The fate of Diaspora Jewry lies in college and post-college years - opinion

During the college and post-college years, most young people are open and they are relatively easy to find.

 A Birthright group arrives in Ben Gurion Airport. (photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
A Birthright group arrives in Ben Gurion Airport.
(photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)

Brazilian political scientist Ilona Szabo once wrote that, “The Amazon is where humanity’s future will be decided.” Author and entrepreneur Mal Warwick argued that, “The world’s future will be decided in the Indian Ocean.” Radical environmentalist Roger Hallam upped the ante by declaring, “The future of humanity could be decided in the next four weeks.”

I have no idea where the fate of humanity lays, but I am fairly certain of where the fate of Diaspora Jewry will be decided: wherever university students and young professionals are found. True, Jewish schools, youth groups and summer camps are essential to Jewish continuity – of course.

However, the reality is that for many (most?) young people, the most opportune time to ignite the spark of Jewishness is the college and post-college years. During these years, there is ample time to explore. Even today, most young people are open. Also, they are relatively easy to find. 

No wonder billions have been spent on trying to keep Jewish college students Jewish. Together, Hillel, Chabad and Olami (the three largest Jewish campus organizations in the world) have a combined total of roughly 1,000 student centers around the world, offering a huge variety of Jewish social activities and educational programs for all types of students. In addition, as of 2022, more than 750,000 students have participated in free Birthright trips to Israel. 

Are all these investments paying off? What happens after college?

 One of the Chabad rabbis of Moldova with the Matzas for Ukrainian and Moldovian Jewish communities.  (credit: MOLDOVA JEWISH COMMUNITY) One of the Chabad rabbis of Moldova with the Matzas for Ukrainian and Moldovian Jewish communities. (credit: MOLDOVA JEWISH COMMUNITY)

One of my goals this summer was to spend time with Jewish college students and young professionals and see what their Jewish lives are like. By visiting with college students, I wanted to gauge where things are now. By visiting with young professionals, I wanted to judge what the results of previous investments were, and what more needs to be done.

To do so, I just spent a day traveling around Israel with students (and recent grads) from various universities around the world who are in Israel for a three-week study and touring trip based in Chabad’s Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and led by Cornell’s experienced Chabad shaliach, Rabbi Eli Silberstein, a noted scholar. What were my takeaways? 

(1) Young Jews continue to be an impressive lot – these are smart, engaged and interested young people;

(2) Birthright works. Nearly all these students had come on Birthright before and been inspired to come back. They openly say it was key to the development of their Jewish identity;

(3) Chabad works. Why do so many “secular” people of all ages connect with Chabad? The openness, non-judgmentalism and authenticity attracts them – it is a lesson we non-Chabadniks can learn from. 

I spent the rest of the week with the “Chevra” – a popular young professionals’ group in Philadelphia funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Olami, a growing educational and social organization for young Jews. Their gorgeous center in downtown Philly (currently closed for repairs after an electric fire) includes a large and well-stocked bar, a small but impressive art gallery, a venue for live music and ample room for lectures and classes. 

I’m not sure if the proper word is “hip” or “cool”, but the Chevra is both. The Chevra runs a yearly Philadelphia-Israel Fellowship (PIF) program, including six to eight evening classes and one Shabbat program in Philly, and then a subsidized 10-day tour of Israel, which includes hiking, kayaking, touring, a daily class about Jewish thought, deep discussions and a lot of bonding and fun. The goal? To connect young Jews to each other and Jewish life in a positive, inspirational way. 

Nearly all participants this year describe themselves as “secular.” Nearly all had been in Israel before with Birthright and said it was a positive experience. All wanted more: In Philadelphia, Birthright grads naturally find themselves attracted to the spirituality, learning and community of the Chevra. No wonder Olami is expanding this young professional model around the country, and more and more Federations nationwide are funding young professional groups.

Birthright has proven itself. Many hundreds of young Jews have come back this summer for follow-up trips. According to the educators and students I met with, many thousands or perhaps even tens of thousands more Jewish students, grad students and young professionals would happily return for “intermediate” level trips to Israel (with tons of fun – and daily Jewish learning) if the trips were made easily accessible and affordable. 

Have our investments in college students paid off? Definitely. Students very much value their campus activities with Hillel, Chabad and Olami. Indeed, a generation of otherwise “disconnected” Jewish young people has received a positive introduction to Israel and Jewish life. Several told me last week that for them, Israel wasn’t just a place visit – it “felt like home.” Many of these grads want to connect even more.

The Jewish world stepped up to the plate to create Birthright. Can we now expand follow-up trips to keep students and young professionals engaged?

In other words, Birthright trips have become the expected thing to do, which is great. Can we now expand the model to a second, “intermediate”-level visit to solidify the connection? 

Why not?

The writer is the author of Why Be Jewish? and the co-founder of Mosaica Press.