Investing in College Students as Innovators of Jewish Life on Campus

By Rabbi Ana Bonnheim

They stood in a circle, counting big breaths, in and out, standing straight and, every few moments, adjusting to stand straighter. They continued to breathe, eyes closed, and then slowly, the group began to hum. Those hums turned to lai lais, those lai lais became a melody, and the soft sound of a Joey Weisenberg niggun spontaneously arose from the group. Eighteen college students standing in the circle joined together, some voices louder than others, some more confident, some more musical, as Shabbat approached.

This poignant moment was just one of many during Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Founders’ Fellowship retreat last November. The Founders’ Fellowship is an idea-incubator that supports Jewish college students to develop or expand a Jewish initiative for their campus. This year, our eighteen fellows attend schools all over North America, from Montreal, Waltham, New Haven and Austin, to Ann Arbor, Stanford, Claremont, and more.

The fellowsprojects and the spirit they bring to the fellowship provide an anecdotal look into what matters to Jewish college students today. These students are among the leaders on their campuses: some are running their Hillels or Jewish Student Associations, others are searching for something new, trying to find a place for their vision of Jewish life. About one third aspire to become Jewish professionals, while the majority are committed to holding Jewish values and Jewish practice as the lens through which they view other professional goals.

The initiatives the Fellows chose to focus on for this program can be grouped into a few key areas:

  1. Creating or deepening interfaith connections, such as a Sikh-Jewish seder, a weekly lunch discussion on a given religious text, a Muslim-Jewish community meal, or a shared day of service;
  2. Creating pluralistic experiences to build connections between Jews with different backgrounds, such as a paired, ongoing chavruta experience or a shared philosophy discussion group;
  3. Creating new Jewish student groups to address needs that are missing on campus, like a new minyan, a Jewish musical group, a Jewish outdoors club, or creating basic programming for a campus’ newly organized Hillel; and
  4. Focusing on, reimagining, redeveloping, or shifting the standard Jewish Shabbat experience on campus by means of creating a new prayer book, creating a city-wide Jewish college student Shabbat, or revitalizing Shabbat on campus with the goal of infusing it with more joy.

When reading through such an impressive (but not comprehensive) list of student-driven initiatives, we can ask a few questions: Where do we see Jewish college students’ energy? What kinds of Jewish experiences are college student leaders seeking? What can we, Jewish professionals and committed Jewish adults, learn from these leaders?

A common thread among the themes above is a commitment to a sense of radical inclusion: of welcoming anyone interested in Jewish practice and thought, of balancing a commitment to the integrity of the Jewish experience with a sense of welcome. So many of the fellows shared stories of feeling like outsiders in their Jewish communities growing up and being motivated to create a warmer community for themselves and the next generation.

The simple fact that it is possible to categorize Founders’ Fellows initiative ideas illuminates where Jewish college students’ passionate energy lies: in meaningful, regular, communally-based holiday observance, particularly Shabbat; in developing genuine connections between students of different backgrounds, whether they be differing Jewish backgrounds or other religious backgrounds; in developing values-based community, whether around a shared passion, like outdoor adventure, or principle, like egalitarianism; and in creating authentic, spiritual moments in community through music, study, and conversation.

In a time when it’s easy to feel ever more polarized and alone, when Jewish students feel increasingly marginalized on many college campuses, the Founders’ Fellows projects exemplify hopefulness for Jewish connection and community. The Fellows’ projects are inherently optimistic: they have not only identified a problem on their campus, but they sought not to be complainers but to jump in and engage creatively to improve the Jewish experience on their campuses.

While the Founders’ Fellowship data pool is admittedly small, their commitment to living Jewishly and to Jewish leadership, along with their willingness to work on making their communities even better is outsized and deserves our respect and attention. The Fellows’ passion, creativity, initiative, energy, and Jewish commitment mean that we, the Jewish communal world, will see them again and again in the years to come. They will push us all to do better and will help us in identifying and working on the challenges we continue to struggle with and those we have not yet even identified.

To apply for the Founders’ Fellowship 2018-19 cohort, visit: huc.edu/founders-fellowship

Rabbi Ana Bonnheim is the program director for HUC-JIR’s Founders’ Fellowship. She lives in Charlotte, NC.