeley coeds danced in concentric circles to the Jewish folk tune at the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) house. The Jewish men's fraternity members were celebrating the fraternity-sponsored b'nai mitzvah of five members one day earlier--something you wouldn't have witnessed years ago.

As the crowd clapped, several of the fraternity members lifted the chair of "bar mitzvah boy" Andrew Ratto, 22, parading him around the room in celebration of his Jewish transformation. "I went from a freshman whose only remote connection to Judaism was celebrating Chanukah to a senior who feels confident having a bar mitzvah and publicly declaring my commitment to Jewish adulthood," Ratto explains. "I owe that change entirely to Alpha Epsilon Pi."

At about the same time Ratto was being lifted in the air, some twenty Jewish students from Rutgers and George Washington University were constructing an irrigation system in El Salvador as part of an American Jewish World Service mission to help "repair the world."

At the University of Florida, several dozen coeds were engaged in "Torah on Tap," drinking beer (soda for those not yet twenty-one) at a popular Gainesville pizza joint and asking Rabbi Jonathan Siger (HUC-JIR class of 2002) to explain Jewish views on premarital sex and tattoos.

And at the University of Arizona, Jewish and Muslim students were co-drafting their own Middle East peace accords.

Campus Life--The New Jewish World

In the 21st century, it's a new world for Jews in college.

Ratto's personal journey, for one, is emblematic of a larger scale Jewish-style Greek revival on campus. A generation ago, Jewish coeds gravitated toward Jewish frats and sororities because anti-Semitic policies--implicit or explicit--kept them out of other houses, says Marianne Sanua, author of Jewish College Fraternities (2003). But once the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education struck down the notion of "separate but equal" educational facilities, Greek houses and other groups tied to educational institutions began removing sectarian clauses that had excluded Jews and other minorities. Suddenly Jews had more Greek options on campus--and yet, just as the discrimination eased, the popularity of Greek life waned--a response to the anti-establishment sentiments sweeping American campuses during the Vietnam War era.

A generation later, fraternities and sororities are back from the brink--and Jewish houses are experiencing a renaissance. "We've seen more women interested in historically Jewish sororities," says Bonnie Wunsch, executive director of the Jewish-oriented sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, "and our strongest AEPhi chapters--at the University of Texas, University of Florida, and Emory University, for example--are those with strong Jewish identities." These frats and sororities are now organizing Shabbat and holiday meals, integrating kosher or kosher-style kitchens, planning trips to the Jewish state, and holding Israel events such as the joint AEPi and AEPhi-sponsored "Israel Amplified" advocacy seminar in Louisville, Kentucky, attended by eighty Jewish student leaders from across the country.

The role of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has also undergone a transformation. Ten years ago, Hillel activities generally consisted of Friday night prayer services followed by an occasional communal dinner. "Previously, [Hillel] was viewed as a synagogue on campus," Brandeis professors Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe write in "Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus" (January 2006). "In recent years, it [has] fought that image, becoming a primarily social and cultural organization."

Nowadays, Hillel understands that Jewish engagement, as one campus Hillel director puts it, is "about the potpourri." Campus Hillels publish Jewish-oriented journals, organize birthright israel and community service trips, and host Israeli film festivals, pizza parties, and softball games, among other programs. Rachel Bookstein, director of "Beach Hillel" at California State University, Long Beach, explains that engaging students "is really about helping them determine where they are on the Jewish continuum, where they want to go, and how to help them get there. We have no planned endpoint, except for them to take control of their own Jewish identity."

At the University of Washington Hillel, Rabbi William Berkowitz has created the weekly "Conscious Community" salons--supportive environments in which Jewish undergraduates and grad students can openly grapple with any ambivalent feelings they may have about their Jewish identities, the Middle East conflict, and other issues. "I'm coming back to Jewish study with my more grown-up brain," says "Conscious Community" participant Dave Kamer, a thirty-year-old University of Washington med student. "Medical school is this loaded experience. Every day you're facing life and death. I find myself wrestling with things, and get to do it in a Jewish context."

The Students-- Meet the "Millennials"

Today's Jewish students are also different from their counterparts of years ago.

Attending college at a time when cultural, ethnic, and religious differences are celebrated and quotas obsolete, these hyper-communicative college students--the Millennials--are far less likely than their parents to define their Jewish identities in reaction to anti-Semitism and far more likely to publicly acknowledge their Jewishness. "It's much more common to see college students wearing yarmulkes, and outwardly displaying other Jewish symbols," says Jewish-American historian Professor Jonathan Sarna. "Like other cultural groups, there's been a coming out."

The Millennials are also the most activist generation of college students since the Boomers who marched on behalf of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. "From Darfur to campus janitors," says Wayne Firestone, the incoming national president of Hillel, "this generation of Jewish students is showing a greater concern for what's happening to the other"--organizing rallies to bring world attention to the atrocities in Darfur and demonstrating solidarity with campus maintenance workers seeking better compensation packages. Some 1,000 Jewish students joined this past year's Hillel-sponsored relief missions to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, where they cleared debris and repaired roofs. "Many of these students feel passionate about being Jewish but aren't necessarily religious," says Cindy Greenberg, director of NYU's Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. "[Jewish-led social action] allows them to express themselves Jewishly in ways they can feel really proud of."

The Middle East Conflict-- New Issues, New Solutions

At the onset of the second intifada in 2000, a war of words mirroring the Arab-Israeli conflict engulfed many American college campuses. Pro-Palestinian groups hosted conferences denouncing Zionism, aggressively campaigned in favor of Israel divestment, and staged demonstrations--in some cases erecting replicas of Israel's security barrier, which they referred to as "The Apartheid Wall."

It wasn't the first time that the Middle East conflict had made its way to campus. After Israel's Six-Day War victory in 1967, many campus radicals who opposed the Vietnam War embraced the Palestinian cause. This created a quandary for some left-leaning Jewish students, says Professor Sarna. In some circles, being "a good liberal meant opposing Israel, because Israel was thought to be imperialist."

The Middle East conflict a generation later has, however, been markedly different. Then, Israel's occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza was being debated. Today, the issue is Israel's very right to exist as a Jewish state. "It has not been a matter of discussing policy," Professor Sarna says, "[but] about analogizing Israel to South Africa, to an apartheid state that must be dismantled."

Israel's defenders have responded by launching an educational and cultural counteroffensive. Partnering with several private Jewish foundations, Hillel has trained student volunteers to become pro-Israel advocates and, joining forces with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, established the Israel on Campus Coalition. Today, the ICC encompasses twenty-seven diverse American Jewish organizations--from the Anti-Defamation League to the Jewish National Fund--all of which advocate for Israel through joint sponsorship of pro-Israel campus programming. The result is a less defensive and more mature Israel advocacy on campus--and, overall, it seems to be paying off, bolstering student support for the Jewish state, one event at a time.

Israel campus advocacy has also become more progressive. In the past, Jewish students who loved the Jewish state but were critical of specific Israeli policies could seek solidarity with the centrist and somewhat hawkish campus-based Israeli public affairs committees. Today, at twenty North American campuses they have the option of joining the Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ), united under the banner "Student Activists for Peace in Israel/Palestine." The UPZ's "2006 Peace Accords Campaign" calls on Jewish and Muslim student leaders to develop a framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Groups of Jewish and Muslim students are in the process of drafting accords to be presented at the annual UPZ conference this November.

Scholarship--Learning for Jewish Living

On the academic front, too, students have more options than ever to deepen their Jewish knowledge.

In 1966, for example, approximately sixty universities offered Jewish studies classes. In 1992 (the last year for which statistics are available), more than 400 North American universities included Jewish studies-related courses in their curriculum. As Professor Sarna says, "There's hardly a significant college in America that doesn't offer [these] courses." Notably, the classes are not only attended by Jews. At Harlem's City College of New York, for example, approximately 95 percent of the students taking Jewish studies classes aren't Jewish.

There's also been an expansion of endowed chairs in Israel studies. Several universities, including Emory, New York University, and, most recently, Columbia, have established these chairs, partly to counter the anti-Israel bias of existing Middle Eastern Studies departments. The field of Israel studies is vital, writes Kenneth W. Stein, an Emory professor and director of the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel. "Most Jewish students who arrive on campus know about holidays, traditions, customs, Bible and prayer, but...know little about the modern Israeli narrative. This presents a dangerous weakness, for if you do not know the story, you cannot tell it, and you certainly cannot defend it--even if you disagree with parts of it."

From Greek and Hillel life to social action and Jewish studies, the Millennial generation is enjoying a more Jewishly rich campus life--a legacy that is sure to shape their future.

--Gabrielle Birkner, writer in New York

Core Contacts

The RJ Insider's Guide to COLLEGE is a collaborative project of Reform Judaism magazine, the URJ KESHER College Department, and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. To read and e-mail this college section as well as RJ's online exclusives, visit To request additional printed copies of the college guide contact To learn more about KESHER's Reform college programs see page 55, visit, phone 212-650-4070, or e-mail For additional information about Jewish life on hundreds of campuses throughout the world, contact Hillel at 202-449-6500 or visit


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