The cost of COVID-19 on campus Jewish life - opinion

'COVID will continue to change the landscape of Jewish education going forward.'

Chabad at USC holds a Hanukkah get-together. ‘I see a greater willingness for even the most distant students to engage in their Jewish identity.’ (photo credit: CHABAD AT USC)
Chabad at USC holds a Hanukkah get-together. ‘I see a greater willingness for even the most distant students to engage in their Jewish identity.’
(photo credit: CHABAD AT USC)

What has COVID-19 done to Jewish life on campus? Today, on most campuses with a significant Jewish population, there are three main Jewish organizations offering various types of activities: Hillel, Chabad and Olami.

Hillel International was founded in 1923 and is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, with over 500 locations worldwide. I consulted with the friend of a friend, Lily Gross (LG), Director of Jewish Student Life at Hillel of the University of Denver.

Chabad on Campus was founded in 1969. Today, there are 185 branches on North American campuses and an additional 250 globally. I consulted with a close friend, Rabbi Dov Wagner (DW) who – with his wife Runya – has directed Chabad of USC for over 20 years.

Olami has been around for fewer than 20 years. Working with its partners, Olami is already operating in close to 300 chapters worldwide, including 65 North American campuses. I consulted with Rabbi David Markowitz (DM), their managing directors, and a former direct boss of mine. (Don’t worry, we still like each other. At least I think so.)

Together, these three organizations account for the vast majority of organized Jewish life on campuses. I asked each the same four questions:

Students bring in Shabbat at the Chabad of the Fashion Institute of Technology, a partner of Mosaic United. (credit: APRIL BLUM/COURTESY OF MOSAIC UNITED)Students bring in Shabbat at the Chabad of the Fashion Institute of Technology, a partner of Mosaic United. (credit: APRIL BLUM/COURTESY OF MOSAIC UNITED)

Question 1: It seems today that there are endless Jewish resources for young Jews. Are they being used?

LG: There are usually many options. When students find the options that align with their wants and needs I think they are used… I see a craving for gathering, Jewish ritual and community. I think connecting students with the right resources for them is one of the hardest parts.

DW: In many instances, available resources are chasing the low-hanging fruit, but not necessarily reaching the more challenging places where they are most needed. For instance: If a student is passionate about Jewish learning, there are any number of ways they can engage in a study program. If a student is passionate about Israel advocacy, they can get to Israel for free or virtually free twice a year throughout their college careers, with different organizations each and every time. But what about the student who doesn’t know enough to care? The only way they’ll be engaged is by a personal relationship with a Jewish role model willing to reach them where they’re at. And how much of the resources of the broader Jewish community is being employed to support that kind of work? My own experiences… indicate that the broader Jewish world seems far more interested and activated by a single instance of negative hate on campus than by thousands of positive Jewish engagements.

DM: Today, there are tremendous resources on all fronts, in print and online, apps, podcasts… There is an audience for each of these, and we need to keep producing and offering more and more, but honestly most typical college students and young professionals are simply not looking for these resources. Despite all the amazing efforts of wonderful Jewish organizations of all kinds, we need to rethink how we communicate with the vast majority of Jews on campus.

Question 2: Do you see Birthright as having changed the dynamic of Jewish identity? Do you foresee it coming back as strong after COVID?

LG: Birthright is definitely an incredible opportunity for students to connect to their Jewish identity. Unfortunately... to have an opportunity to connect to other students, their Judaism, and the state of Israel nonstop for 10 days creates a bond with each of these aspects that I think will/does change them.

DW: Birthright has dramatically impacted the Jewish identity of our most disassociated demographics. It is a given to many students who rarely engage in almost any kind of Jewish activity that at some point in their college or post-college years they will “do Birthright.” And when they do – especially if they participate in one of the better-staffed options – they come back for the first time in their lives considering their Jewishness as a key part of who they are. They come back feeling that Israel and its people are actually a part of who they are, and not just another foreign country in another part of the world. And I believe the demand for Birthright as COVID subsides will be stronger than ever before, as it has created a significant thirst for connection, for impactful experiences and for travel.

DM: Birthright is well-known and introduces young Jews to Israel and Jewish life, which are fantastic. Many or most young Jews would never have gone to Israel without it… or Jewish camp experience. While much depends on the staff and follow-up, Birthright creates something – a baseline, a positive connection.

Question 3: How has COVID affected the quality and quantity of student involvement in your programs?

LG: I have seen a huge transformation in engagement this year compared to last... Students are craving connection and Judaism is such a fun and recognizable way for students to find it. We are still going through the struggle of sickness which gets in the way of large gatherings in the way we want them. Some students are also not comfortable coming to programming. Masks do make connecting difficult in a lot of ways… COVID will continue to change the landscape of Jewish education going forward.

DW: While classes were remote, there was a significant negative impact. While we pivoted to online experiences and to-go Shabbat meals and limited/distanced in-person interactions, those were – while deeply appreciated and therefore impactful for the participants – considerably less fulfilling in both reach and depth. Since in-person classes have resumed… more students are getting involved than ever before – as much as 50-100% growth for us in key programs like Shabbat and holidays – and many of them seem a lot more open to deeper intellectual and spiritual engagement than before. Whether this is a fleeting or lasting phenomenon remains to be seen, but like every opportunity if properly embraced should itself create lasting shifts in the reach of those who are able to channel the possibilities.

DM: There is no doubt that COVID has been rough for Jewish life on campuses. We’ve lost momentum. Most students get introduced to Jewish programming friend to friend. And that link has been weakened. Still, difficult situations lead to growth in other ways. Home-cooked meals being delivered. Online opportunities and communities. Overall, our engagement and interest have been up! None of us who are running this immersive educational environment know… we may have to do things differently after the pandemic. That may end up being a good thing. That being said, Jewish involvement is not an on/off switch. It is hard to quantify the loss of the in-person and immersive programming. Our trips were some of Olami’s most popular programming – and it may be years until people are comfortable to travel again in the same way. This is a time to explore new avenues of immersive engagement that we never considered. Local travel, VR and new avenues are being explored.

Question 4: What do you see happening over the next 3-5 years? Are things moving in a good direction?

LG: I hope so! I hope that we can find more opportunity to provide staff support, elevated education programs, travel/experiential learning opportunities at reduced costs, cross campus programming and opportunities for students to connect post-college. There is much to do.

DW: I think things are always moving in multiple directions. On the one hand, the degree of disconnect increases from year to year. Even just 20 years ago, many if not most students had memories of a strongly identified Jewish grandparent, one who had immigrated with connection to a very different Jewish world. That number is dwindling, and the majority of our Jewish students today are from families at best loosely affiliated with their Jewish identity. On the other hand, I see resources like Chabad on Campus… and so many others growing and strengthening across the country and around the world. I see a greater openness and willingness for even the most distant students to engage in their Jewish identity, when it is offered to them on their terms without judgment or demands… 

DM: I am eternally optimistic. There are certainly ups and downs. We’re making great efforts as are other fine organizations such as Hillel, Birthright, and Chabad. Many students are searching. People want spirituality, want meaning. We see great things on campuses all over the world. Yet we must be honest and realize that assimilation is undeniable. Every year, students are less and less connected. Demographers have made it clear that in 15-20 years, things look quite bleak for Jewish identity among the young. So, all Jewish organizations need to do even more. We all need to grow, expand and become even more effective!

The writer is an author, international speaker and licensed tour guide in Israel. He is also a recovering cynic.