Jewish campus groups optimistic despite statistics

For Jewish leaders on college campuses, recent Pew study findings only encourages them in their work.
  • Study finds that 93%25 of older Jewish adults identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.
  • 68%25 of Jewish Millennials identify as Jews by religion.
  • The percentage of U.S. Adults who say they are Jewish has declined by about half since the late 1950s and is now a little less than 2%, according to a Pew Research Center study released last week.

    For Jewish leaders on college campuses, this only encourages them in their work.

    “We need to examine how our Jewish community is changing and come up with solutions,” says Evan Traylor, a freshman engagement intern at University of Kansas Hillel. “Just about every Shabbat, Hillel is going to have something. If you want to add a Jewish experience to your week, the opportunity is always there.”.

    Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International, says his organization works to provide a meaningful Jewish experience to every Jewish college student.

    He said while reaction to the study was negative, he remains optimistic about the outlook for American Judaism because organizations such as Hillel are building future Jewish communities on college campuses.

    “We focus on Jewish learning, the ethical and social action that makes up our Jewish faith,” he says. “The goal is to be welcoming to every Jewish student on campus. It is extremely important at that time when young people are forming their plans for their life that they build into that their Jewish identity.”.

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    The Pew Research Center study also found that 93% of older Jewish adults identify as Jewish on the basis of religion, while 7% identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. This is contrasted with 68% of Jewish Millennials who identify as Jews by religion and 32% who identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

    These statistics do not show a community that is contracting, says Bradley Harmon, a Jewish student at American University, but rather that Jewish values do not have to come solely from religion.

    “I personally don’t see [the study] as the big terrible thing that some of my family and friends seem to think it is,” Harmon wrote via e-mail. “We’re not just a set of beliefs. We’re also a people with a homeland and a strong history.”.

    Harmon is the founder and co-president of J Street U, a pro-Israel group on campus. He says his school’s Jewish community is strong because it focuses on both religious and cultural ideas.

    “Ensuring a strong Jewish community is important partially as a place for students to go and feel at home or continue engaging with their traditions,” Harmon says.

    Also at American University, Danny Dubin says the Jewish community there focuses on personal relationships.

    “It is vital that young people in the Jewish community are shown an exciting view of the religion from the start,” the Jewish Student Association religious and cultural vice president said via e-mail.

    Traylor says the Pew Research Center statistics show areas where college Jewish programs can improve.

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    “We need to look at the statistics and see that more people are connecting to cultural norms as opposed to religious norms and see how we can bridge that,” Traylor says. “It used to be very much the entire community comes together to read Torah. Now, it’s the entire community comes together to celebrate Shabbat by having a dinner … [The study shows] we need to be aware of these changing trends and see how we can make sure people are still connected to the community.”.

    Allison Hammond is a junior at the University of Kansas.

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