Hillel Challenged by Jewish Students Lacking Knowledge, Commitment

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Israel is challenged on campus like never before. Many Jewish students arrive at college bereft of Jewish knowledge and commitment to their Jewish identities.

For many alumni and parents, collective responsibility of all the campuses in their midst has given way to supporting a handful of particular schools. These are the challenges facing any Jewish leader on campus today.

Is Rabbi Howard Alpert, who in his 30 years as CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia has become as acquainted as anyone with such changes in Jewish campus life, dismayed or discouraged for the future?


Not one bit.

“I am very optimistic,” he said May 16, a little more than two weeks before the June 2 Vision and Values Celebration at the University of Pennsylvania’s Steinhardt Hall, where he will be honored by his organization for his three decades of service. “The fact is, human beings, certainly our Jewish students, have wonderful neshamas. There is a spark of Jewishness in them that is waiting to be lit.”

The challenges of the lure of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and a new crop of students for whom Israel, while important, is just another foreign country are real. But in Alpert’s conception of his mission, the only thing to do is to retool, evolve and adapt.

“Hillel of Greater Philadelphia was a pioneer in strategies for engaging [different cohorts of] Jewish students,” he explained. “We created two separate tracks. One is the empowerment track, for those who want to build the Jewish community. We do that separate from the Jewish Renaissance Project, which is a track focused on students who aren’t interested in developing Jewish leadership, but who are interested in being impacted by Jewish experiences.”

When it comes to those campuses traditionally underserved by Hillel — schools such as Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore colleges, West Chester University and Penn State-Abington — Alpert is taking the strategy of engagement further by focusing efforts on catering to grassroots groups of students who are aided by committed faculty.

“We’re creating different models of service that rely on senior Jewish educators from a variety of backgrounds who are providing the Judaic substance that supports the work of faculty advisors,” he said. “At the same time, we’re helping to support those students who want to build [their own] Jewish communities.”

When it comes to Israel, Alpert sees Hillel, a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, as helping educate students, not as teachers but as facilitators.

“What changed over the last 30 years is that [then], most Jewish students, regardless of where they were coming from or how deeply they identified with Judaism, felt a basic connection to Israel as part of their Jewish identity,” he said. “Today, that can’t be assumed.”

Instead of lecturing students who are experimenting with different political ideologies, Alpert reflects back on his own experience as a college student in the late 1960s and ’70s. Back then, the Jewish community cast out a generation of students who, in the moment, held views outside of the communal umbrella, he said. Ten years down the line, the former students had moderated their stances, but the damage had been done.

Alpert urges a long view when it comes to dealing with students.

“This generation like no other since I was in college is really experimenting,” he said. “Unless we allow them to do that within the Jewish world, they will leave the Jewish people, so to speak, and even after they mature develop ideas closer to ours they will not reconnect.

“Our challenge is not where they are as 20-year-olds, but where they’re going to be … who they will be when they’re 25 and 30.”

Moshe Porat, the dean of the Fox School of Business and School of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University who will join Alpert on the dais at the June 2 event to be honored for his campus leadership and Israel advocacy, likewise has a strategy for stating the Jewish state’s case. But the Israeli-American academic — he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Tel Aviv University before completing his doctorate at Temple — appears to foster a simpler approach.

He’s not so much an activist — Porat is quick to point out that whereas other campuses confront anti-Israel sentiments on a regular basis, Temple is relatively quiet — as he is a facilitator.

His answer to Israel’s detractors? Tell the truth.

“That’s what I do. I’m trying to encourage everybody with the facts,” he said.

As Porat, who also is active with the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce, sees it, Israel, with its first-rate economy and remarkable recent history of technological development, has an amazing case to make on its own terms.

“If I had a mission in life beyond my responsibilities at Temple, it would be to send as many non-Jewish students, graduate students, faculty members to Israel, if even for a week or 10 days, to see it for themselves,” he explained. “Israel is pretty amazing, compared to when I was raised and what it is now.

“Obviously, there are forces in this world that could not win on the battlefront, so they use every other trick to dehumanize and delegitimize Israel,” Porat added. “The best way is to fight them with facts.”

Contact: jrunyan@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0744

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