RJ Magazine Top Menu

Dear Reader: Rebooting Reform on Campus

A high percentage of Jews attend college, where their intellectual horizons are broadened, social ties forged, career directions discovered, and spiritual identities nurtured—or neglected. Most adults reflect back on those years as crucial in defining who they are today.

That is why the choice of a college looms as one of the biggest decisions a young person will make. Academic excellence, campus life, size, and cost factor into the search. Reform Judaism magazine’s outstanding RJ Insider's Guide to College Life, now in its eighth year, emphasizes Jewish criteria, such as the number or percentage of Jewish students, Jewish studies courses, and Reform worship opportunities.

How well Jewish college students are served on campus depends to a large extent on the rabbis with whom they interact. Who are they? According to a Senior Jewish Educator, seven out of ten rabbis on college campuses are Orthodox; of those, four are ultra-Orthodox. And these rabbis—many of whom are independently sponsored, not Hillel staff—are not only serving Orthodox Jews but seeking to engage our young people in traditional Jewish practice. It is distressing that Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious stream, is so underrepresented. And even where there is a Reform presence, its prayer and learning offerings are often anemic. For these and other reasons, even some of our most knowledgeable and engaged Reform youth on campus develop a Jewish inferiority complex. We’ve got to do better!

Last year, the Brown University-Rhode Island School of Design Hillel invited me to lead High Holy Day services (and I will do so again this year). I met many previously unengaged students who were very open to Reform Jewish life as long it was rich in meaning, relevance, and spiritual depth. Much to its credit, Hillel has adopted a new model, reaching outside its walls to involve Jewish students wherever they are, and has partnered with the URJ to engage students from Reform backgrounds. At Rutgers and USC, among other campuses, we are testing this model to connect with and nourish Reform students seeking a dynamic Jewish community committed to inclusion, learning, spiritual practice, and social justice.

College is one of our best opportunities to introduce young adults to serious Jewish thinking and living. We cannot afford to be absent. This will require significant investment in human and financial resources, as well as clear thinking and imagination. To reboot Reform on campus, we can do no less.