Roughly 12% of UCLA’s student population is Jewish, and these 3,000 or so students may be the luckiest across the nation. They are not only supported by a vast network of Jewish Bruins, but also by various organizations that exist to uphold a Jewish environment just for them. The chief triad of these organizations consists of Chabad, JAM and Hillel (but even within Hillel, there are a myriad of factions, and outside of this trio are other social organizations, such as Sigma/Alpha Epsilon Pi). Although these three major organizations are not contending, per se, there is a sense of healthy competition to involve as many Jewish students as possible.
Just like the market, Jewish services are very much “sold” to students in terms of highest quality for lowest cost. Except, there rarely is a cost at all. Shabbat and chagim meals are almost always free for Jewish Bruins — even for their non-Jewish cohorts. Study groups and one-on-one learning sessions are also available for no charge and include food. For example, you can stop by for “Parsha and Pizza” with Chabad Rabbi Dovid Gurevich on Thursdays, learn with Hillel Rebbetzin Sharona Kaplan during the week over Coffee Bean, or bake challah and enjoy a dinner on Wednesdays with JAM.
If free food is not enough of an incentive to keep Judaism afloat in the daily life of a Bruin, perhaps being paid to participate is. JAM’s Maimonides program offers a stipend of $300 for students who attend weekly learning seminars, as well as a Shabbaton in Hancock Park; Chabad’s Sinai Scholars Society offers $350 for attending weekly classes on the Ten Commandments and writing a research paper. It goes without saying that participants are also fed at the programs, free of charge.
These free even opportunities extend well beyond UCLA. Birthright, for instance, sends Jewish young adults to the Holy Land and gives them a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for absolutely no cost. Next, a Birthright affiliate reimburses students up to $14 a guest for hosting their own Shabbat meals. AIPAC allows student delegates (both Jewish and non-Jewish) to travel to its conference in DC without spending a penny on the $600 tickets or lodging; Hillel even reimburses students for a portion of their airfare. Jerusalem University offers students free online video courses on topics ranging from Jewish Cinema to Positive Jewish Psychology, and a $100 stipend upon completion.
As wonderful as these services are, it is time students shake themselves from their zombie-like “take-mode” and realize they have an obligation to give back. The truth is that these services are not actually free. As we all learned in high school economics, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We may not be paying for these experiences, but someone else is. Nevertheless, we are obligated to pay our donors back in nonmonetary ways.
I am not suggesting every Jew becomes Bal Tshuva (or religious). What I am suggesting, however, is that Jewish students who take advantage of these resources (as they should!) should be more conscientious of the efforts put into making Jewish life so accessible for us. We can start by understanding why these services are so rampantly available.
It is no secret that college campuses are essentially an agar plate for assimilation to feed off of and thrive in. Students leave their Jewish-oriented homes and enter a comparatively secular environment where abandoning the Jewish faith is incredibly easy — and increasingly appealing. It’s somewhat understandable: the kosher chicken costs twice as much as the non-kosher one at Trader Joe’s, and studying for Chem 14D seems to be a better use of time than lounging around all Shabbat. The frat party during Sukkot is more exciting than sitting in a hut all night, and it’s much easier to crush on that gorgeous goy in Anthro 120 than the Jewish boy your bubby would approve of. College offers so many distractions, and practicing Judaism can become burdensome, expensive and inconvenient.
However, college is where we develop our sense of self and decide the kind of lives we want to lead, and with whom. The choices we make in these four years can pave the road ahead, and have real consequences — not just in our own lives, but for American Jewry as a whole. Assimilation is a real threat. As a result, college can be a make it or break it experience when it comes to Judaism.
The fear of a gradual Jewish extinction is why I believe there are so many organizations offering free services to Jewish students. Jews cannot afford to lose any more of their already small population, so it is important to keep the community tight-knit and close to its roots.
So now the question becomes, do these services actually contribute to creating a stronger Jewish community? Or have they merely bred a society of takers? I’d like to stay optimistic and think that the Jewish community at UCLA is admirable for its tikkun olam efforts and overall unity. I am very proud of us as a whole, but I cannot ignore the reality: why is it that when something is offered to us, we run towards it, but when it comes to giving back, we run away?
College is our time to find ourselves, and we therefore believe that it’s in our job description to be selfish during these four years. But it’s not. It’s our job to cultivate ourselves into productive members of society. It is our job to learn and grow into something greater in the future. It’s our job to take as much are we are able to give back, if not more.
My suggestion is to start small. When you’re at a free Shabbat meal, pour your neighbor a cup of water before pouring one for yourself. When the organization of your preference is hosting a fundraiser, contribute chai ($18, about how much you’d actually spend for the food they provide you with). During chagim, send “Chag Sameach” messages to the Jewish Bruins you appreciate. Create a community based on something other than taking — namely, giving.
Yes, we are millennials, a global generation. Yes, we are known for our entitlement and narcissism. But we cannot let this trait define our greater roles and purpose in this world. We must not turn into a society of takers. We must forever be a light unto the nations.