Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Different Approach to Jewish Campus Outreach

"We don’t need a Silver Bullet but rather… "Silver Buckshot” — any number of small but sustained efforts to heighten Jewish identity and awareness."

Gary Rosenblatt, 10/25/2007, The Jewish Week

An intermarriage rate of over 50% is like flood dam that has burst. There are those that are busy trying to stop the flood by coming up with a mass program that will block the dam. There are others that say that in a case like this there is nothing that can be done to prevent the flood so we must rescue whoever we can one at a time.

The last decade has seen several attempts at both approaches. Hundreds of millions of extra dollars have been spent on various projects to excite the college youth and bring them closer in line so that they will at least marry Jews. What can we say about the results of these projects?

Birthright Israel has definitely had an impact on many young Jews. Their studies show that there was a modest but statistically significant difference in commitment to marry someone Jewish when one compared birthright participants to those that did not participate in the trip. One could however argue that a modest difference in feeling that it is important to marry some one Jewish is not enough to alter intermarriage rates. After all, it is common to hear young people say that it is important to marry a Jew but at the same time they feel that they have no control over who they marry. The main message of birthright is to love Israel. Messages of how to live a life as a Jew in the Diaspora do not seem to be stressed.

Chabad has increased the number of shluchim on university campuses significantly in the last few years, mostly due to funding from George Rohr. Chabad itself does not seem interested in statistics of their overall affect but would rather look at every Jew they meet as an individual neshama.

Although less centralized, the outreach efforts from the Haredi world have picked up dramatically in the last ten years. Groups like JAM in LA, Aish HaTorah in a smattering of campuses and outreach efforts from Community Kollels have increased the exposure of Jewish students to traditional Judaism and learning. By its nature, this work is very hands on, saving one Jew at a time.

One could probably say that collectively, Chabad has significantly influenced the Jewish identity of more Jewish students than has birthright or Haredi kiruv. On the other hand, few feel that the solution is to have more Chabad houses. Where Chabad is usually viewed favorably by those that have been involved, it is often viewed with negativity by the students on the outside. The message received by Jewish students is often, if this is what being an observant Jew entails, then Observant Judaism is not for me.

Collectively, all the efforts do not seem to be able to stop the flood of assimilation or even to register a statistical change.

Steven Cohen, probably the most respected American Jewish sociologists today suggests a different approach. In his report, "A Tale of Two Jewries" (Steinhardt Foundation, November 2006) Cohen notes that almost all forms of Jewish education, both formal and informal diminish the likelihood of intermarriage later on in life. More than that, these affects are additive, such that attendance of a Jewish camp and having some after-school Jewish education produces greater results than one or the other by itself.

The point that we can take from Steven Cohen's research is that we shouldn't be looking at a "one or other" approach to campus outreach but to an additive approach where we try to maximize the number and quality of different Jewish experiences. In other words, it is not the birthright trip that makes the difference, nor the Maimonides study program but rather a combination of many experiences over many years that is going to have an impact on the decisions that the Jewish young adult will be making about marriage and the importance of raising a Jewish family.

Taking the aforementioned approach creates new challenges for the potential program funder. On the one hand, no one program will be able to say that it can "deliver the results" that the donor would like. On the other hand, all of the "good" programs out there are contributing to reducing the likelihood of intermarriage. So what should we be funding?

I want to suggest that donors have to get involved in the cost-efficiency of the program that they support. A program that brings glowing results but at a cost of $10,000 per head (and this is not out of line if one includes all costs) perhaps should take second place to a program that can have a positive, be it more subtle impact at $500 per head. It is important for donors to be looking at the total cost. For example, they may be sponsoring an Israel trip at $2000 per head that has an excellent impact on 50% of the participants (cost now $4000 per head). But if you add in the cost of maintaining the organization that managed to recruit 20 participants your real costs may jump to $12000 per head.

Here are some suggestions as to styles of programs that are most cost-effective:

1) Build Jews not Jewish buildings. There is a tendency to feel that a beautiful building is the way to attract students. The time, energy and maintenance costs usually outweigh the benefit of buildings. Unaffiliated students anyway would feel more comfortable meeting in a coffee shop or a university dorm. Even when the building can generate income through multiple use, the headaches caused by building upkeep and the funds that it saps from the budget usually make it not worth the effort.

2) Community vs. individual growth. Even though we are living in an individualistic world, college students are still looking for community. If we offer them a support system of friends within a Jewish framework, they will accept the culture that comes along with it. Community means eating together, traveling together, celebrating together, living together, etc.

3) Joyous Judaism sells. We tend to want to give Mussar when what the students want is to celebrate life. We need to show the students that Judaism is a celebration of life. We have to make our joy greater than their partying.

1) Let the students run the show. Recently I started a program called, Project Shabbat ( which offers funding for students to run their own Shabbat dinners in the comfort of their student houses or off-campus apartments. The program builds community and leadership without any overhead costs. This is the style of programming that needs greater replication. Furthermore, studies show that the more the students are involved in the programming, the more their Jewish identity will grow, even when there is no rabbi to give instruction.

2) Employ students, not rabbis. It is clear that students have a greater ability to reach out and recruit other students to programs. The cost of hiring students is a fraction of that of a rabbi and family. More than 50% of students work part-time in some capacity so there is a market that is looking to be employed. That we don't have quality students to do the job is a problem that will be addressed below.

3) Invest in training students. We often underestimate the potential that students have in reaching their peers. Especially if the focus is on community building, the student does not have to have that solid a base to be effective in giving over some of the fundamentals of Judaism. The training that is necessary may be more in the general field of management, organizing and being responsible.

In conclusion, there are things that can be done to alter the flood of assimilation and intermarriage. The key will be to focus our efforts on cost-effective programs that invests in training students to run projects that involve their unaffiliated friends.