By Rabbi Adam Grossman
I commend the attempt by Leonard Saxe, Michelle Shain, Graham Wright and Shahar Hecht to accurately isolate the number of Jewish students on U.S. college campuses in the article, How Many Jewish Undergraduates?.
Our team at the University of Florida (UF) Hillel believes that understanding this number is important to ensure accountability in our work and to maximize Jewish and Israel engagement for Jewish college students, especially from the disengaged, disenfranchised and disconnected.
We understand the need for accurate data, but the data we are most interested in and proud of, is the extraordinary results we are seeing with our methodology to engage the unaffiliated and unidentified Jewish students at UF.
While the random sampling approach used by the researchers is indeed a “gold standard” methodology, we believe it is not as reliable as the actual numbers of Jewish student contacts we have collected.
During the 2017-18 academic year, we accumulated the contact information for 10,444 UF students. Although not every one of these students is Jewish, 1,959 students visited three or more times, and of those students, 1,222 students visited six or more times.
With only 2,300 Jewish students, as estimated by Saxe, Wright, and Hecht, this would mean that 85% of Jewish students at UF have engaged with UF Hillel 3+ times and 53% 6+ times. While we would love to think (and brag) that we are engaging 85% of the UF Jewish student population at least 3 times we believe that this would be an extreme anomaly, Especially when one considers the current downward trend of 18-22 year olds engaging with traditional institutions.
In addition, UF Hillel sends seven buses annually on Birthright Israel trips. During the experience, we ask student participants to use the ShareSomeFriends app to recommend friends at UF who might be interested and eligible for Birthright Israel. This approach alone yields 3,000 eligible Birthright Israel participants yearly.
Four years ago, UF Hillel recognized the difficulty that our organization was having with identifying and engaging the disengaged, disenfranchised and disconnected Jewish students on our campus. Since then, our mission has shifted to focus on the relevant needs of students, which has transformed the way Jews at UF relate to Judaism and Israel.
The result has been a ground-breaking, award-winning and nationally recognized model to engage today’s Jewish college students and more importantly, has created a new generation of Jewish leaders to secure the future for Judaism and Israel.
In the end, our focus is less on how many Jewish students there are at UF and more on how we can increase the number of students – most of whom do not identify as Jewish – to become energized and connect with Judaism and Israel, so we can develop the Jewish leaders and future Jewish communities necessary to safeguard our future.
For further information about our process of engagement and the importance of these numbers can be found in the following eJP article: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/coffee-for-closers/.
Rabbi Adam Grossman, who is a Slingshot Guide Award recipient and member of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders network, is the CEO of the University of Florida Hillel, co-founder of the Selling Factory and co-founder of Career Up Now.