Trends 101: The New Jewish Life on Campus
A generation later, fraternities and sororities are back from the brink -- and Jewish houses are experiencing a renaissance. "We've seen more women interested in historically Jewish sororities," says Bonnie Wunsch, executive director of the Jewish-oriented sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, "and our strongest AEPhi chapters -- at the University of Texas, University of Florida, and Emory University, for example -- are those with strong Jewish identities." These frats and sororities are now organizing Shabbat and holiday meals, integrating kosher or kosher-style kitchens, planning trips to the Jewish state, and holding Israel events such as the joint AEPi and AEPhi-sponsored "Israel Amplified" advocacy seminar in Louisville, Kentucky, attended by eighty Jewish student leaders from across the country.
The role of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has also undergone a transformation. Ten years ago, Hillel activities generally consisted of Friday night prayer services followed by an occasional communal dinner. "Previously, [Hillel] was viewed as a synagogue on campus," Brandeis professors Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe write in "Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus" (January 2006). "In recent years, it [has] fought that image, becoming a primarily social and cultural organization."
Nowadays, Hillel understands that Jewish engagement, as one campus Hillel director puts it, is "about the potpourri." Campus Hillels publish Jewish-oriented journals, organize Birthright Israel and community service trips, and host Israeli film festivals, pizza parties, and softball games, among other programs. Rachel Bookstein, director of "Beach Hillel" at California State University, Long Beach, explains that engaging students "is really about helping them determine where they are on the Jewish continuum, where they want to go, and how to help them get there. We have no planned endpoint, except for them to take control of their own Jewish identity."
At the University of Washington Hillel, Rabbi William Berkowitz has created the weekly "Conscious Community" salons -- supportive environments in which Jewish undergraduates and grad students can openly grapple with any ambivalent feelings they may have about their Jewish identities, the Middle East conflict, and other issues. "I'm coming back to Jewish study with my more grown-up brain," says "Conscious Community" participant Dave Kamer, a thirty-year-old University of Washington med student. "Medical school is this loaded experience. Every day you're facing life and death. I find myself wrestling with things, and get to do it in a Jewish context."
The Students -- Meet the "Millennials"
Today's Jewish students are also different from their counterparts of years ago.
Attending college at a time when cultural, ethnic, and religious differences are celebrated and quotas obsolete, these hyper-communicative college students -- the Millennials -- are far less likely than their parents to define their Jewish identities in reaction to anti-Semitism and far more likely to publicly acknowledge their Jewishness. "It's much more common to see college students wearing yarmulkes, and outwardly displaying other Jewish symbols," says Jewish-American historian Professor Jonathan Sarna. "Like other cultural groups, there's been a coming out."