I was on the phone a few months ago with Marshall Einhorn, executive director of Brown-RISD Hillel, discussing a talk I was asked to give at Brown, where my younger son is currently a junior and of which my older son is an alumnus. As an aside, I asked Marshall who would be leading the campus Reform services for the High Holy Days. When he said he had asked a number of people but without success, I offered to help.
“That would be great!” Marshall said. “Let me know if your networks surface someone interested.”
“No,” I told him. “Maybe I could help” – as in, “Maybe I could come and lead services.”
It was this fortuitous conversation that led me to one of the most eye-opening experiences I have had so far as president of the Reform Movement. Much of the time, I sit with my colleagues in meeting rooms, strategizing about the Jewish future and how to excite young people about Jewish life via our Campaign for Youth Engagement. By leading Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services at Brown-RISD Hillel, I would have the opportunity to learn more directly, in a hands-on way, about the challenges Judaism faces on college campuses.
I started preparing for my time on campus by looking up Brown University in Reform Judaism magazine’s “Insider’s Guide to College Life,” which provided me a startling statistic: Of the approximately 1,300 Jewish students at Brown, only a hundred or so are active in Jewish groups on campus. With this data in mind, I knew that I wanted, in my time at Brown-RISD Hillel, to get a firsthand look at why this may be and what we’re dealing with – and perhaps come up with some new ideas about how to lower barriers to entry and be more welcoming to students who are currently uninvolved in Jewish campus life. Over the summer, I participated in the National Hillel Institute in St. Louis, which helped me better understand the smart strategies so many Hillels are employing to “get outside the walls of Hillel buildings” to engage students where they are: their dorms, fraternities or sororities, etc.
With Brown-RISD Hillel’s staff and student interns, we planned engaging, dynamic, and interactive High Holy Day services. This wasn’t a “sit out there in the congregation and zone out while the choir sings” service; it was a “get involved, have substantive conversations, and see how Jewish traditions and ideas are relevant to your life as a college student” service – a holistic experience. As a contributor to Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative, I decided to frame our tefillot with “big questions” that emerged from the students, and to make sure we were current with the most innovative liturgy, we piloted the CCAR’s new High Holy Days machzor. We also brought in musician Max Chaiken, a teacher at the Rashi Reform Jewish Day School, who added his signature warmth and spirituality to the entire experience.
My goal was to attract students who otherwise wouldn’t have participated; we met that goal and then some. At times, leading discussions during the services with students and faculty felt like a philosophy or literature seminar, with ideas from a broad religious spectrum. The young man who lifted the Torah had shoulders as broad as our bimah. I suggested he bend his knees and get down under the scroll before lifting, but he smiled as he popped the Torah off the lectern and hoisted it above his head without any strain whatsoever.
“Are you on the football team?” I asked. He nodded yes. “Offensive line,” he told me –and I told him that holding the Torah on Yom Kippur would give him extra strength for the upcoming game against Georgetown. (Brown 37-Georgetown 10!)
After Kol Nidrei services, I joined Hillel’s Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, an exceedingly open-minded Orthodox rabbi who was supportive in every way, in a dialogue on the challenges and opportunities of Jewish pluralism. And on Yom Kippur afternoon, when most people are itching for a nap, a group of students from across the religious spectrum gathered for a Talmud study session titled “From Roman Gladiator to Talmudic Sage: A Narrative of Transformation.”
For the final shofar blast and havdallah, the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform services joined together. There was a palpable feeling of k’lal yisroel, Jewish peoplehood, as we prayed and studied together as one people.
In all, hundreds of people attended these campus High Holy Days services – not just Brown and RISD students, but faculty and staff, Hillel Board members, parents, and members of the community. Based on past years’ turnout, the Reform Rosh HaShanah service took place in Brown-RISD Hillel’s smaller upstairs space, while the Conservative students occupied the larger social hall – but given the turnout on Rosh HaShanah for the Reform service, we switched spaces for Yom Kippur. Nobody was turned away – and the services were as distinctive as each of the people who showed up.
Developing a serious, effective long-term strategy for our Movement on the college campuses of North America is no simple task, but it is one we are committed to creating. A number of Hillels (Rutgers, Cornell, and the University of Toronto come to mind) are trailblazing new Reform engagement strategies, and the national Hillel leadership is committed to engaging more of our Jewish students on a deeper level. There are plenty of opportunities for most college students to experience Orthodox Judaism but not nearly enough non-Orthodox experiences that can ignite the heads and hearts of those who are spiritually at home in our Movement. I hope 5773 is a year of growth and discovery for our college students – and for all of us who care deeply about the Jewish future.