An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Yehuda Sarna

No Campus Crusade for Judaism
Yehuda Sarna

We don’t proselytize on campuses, do we?

Jews in particular tend to cringe at the name of the evangelical organization, Campus Crusade for Christ. Not that it’s so effective in converting Jews. We just instinctively recoil at the notion that a group could take advantage of the safe space of a university to pack converts onto their wagon. The college experience is not about being subject to other people’s crusades, but about student-driven exploration and mutual respect.

Speaking on interfaith panels at NYU, I usually open by saying that Judaism doesn’t look to convert non-Jews. This introduction earns Jewish campus professionals the trust of students, fellow clergy, faculty and administrators – without compromising our own integrity. The question of whether or how to target students with intermarried parents, a surging population, is a new one with which Hillel, as a good-faith citizen in campus life, must now contend.

During a panel on engagement strategies at the recent Hillel conference, the following line appeared on a large projector screen: 47% of college students identifying as Jewish have only one Jewish parent, Hillel Survey 2005. One person commented from the audience that he doesn’t see “why it makes a difference what kind of parents a student has.” He’s right in two ways. First, the Jewish address on campus must proactively preserve an openness towards anyone who wants to find it; there’s no Jewish parent detector at the door to any Hillel, nor should there be. On the other hand, there cannot be a focused, aggressive agenda - in a college environment - to claim a population which has been raised, at least in part, in another faith.

It is vital for Hillel strategists to think through how it plans to “target” students with conflicted religious identities, remembering that the 47% merely affirmed “having Jewish heritage” but not an exclusively Jewish identity. How will other churches or campus branches thereof interpret a major Jewish organization painting a bull’s eye on “their members”? To them, it seems irrelevant that we already consider them Jewish or potential converts.

True, Hillel often only promotes Jewish culture, not Jewish religion, theoretically avoiding the label of proselytizing. Holding low-content holiday events, bagel brunches or book clubs aim simply to enhance a piece of a student’s heritage and to encourage Jewish socializing, with no mikveh on the horizon. But would we acknowledge and honor the distinction between Christian religion and Christian culture if Campus Crusade argues it? Even if our goal is not conversion, but some sort of identity repatriation, doesn’t that erode the line between religion and culture? We’d like to believe the line exists, but if we start a campus-wide battle for conflicted or confused souls, we have to be prepared for other groups to follow our lead.

Synagogue policy is a different story because synagogues do not operate in the same sacred space that Hillels do. The recent Reform and Conservative conventions this fall prioritized the conversion of non-Jewish spouses. But we cannot let statements made at those conferences trickle into campus policy. Saying, for example, that “the pool of potential converts is easily more than a million people” (Jerome Epstein, Conservative) or that “it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice” (Eric Yoffie, Reform) may suit interfaith families who would like to join a synagogue, but they should not become universally applicable Jewish values – especially not in a campus environment.

Feeling responsible for the children of intermarried parents is an instinctive, spiritual and deep conviction. But we have to realize that aggressive targeting has to end at the foot of the quad. Our goal is to reach unaffiliated Jewish students, regardless of descent. A mere 36% of students with two Jewish parents, compared with 15% where one parent is Jewish, participate in Hillel. I’d rather not target the uninvolved 85% and validate crusaders who consider us 100% potential converts.

Let’s leave the campus crusades to those who have a history of it. The real challenge is how to make Hillel a home to all students identifying as Jewish, regardless of descent.


Rabbi Yehuda Sarna is the Manager of Religious Life at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Life; Hillel at NYU


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