College students have lots to grapple with as they return to school or set foot on campus for the first time. But amid all the communal worry about "losing" kids at this crucial age comes a surprising bit of news: Jewish consciousness among young adults in college and graduate school is actually rising.
This is the finding of a recent survey of 600 American Jewish undergrads and grad students. Commissioned by Hillel and conducted by Penn Schoen & Berland, the study found that nearly half of these so-called millennials participate in Hillel events, a 12 percentage point increase from the last time the poll was conducted in 2005. More than half of those surveyed said they would participate in a Hillel event in the next month, up from 36 percent seven years ago. The study also found that 74 percent of the students viewed Hillel favorably, an increase of 13 percentage points.
That only half of Jewish students connect with Jewish life on campus may not seem a great reason to celebrate. But if it indeed marks an upward trend, we can be cautiously optimistic. The challenge, of course, is selling Jewish life to a skeptical cohort, many of whom come from assimilated backgrounds or from interfaith families where they weren't being raised Jewish.
Sometimes the climate on campus is less than friendly. Incidents of excessive anti-Israel activity or acts of brutal anti-Semitism exist, as evidenced by the incident last week at Michigan State University where party-goers allegedly stapled shut the mouth of a Jewish college student after asking him if he was Jewish and giving the Nazi salute. In California, where a string of anti-Semitic incidents have poisoned the atmosphere on several campuses, the State Assembly passed a symbolic resolution calling on the state's institutions of higher learning to combat anti-Semitism and to squelch campus demonstrations against Israel.
But such incidents, as troubling as they are, are the exceptions not the rule. The greatest danger of all is apathy. The strategies employed by Hillel, Chabad and many other institutions, including Birthright Israel, deserve credit for helping students connect Jewishly.
The wider Jewish community also has a role to play: to support and encourage programming that enhances Jewish identity, educates in a way that allows for honest exploration and enables students to grapple with some of the more complex issues surrounding faith and Israel as only college students can.
We wish all our Jewish students a hearty b'hatzlacha, good luck, as they embark on a new academic — and hopefully Jewishly fulfilling — year.