Next week, universities in Israel will open their doors to more than 300,000 students – whether physically or virtually. Most of these students will emerge after three or four years with a degree in a field they have chosen from a profusion of options that suits their interests, personality and aspirations. They will also have chosen what extracurricular activities to join, whether to live in an apartment, in the dorms or at their parents’ home, whom to hang out with and what part-time job to look for.
So many choices, which together make up the type of experience they will have in college, and the kind of person they will become. The only area of their development for which they will not be offered a plethora of choices is perhaps the most important one of all – their Jewish identity.Students will likely encounter a narrow range of possibilities for Jewish life during their time on campus, predominately offered by Chabad or national-religious synagogues and beit midrash (study hall) programs. In an era when choices are abundant, Jewish choices in the Jewish homeland make for slim pickings.
As an American-Israeli who has moved back and forth between the US and Israel three times in my life, I am a chronic seeker of authentic Jewish identity on both sides of the ocean. I have often been told that the difference between Jewish identity in Israel and abroad is that Jews have to be active about their Jewish identity in the Diaspora, while in Israel one simply breathes it “in the air.” Wrong. While you might not be able to lose a sense of Jewish identity entirely, if you are not active about defining your own Judaism in Israel, someone else will do it for you.
The Jewish identity “in the air” is typically a national-religious one. If we rely on the “default” Judaism in Israel of 2020, then the identity infused in us and in our children will be of a particular Orthodox approach – whether we choose to practice it or not. If one wishes to uphold a Jewish identity of a different variety – Reform, Conservative, pluralistic, secular or even liberal/feminist Orthodox – one needs to be conscious and conscientious about actively replacing the identity of “the air” with the identity of choice - of the heart and mind.
Most non-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish Israelis go through a typical set of milestones in life: school, IDF service, university. Each stage contributes to our personal and professional development, as well as to the formation of our Israeli and Jewish identity. Those of us that care about the Jewish identity of Israelis and the Jewish character of our state need to actively ensure that Jewish pluralism is adequately represented at each milestone of Israeli life. In schools we need to watch out for “hadata” – “religionization” of school curricula; in the army we need to pay attention to the encroachment of the IDF Rabbinate upon educational and cultural activities and in the university arena – perhaps the last formal milestone in the identity-forming journey of an Israeli young adult – we need to be vigilant about offering students a plethora of options for being Jewish.
Hillel Israel, the Israeli arm of Hillel International – the world’s largest global Jewish student organization – is the only Jewish organization in Israel located on campuses across the country that offers students pluralistic approaches to being Jewish. With a focus on Jewish peoplehood, as a non-denominational, apolitical approach to engagement, Hillel Israel creates meaningful educational experiences that inspire hundreds of students every year to explore their Jewish identity and to feel a sense of belonging to the global Jewish people.
Jewish pluralism in Israel is often overlooked and always underfunded. This is especially salient today on Israeli campuses. Overshadowed by heavily funded Orthodox outreach groups, pluralistic options on campus are either small or non-existent. Israeli students – from both secular and religious backgrounds - often don’t know to look for something other than the default Orthodox options and often feel it’s either the (capital O) Orthodox way or the highway.
University students are at a point in their lives when they are making decisions about their lives as adults and shaping the way they will build their future and families. It is therefore critical to ensure that they are offered a healthy diversity of Jewish options, and that they are better prepared to make mindful, conscious choices regarding their Jewish identity on campus and beyond.
While we might not know who Israel’s leaders will be in 20 years, we know where they are now: On campus. The question is: what kind of Jewish identity will our future leaders have? So, have a conversation with your university-age children sitting at home on Zoom about what kind of Jews they want to be. Seek out Hillel on campus. Demand government funding for pluralistic Jewish programming on (and off) campus. Don’t just unconsciously inhale the Judaism in the air. Let’s add some spice, and take a deep breath.
The writer is the director-general of Hillel Israel.