Jewish freshmen seek community on campus

Close to 2/3 of Jewish students at Texas Univ. aren't part of Jewish life on campus.

It's "movein" weekend at the University of Texas at Austin. First-year students and their parents are busy unloading clothes, boxes and electrical appliances. Most are too rushed to notice a Hillel table set up outside the dorm, with its blue-and-white poster, brightly colored brochures and a smiling young woman handing out lollipops. But Julie Unger, 22, is persistent. A recent graduate herself, Unger is a Jewish Campus Service Fellow hired for a year by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to reach out to Jewish students. Her business card sports her phone number and the message, "I'll take you out for ice cream." "It's part of my job," Unger says, as she flashes a smile at a crowd of passing students. "I have my first coffee date Monday. I'm real excited!" Austin, with 37,000 undergraduates, is the campus of choice for young Jewish Texans. The Towers dormitory, where Unger has positioned herself, is close to 60 percent Jewish. Many incoming freshmen are already running into friends from their Houston or Dallas high schools right there in the lobby. "There are 4,000 Jewish students here, and 500 to 1,000 come to our events," Unger says. "But there are 3,000 others who don't come. They think Hillel is just for religious students; it has some kind of stigma. Those are the ones I'm trying to reach." There are about 250,000 Jewish undergraduates on American college campuses, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Twenty-seven percent of them attend Hillel activities. Since Hillel's umbrella includes nearly every on-campus Jewish student group, except Chabad and Jewish fraternities, that means close to two-thirds of Jewish college students are not part of Jewish life on campus. That has Jewish professionals - and Jewish parents - worried. Largely to address those concerns, the Hillel staff in Washington embarked a year ago on a strategic planning effort to find out who these Jewish students are, what they want and how campus Jewish organizations can better serve them. Hillel, which provides services to students at more than 500 colleges and universities in North America, will release those findings at the annual gathering of North American federations next week in Toronto. The JTA asked those same questions of more than 75 first-year students at four US campuses this fall - the University of Texas at Austin, New York University, the University of California at Los Angeles and Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college near San Jose, California. From the informal survey, students overwhelmingly say they are looking for a Jewish social circle. In Austin, Frances Shwarts is one of the first students to stop by Unger's table. A Dallas native, she finished 12 years of Hebrew school at her Conservative synagogue, was active in the movement's United Synagogue Youth, in BBYO, the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, and she went on a teen trip to Israel. "They forced me all the way," she laughs. Shwarts says she'll "definitely" come to Hillel activities because she likes Friday night services, and "likes being surrounded by Jewish people; it's really comfortable." Shwarts' comments reflect what students on these four campuses most say they want from Jewish organizations: Jewish friends and a place to go for holiday services when they can't get home. "I'm not terribly religious, but it's a good place to connect with likeminded people," says Houston native Jonathan Graber, who graduated from his Conservative synagogue's Hebrew high school. "I have tons of Christian friends, but it's nice to have that Jewish connection - it's one less obstacle to overcome." Some Jewish freshmen, like Graber and Shwarts, want to join Jewish groups to continue the Jewish social life they knew in high school. Others, who were active Jewishly in high school, get burned out by the time they hit college, and don't want anything to do with campus Jewish life, says junior Mimi Hall, an activist in Texans for Israel, a campus pro-Israel group. Unger, the Hillel representative, says Austin is "a big party school," unlike her alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. Whereas Israel activism is high on the Jewish agenda at Berkeley to counter the large pro-Palestinian presence there, Unger is focusing more on social programming at Austin - bagel brunches, barbecue get-togethers, ice cream socials. At the group's first such event, a welcome brunch, first-year student David Auslender is one of four dozen new and transfer students to attend. "I thought it would be a good way to meet people," he says, adding that he thinks the synagogue his family goes to in Poquoson, Virginia, is Reconstructionist. He goes to services with them occasionally, but says he isn't particularly interested in services or in Israel, while he's in college. A few freshmen at the brunch say they do want regular religious services. "Judaism has always been very dear to my heart, and I want to maintain that here," says Robalin.