Raising the Heads of the Congregation: Are Cliques Problematic for Jewish Student Organizations?

cliqueBy Jake Campbell

A clique can be defined as a group of people whose members share a significant level of social connections with few social connections outside of the group. That is, cliques are by definition insular social groups. Cliques are further usually characterized by a common experience or interest. Sororities, fraternities, youth groups, political groups, and Jewish day schools, are all student groups commonly subjected to the accusation of ‘cliquiness’ within Jewish student communities. This common interest, the reason that most people choose to be friends with one person and not another, might also be the reason a group is subjected to the accusation of clique. Although, is it really that unnatural for someone to be excluded from a group because they do not share the same interests or common experience?

For pluralistic Jewish student organizations like Hillels or Unions of Jewish Students, a naturally reappearing question related to engagement is that of inclusivity or ‘welcoming the stranger.’ The question, usually an accusation, but nonetheless genuinely constructive, follows along the lines of, “We have become too cliquey, how can become more welcoming?” However, this question is often centered upon an assumption that is more misleading than it is helpful and identifies a problem that rarely exists causing the demonization of a group (and sometimes a single person) for unfounded reasons. Indeed, the more popular a Hillel or other pluralistic Jewish student organization becomes, the more supposedly ‘cliquey’ groups are successfully engaged. After all, it is a key strategy of most Hillels to engage these strongly connected and large networks. Ironically, once these networks are successfully engaged, some feeling embittered by the exclusivity of these groups project this exclusivity to the whole of the Jewish student organization labeling it as ‘cliquey.’ How can a Jewish student organization that increases its engagement numbers be accused of exclusivity and denying the stranger simply because of the existence of these groups with strong common experiences and interests that other students do not share?

The answer is that they cannot. However, that does beg the question – when can a Jewish organization be considered exclusionary? The more obvious and quantifiable answers include when the accusations occur while engagement numbers are decreasing, and when a single clique encompasses the whole community of the Jewish student organization. However, there are characteristics of the leadership of Jewish student organizations that are very telling of a culture of exclusion. The leadership of any community should be the representation of the whole. After all, they often claim to be the representatives. The leadership must strive to welcome each person that has never walked through the door and celebrate them as an individual. As David Cygelman wrote in an eJewish Philanthropy article, “it takes two engaged young Jewish adults to reach one unengaged.” This is not only morally right, it is not only necessary strategy for the growth of a communal organization, any communal organization, but it is also an incredibly Jewish value. When Moishe is told to count the Jewish people, he is commanded to “raise the heads of the entire congregation.’ We are told that ‘raise’ is used rather than ‘count’ to express the love Hashem had for each individual Jew. Hashem knew the quantity of Jews. The commandment was given so that every individual Jew would know that they were special and to feel that Hashem noticed them as an individual, not just as a part of a whole. It was to raise their heads. We understand that this is one reason given for the custom to not count each Jew. As the Talmud states, blessing is not found “in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, only in something that is hidden from the eyes.” Each Jewish student is special and must be treated as such.

In the data driven world that we live in, Jews, especially Jewish youth, can be viewed as a resource, or a number, bet rarely as an individual craving for their heads to be raised.

However, when judging whether or not accusations of exclusivity are valid, Jewish student organizations must look at the data and at the willingness of the leadership to raise the head of each Jewish student. If the data shows growth, and if the leadership is actively engaging on a personal level with each new member of the community- judge the accusation as invalid. Intervention into a problem that does not exist will harm the success of your organization, and may even alienate members of the community who feel wrongfully demonized.

Jake Campbell is Jewish Student Life Coordinator at Hillel at FSU (Florida State Univ.) Foundation.