Probing Question: Is Jewish life thriving on American campuses?

These days, college-bound students can get the “inside scoop” about schools from countless Web sites and guidebooks. Looking for a place with lots of outdoor adventure programs? One with the most active Greek life? Or perhaps one with vegan and gluten-free dining options? Options and opinions abound.

For students in an ethnic or religious minority group, a college’s level of diversity—and their track record of welcoming and accommodating the needs of different groups—is often an important factor in deciding where to enroll.

Jewish students are in an interesting category, says Aaron Kaufman, executive director of Penn State University’s Hillel Foundation. (Hillel is the largest Jewish student group worldwide.) While the percentage of college students who identify themselves as Jews has reportedly been in decline for the past two decades (due to intermarriage and assimilation, say some researchers), many campuses are experiencing a marked resurgence of activity in Jewish student organizations.

A contradiction? Not really, says Kaufman. “An increasing number of Jewish young adults are identifying ethnically or culturally as Jewish, as opposed to religiously Jewish, and this has led to significant changes in how Hillel approaches Jewish student life and engages Jewish students,” he notes. “Millennial Jewish students differ in important ways from previous generations,” he adds. “They need to feel a sense of value and ownership in the activities in which they choose to participate, and they cannot be told what to believe.”

While these students are less traditional than their parents’ generation, many still look for certain indicators of a vibrant Jewish life on campus when they are evaluating colleges, explains Kaufman. “For instance, prospective students often ask whether there are Shabbat dinners and gatherings; social justice programming; study abroad programs to Israel; and kosher food in dining halls.”

The presence of an active Hillel program on campus is typically a sign that Jewish life is thriving there, he notes. The organization, named after the first century Babylonian rabbi and philosopher whose moral teachings are considered a cornerstone of Judaism, was founded in 1923, and has a mission to “provoke a renaissance of Jewish life” by enriching the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students and help them “grow intellectually, spiritually, and socially.”

Hillel “helps students find a balance in being universally human and distinctively Jewish,” explains Kaufman, and inspires them to become active in social justice causes (a fundamental value in Judaism called tzedek) and “repairing the world, a broad concept we call ‘tikkun olam.’”

“In the past three and a half years, Penn State Hillel has seen a tremendous increase in student involvement, including in service activities,” Kaufman notes. Now in its third year of offering alternative spring break trips, Penn State Hillel has sent 79 students to do service work in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Moldova, Estonia and Lithuania.”

“We are in a major growth phase,” says Kaufman, “with the explicit goal of transforming Penn State into one of the premier universities for quality Jewish student life in the country. We serve an estimated 6,000 Jewish undergraduate and graduate students at Penn State and our aim is to support them in giving back to the world and to the Jewish people.”

It doesn’t take a big school to offer big resources, reminds Patti Mittleman, Hillel director at Muhlenberg College, a Lutheran-affiliated school in Allentown, Pa., where 750 of the school’s 2,200 students are Jewish, said, “There’s nothing like word of mouth in the Jewish community.” Through the strength of positive reviews, Muhlenberg’s Jewish population has risen steadily since the mid-1990s, she said, so that today it has the fifth-highest percentage of Jewish students on campus in the country. Muhlenberg offers a new kosher dining hall and a 20,000-square-foot Hillel house.

Notes Kaufman, it’s easy to forget how relatively recently admissions quotas were in place, and anti-Jewish discrimination, as well as bigotry against African-Americans and Italians, among other groups, was commonplace on college campuses, including among fraternities and sororities. “Today, there certainly are strong and thriving Jewish fraternities and sororities, but many Jewish students also join predominantly non-Jewish houses, and frequently become leaders in those Greek organizations,” he explains. “Some campuses have created Jewish-Greek councils or organizations to help bring Jewish life to the Greek system. Jewish-Greek engagement is a strong area of focus for Penn State Hillel in the upcoming year.”

“Because more than 90 percent of American Jews attend college, and this is a critical time in all young adults' identity formation, Hillel is uniquely positioned to have an enormous impact on Jewish life. Every day, I get to help Jewish college students and young professionals to define who they are as individuals, and find their place in the unfolding Jewish story.” To me, it’s more than a job, says Kaufman. “It’s ‘beshert’—meant to be!”

Aaron Kaufman is executive director of Penn State Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Life on Campus, and can be reached at adk12@psu.edu or 814-863-3816.

Last Updated August 23, 2011