By Rabbi Leah Fein
The last place I expected to work after ordination was America’s top party school.
But a few months before I started as the Hillel rabbi at Syracuse University, The Princeton Review bestowed upon it the title of “No. 1 Party School in America.”
Between the images in my mind of every stereotype about Millennials, and the seemingly endless articles and statistics around declining religious affiliation in this generation, I worried about how I could relate to these students, and them to me. Would they be interested in substantive Jewish content, or should I stick to programming that is social and “less Jewish?”
As I journeyed alongside my students trying to find their purpose, I searched for mine as a rabbi on campus.
My first step was to listen and to learn. To gain a clearer sense of campus culture and direction in my new role, I spent most of my first semester in the local artisanal coffee shop meeting one-on-one with students. Over more cups of coffee than I could count, I asked about Syracuse culture.
During one of these meetings a student mentioned Jim Boeheim, and I made the grave mistake of asking who that was. The student looked around, lowered her voice, and said, “He’s the head basketball coach. Do not ever let anyone hear you ask that question.”
One of the first students I met was Rachel, who personified the stereotype of a cool sorority girl. Over iced lattes, she clued me into the realities around academics, athletics, tailgates and Greek Life. Suddenly, our conversation took a sharp turn. Rachel said that she craved more intellectual stimulation and had a curiosity, namely around Judaism, that she felt was missing in her college experience.
I was so stunned to hear the words come out of Rachel’s mouth that I almost missed them, as she shattered all my assumptions about her within seconds. Rachel told me about growing up in an interfaith family in the suburbs, about her connection to Judaism, and how that plays out for her at Syracuse. She told me that she loves Hillel and Jewish life on campus, but she is looking for more depth and meaning, most of all in conversations and relationships with friends outside of the classroom.
Rachel, I concluded, was the exception to the rule.
But day after day, in that same coffee shop, I had similar encounters with students, who opened up about their spiritual needs and the deep, meaningful Jewish connection they craved. Sure, they also talked about basketball and school spirit and their social life, but it was not the primary focus.
Listening to the students, my path forward became clear. By playing away from the stereotypes instead of into them, I could provide something on campus that no class, no club and no extracurricular activity could: a deep connection to themselves and to others, Jewish wisdom and meaning.
My mistake was trying to lean into the stereotypes of campus culture, instead of leaning into Judaism.
So I pivoted. One student suggested a weekly parsha discussion. Another student organized her large, diverse group of friends (who had been close since meeting at FreshFest, the Syracuse Hillel pre-orientation program) to form the inaugural Senior Seminar cohort, which meets bi-weekly to confront big questions that students face as they transition from college to the “real world.” That initiative is now in its second year.
By providing students with what they were missing, I found my purpose as a campus rabbi.
At various points in our lives, we are all guilty of letting assumptions get the better of us, but they put us at risk for missing opportunities for depth, substance and connection, especially with Jewish college students.
I’ve learned that for Millennials in particular, identity is conceived not as an “either/or,” but rather a “both/and.” Students can study Torah, sing their favorite melodies of Lecha Dodi, enjoy Shabbat dinner with friends, and then head to a party down the street.
To be serious about Millennial Jewish engagement is to recognize the multiplicity of identities not as a paradox, but as an opportunity. To only consider stereotypes and affiliation statistics is to miss those yearnings for Jewish meaning and connection, which are very much alive in our next generation of Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Leah Fein is the interim director of Jewish life and Learning at Hillel at Syracuse University.