An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Yehuda Sarna
No Campus Crusade for Judaism
We dont proselytize on campuses, do we?
Jews in particular tend to cringe at the name of the evangelical
organization, Campus Crusade for Christ. Not that its 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 peoples
crusades, but about student-driven exploration and mutual respect.
Speaking on interfaith panels at NYU, I usually open by saying
that Judaism doesnt 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
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 doesnt see why
it makes a difference what kind of parents a student has. Hes right
in two ways. First, the Jewish address on campus must proactively preserve an
openness towards anyone who wants to find it; theres 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 bulls eye on their members?
To them, it seems irrelevant that we already consider them Jewish or potential
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 students 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, doesnt that
erode the line between religion and culture? Wed 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. Id rather not target the uninvolved 85% and validate crusaders
who consider us 100% potential converts.
Lets 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