The More the Merrier: Boosting Jewish Engagement on Campus Via A Unified Community of Organizations

Photo: Meor Yale

By Rabbi Yaakov Lyons

To me, Alison Barshak was like Confucius with a 12-inch kitchen knife and rubber chef’s clogs. The summer before my junior year of high school, I cut vegetables a few feet away from Alison, a famous chef and restaurateur, who, as an expert in her field, always offered profound answers to my questions about cooking, the foodservice industry, and life, as she chopped, mixed, and grilled.

One day, I noticed that a new restaurant had opened just across the street. “I bet you’re upset that they opened another restaurant so close by,” I said, trying to get a rise out of her.

“Absolutely not,” she responded, not even looking up from the fish she was cleaning. “Everyone benefits when there are a lot of restaurants around. People will say, ‘Let’s go to the city, there are great places to eat there.’ Then they decide where they want to go. The more exciting the location, the more customers for every restaurant in the area.”

As Alison dragged the fish through a bucket of flour and dropped it into the deep fryer, I reflected on the wisdom of her pragmatism and big-picture perspective: there was no need to bemoan the competition because everyone stood to benefit from creating a hub of activity.

Now, many years later, I am the director of MEOR at Yale University, a branch of a national Jewish educational organization and undergraduate community that is active on over 20 elite college campuses. And although my current work environment is different than the food prep station where I started out, Alison’s logic still applies.

It’s clear to me that the more organizations there are on a college campus creating Jewish programing, the more the campus becomes an exciting place to be a Jewish student. And when additional students who are interested in Jewish programming enroll every year, they bolster the membership of every Jewish organization on campus.

It might very well be that in order to attract more undergraduate students who are interested in Jewish programming to a particular campus, we need as many Jewish organizations as possible on that campus. Sure, individual students may eventually align themselves with one organization over another, but rather than losing out because of the competition, in the long run, every Jewish organization wins by being part of a robust Jewish presence on campus that will attract more students.

From the administrative side, Jewish educators on campus can also gain (and save) a great deal by cooperating with each other. Pooling educators and resources will raise the profile and strengthen the influence of all organizations involved. Just imagine an annual event, perhaps a Shabbat dinner, hosted by all the Jewish organizations on campus – every Jewish student on campus would want to attend just to avoid being “left out.” The leader of a different program at Yale suggested this to me, and I think that it would be a great way to energize the entire Jewish community.

And all we have to do is work together.

Synagogues, schools, nonprofits, and Jewish businesses can only gain by focusing on the big-picture and making the extra effort to work together to enhance every element of the Jewish experience. We all know the old adage, “Two Jews, three opinions.” In 2017, we live in a world of “Two Jews, three nonprofits,” and that is a good thing for every community or campus, because they become that much more attractive due to the variety.

The idea of a joint Shabbat dinner at Yale excites me, and I will be encouraging the other Jewish organizations on campus to help me bring it to fruition. Of course, Alison won’t be catering the event, but her philosophy will most definitely lead the way.

Rabbi Yaakov Lyons is the Director of MEOR at Yale University, where he works to inspire, educate, and empower a new generation of young Jewish leaders.