The crisis of embarrassment

Faced with polling that suggested students view Jewish life on campus as uncool, many Jewish groups began trying to shake that reputation.

Yale University (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yale University
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In just a few weeks, Jewish students across America will flock to college campuses. As their vans pull up to dorms and frustrated parents help sons and daughters empty trunks, here’s one thing these students probably won’t be unpacking: their Judaism.
For many, this represents the crux of the crisis facing American Jewry.
How, the thinking goes, can one expect these students to marry Jewish, engage with Judaism in any meaningful way, or even understand what it means to be Jewish if they aren’t involved with Jewish life during college? In our view, though – as two students at campuses with large but often unengaged Jewish populations – the problems extend well beyond whether a student is involved in Jewish life. The real crisis is not one of engagement, it’s one of embarrassment. And in this crisis, it’s the organizations tasked with saving Jewish life that are in fact contributing to its struggles.
To understand the crisis of embarrassment, one needs to understand how many Jewish organizations geared toward students have decided to fulfill their missions.
Faced with polling that suggested students often view organized Jewish life on campus as uncool or too religious, many Jewish groups began trying to shake that reputation. What has resulted – whether intentional or not – is that Jewish programming is often decidedly devoid of Jewish content, lest it be labeled “too Jewish.” So instead of post-Pessah programming, we have pizza parties with no reference to the holiday’s meaning; instead of an all-too-relevant discussion of Jewish family life, we have Jewish speed dating with no mention of why it’s important to date other Jews.
Very often, students return from social justice missions with little or no reference points for their work in Jewish sources.
Are we embarrassed of our own tradition? Make no mistake, the question of how to engage young Jews with Judaism in a way that is meaningful but still relevant, cool and inviting is as challenging as it is existential.
We confront this struggle daily. On our own campuses, we work with phenomenal Jewish professionals and lay leaders who work tirelessly to enrich Jewish life. But with that said, we suggest that there is more to be said about the state of Jewish life on campus and how “Jewish” it can and should be.
First, we need to articulate that in the collegiate “search for truth,” Judaism has a great deal to contribute.
It’s not enough to simply engage Jewish students. We need to have something to say. We need to be able to tell them that Judaism has a rich and vast range of views on issues that matter most to them, whether those relate to the existence of God or to social justice, and whether those views fall within the Reform or Orthodox purviews.
In order to do so, we ourselves need to know what Judaism has to say about the most pressing issues of the day. Which means, in effect, that we need to become teachers if we are to become effective leaders in the fight for the Jewish future.
For a model of what might be, we turn to the story of Leslie Wexner.
Three decades ago, the philanthropist declined an offer to lead a national Jewish organization. He was a successful CEO, but explained that his lack of Jewish education would preclude his offering effective leadership. Instead, he created the Wexner Heritage Program. The rest is history: The program he envisioned to educate young Jewish professionals has prepared hundreds of lay leaders for positions of responsibility. It has, in the words of his foundation, served to “deepen their Jewish values, and bring a Jewish language of discourse to their policy and decision-making in the community.”
Each product of Wexner’s program expresses his or her religious commitment differently. But the vast majority emerge with enhanced “authenticity, confidence, and effectiveness” as Jewish leaders.
They do not fear wearing their Judaism on their sleeves as they reach out to those beyond organized Jewish life.
It is such a model that we believe will sustain the Jewish future. A model in which Judaism stands for something, in which students engage with Jewish texts, and in which students wrestle with big questions and are exposed to Judaism’s answers. How to make this model cool remains a challenge – but we need to shift the dialogue from one in which being “too Jewish” is a detriment to one in which it is anything but. This is a model that need not be delayed until the post-college years.
The writers are juniors at Cornell and Columbia universities.