The sun beats down on the tops of students’ heads as they shuffle from table to table, sampling organizations at the Enormous Activities Fair. The scene is a familiar one, replaying itself every fall quarter at UCLA. A new student disentangles himself from his pack of friends and approaches the Ha’Am booth, stretching out his hand with the greeting, “Hi, I’m Josh, I’m Jewish and I saw your sign.” Josh stays to chat for a while before asking where he can find other ways to be Jewishly involved. A staff member points him in the direction of Hillel, one row down and six tables in; Bruins for Israel, two aisles down and three tables in; Chabad just two tables to the left, with their spinning wheel of fortune; and the Jewish Awareness Movement, engaging students in the crowd with clipboards and rapid-fire questions.
Josh learns all about the Maimonides Program, Sinai Scholars, Alternative Spring Break, AEPi’s rush protocol, and where he can find the best Friday night meals. He walks from table to table, encouraged by the organizations’ directions of whom he should visit next. Before Josh has even taken his first class at UCLA, he is engulfed in the Jewish network at UCLA, a network that will work hard to fulfill his needs for learning, socializing, advocacy, social justice and leadership. Josh has just landed the whole package. But what about his non-Jewish floor mate, left standing awkwardly next to him as he rambles on with someone about how he was involved with BBYO in high school and is just looking for his Jewish niche in college?
If the floor mate, “Mark,” were to identify as Latino, ethnic organizations that he might join include La Gente Newsmagazine, the Latino Student Health Project, the Latino Greek Council, and the Latino Student Business Association.
Or if Mark wanted to get involved in the African-American community, he could join Nommo Newsmagazine, the Afrikan Student Union, the Afrikan Arts Ensemble, or the Black/Latino AIDs Project. If Mark were seeking Christian groups, he would find the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Chinese Christian Students, or the Grace Stewards for Christ.
There is no denying that Mark would have plenty of opportunities available to him were he to join any number of culturally or religiously-oriented groups, but none of these cultural groups would fill his Tuesday or Thursday nights with Israel advocacy, Wednesdays with challah baking and learning, Fridays and Saturdays with meals and good friends, or afternoons with rabbis, coffee, and texts, as the plethora of Jewish organizations does. This article will strive to take a closer look at campus Jewish life at UCLA, and what organizations seek to offer students.
Perhaps the push for Jewish involvement in campus life is a symptom of the decreasing identification of Jews in the United States, and the feeling that Judaism should be preserved at all costs, starting with the transformative college experience. The Pew Research Center study released in October states that the number of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish has declined by about half since the late 1950s, and is now a little less than 2%. This is not to say, however, that Jewish college students don’t take their Judaism seriously; the Pew Research Center study also found that 68% of Jewish millennials identify as Jews by religion and 32% identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. These figures stand in contrast to the 93% of older Jewish adults who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion, while 7% identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
In order to sustain Jewish life on campus, many organizations approach the issue from different perspectives. In an October Jewish Journal article titled “Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life,” Jared Sichel writes, “While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not ‘represent any dogmas,’ according to [Rabbi Chaim] Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus. […] And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families.”
At UCLA, there is also a third competing force, the Jewish Awareness Movement. JAM follows a similar methodology to Chabad, namely that they define a Jew according to Jewish law, but are welcoming to all interested students. When asked about JAM’s success, Rabbi Jacob Rupp, senior rabbi at UCLA JAM says, “The way I know that JAM is successful is I look at who is going to JAM and who is running Jewish organizations on campus and a lot of times they are one and the same. We facilitate love for Israel and community and have Jewish outlets in the United States and all over the world. People are impacted by our organization and have a large sense of responsibility.”
Chabad and Hillel at UCLA similarly contribute to a Jewish Bruin’s sense of pride and provide a multitude of leadership opportunities and chance for personal growth and empowerment.
In the Journal of Higher Education article “Settling into Campus Life: Differences by Race/Ethnicity in College Involvement and Outcomes” (March/April 2007), Mary J. Fischer writes, “In his extensive research on college students, [Alexander W.] Astin (1984, 1993) has found that those who become more involved in various aspects of college life tend to have better outcomes, both in the short and long terms.”
Rather than promoting competition between UCLA’s Jewish organizations, celebrate the opportunity to be involved in the Jewish network at UCLA. With Astin’s research in mind, no matter which campus organization you choose to get involved with, remember to pick one that relates to your key interests, or helps you to become the type of person who you ultimately wish to be — because to some extent, college is all about the individual. College helps to nourish and cement the individual before he or she embarks on the wide world. Check out our quiz on the next page to find out which small Jewish campus organization you should join (tomorrow).