By Erica Frankel
I have a Torah waitlist. In my ten years working with Jewish college students, I never thought I would say this. I have been told at panels time and again that young people are interested in Jewish experiences with low barriers to entry. I have read the studies that tell me young people look to Jewish offerings with universal aspirations, like social justice. And, I have seen reports that tell me Jewish spaces with too much of a particularistic flavor turn off young Jews.
While I take these reports, studies, and panels seriously, they seem to be missing a critical truth about young people on campus today: they crave content and community. They are looking for Torah.
I know this because I run the Jewish Learning Fellowship (JLF) for Hillel’s Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience, which this year has 3,300 students enrolled on 139 campuses in a 10-week cohort based, pluralistic Torah study seminar. This is a 300 percent increase from one year ago. Students in JLF spend an evening each week studying Torah in a friendly, conversational setting and then participate in Shabbat experiences with their cohort.
For most, this is their first time encountering deep Jewish content that speaks to their lives.
We teach long sugyot from the Talmud, like the story of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, at the University of Kansas and at Cal State Northridge, asking students to consider the nature of friendship and mentorship. We delve into gemarot in Mishna Yoma at Muhlenberg College, the University of Maryland, and the University of Minnesota, inviting students to think through the dynamics of resentment and forgiveness. At the University of California at Berkeley and Boston College, we read the Talmud carefully in Brachot when it ruminates on what to say to a bride on her wedding day.
Students at Yale and York Universities, at Drexel and DePaul are longing for Torah. Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA all have JLF classes, as do Susquehanna University, Kent State University, and the College of Staten Island. I see the importance of building a highly curated, thoughtful social experience for young people. Indeed, my colleague and I have written previously about the importance of being “Social by Design” in all we do. What is missing in so many cases, however, is Torah. Not Jewish text, or wisdom, but Torah.
I use the word Torah to indicate a way of interacting with rabbinic literature that is sacred, inspiring, and unsettling at times. Reading Torah means opening myself up to the text laying a claim to my life and my behavior. It is an encounter at a deeply personal level as well, as I am studying my people’s covenantal tradition and not that of another. I can still disagree, argue, and protest what I read in rabbinic literature. And, I can creatively turn it on its head with a better reading. All these are options in Torah. It is this kind of experience which students around the country are signing up for. So many, in fact, that I have a Torah waitlist. A few months ago, it was well over 600 students who came to their Hillel professionals asking to enroll in JLF but for whom we did not have enough space. We have managed to get it down to the mid 200s. If things continue apace, I imagine it will grow in the coming year.
Last week, I heard the actor Alec Baldwin make a comment about performing in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway. He said, “It was a lot of pressure, because we know the material works. If the show bombs, it’s on us not the material.” I feel this way studying Torah with students. We know this material works. If it bombs, it’s on us. Fortunately, it seems to be working, and there’s a line around the block.
Erica Frankel is the Director of the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience, the think and do tank of Jewish education of Hillel International.