Wherever You Go...: Making Judaism Welcoming and Relevant for College Students
By Gutenstein Family ISJL Education Fellow Becca Leaman
Going to college is a time of change and excitement. Whether students choose to stay close to home or venture across the country, they embark on a journey to find themselves and their passions. This can also mean that their Jewish journeys might look different than they did in high school. As hard as it may be, college students need to find their way to Judaism and how they connect to it outside of their home life on their own. However, there are definitely ways that we can support them in doing this.
Many younger Jews find ways to practice their Judaism that may seem outside of the traditional “norm.” While most schools have Hillels and involvement in that organization can look like it is the only way to be Jewish on campus, there are so many other paths that students can take to connect to their Judaism. It is also important to remember that college—especially the first year—is a time of significant change, and getting involved in things on campus may be intimidating or overwhelming. Some students may not be comfortable looking for something their first year and may join later, regardless of how important Judaism is to them.
Times and practices are changing, and one challenge of getting college students involved in their Jewish community is finding ways to improve with them. There have been a lot of ways that rabbis and other people who work with young Jews have adapted practices with the intention of getting them involved. For some emerging adults, this may look like not going to synagogue or services, but instead doing a reflection with a friend, making meaning of a prayer by themselves, or even holding a small dinner on Friday nights with friends. Organizations have adapted traditional services to keep them relevant to younger Jews, especially around the Holidays.
Recently, things such as Goat Yoga (Yom Kippur), Bowl Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah), and Shabbat ShaSuperbowl (Shabbat) have been some of the ways that emerging adults have encouraged involvement in Jewish life. Some might be looking for more informal ways to connect with one another, and providing them an opportunity to do that can help keep them in touch with their Judaism.
While many campuses have some sort of Jewish club or organization, some students may not feel as comfortable participating in that as they might in a traditional synagogue setting. Everyone has different levels of comfort in different situations and helping students find where they are most comfortable expressing their Judaism is the best way to keep them involved. While there are books dedicated to helping students prepare to be Jewishly engaged, sometimes the best method of getting them connected is giving their contact information to a local contact.
If your congregation has a college close by, it could be helpful to reach out! Make sure the students know you are there, and create a relationship so that they know they are always welcome. You might consider having a Shabbat dinner hosted at the synagogue, either specifically for Jewish students (so that they can get familiar with the fact that there is a synagogue close by) or for the whole community. Ensuring it is open to non-Jewish students is essential to allow your Jewish guests to be more comfortable by bringing a buddy. Creating a strong relationship with the Jewish organizations on campus can help ensure that they flourish and continue to be active even after current students leave. Beyond that, it brings fresh faces to the community and gives the students the comfort of knowing that they have a safe place away from home.