Today I saw a clump of folks on Broadway wearing t shirts that said “Columbia University Class of 2014.” I watched them, trying not to be creepy, wondering reflexively if any of them were Jewish. This is the first time in eight years that I won’t be spending a very hot, potentially rainy August morning behind a table welcoming incoming Jewish students and their parents to a college campus. Among other things, it has forced me to rethink my entire concept of what an autumn could look like.
It’s these folks that the Jewish community’s so concerned with-what will happen to their identity? How will college affect it? Will they hate Israel? Will they even interface with their Judaism? Who will they become? It can make being a Jewish professional and/or a Jewish student leader an existential crisis laden experience. I’m not proposing that we stop fussing over these questions, but in my dog-eared book of Jewish Things to Worry About, at the top of the list is the fate of progressive Jewish students in Hillel.
Keeping and growing progressive Jewish college students isn’t all about Israel, and yet, it is. The way Hillel approaches campus debate on Israel, conducts the conversation and makes room for it within its buildings, its offices and its meetings, is sending a message about who is welcome within it in general. There’s an enormous difference between creating a JStreet U chapter in your Hillel for the sake of diversity and having no staff member present who models progressive values and will make sure the student leaders of said group feel not only heard, but respected as Jews who care about Jewish community. You can say you welcome everyone, but if your staff consists solely of straight, right wing, upper middle class people, you don’t.
A memo to like minded Jewish folks in the class of 2014, wherever you may be: Don’t wait for permission or approval to make change. This business of Judaism is yours for the taking.