As most college students move into adulthood and move away from their families, they tend to question religion, beliefs, and their identity. Many students at UVM Hillel tell me “I’m Jewish, but not religious” in a way that makes makes being religious sound like the greatest sin of all. Yet many of the young adults that I talk with attend or host Shabbat dinners, plan or reminisce about a trip to Israel, and freak out about the fact that they are interested or in a relationship with someone who isn’t Jewish. They see themselves as cultural Jews or even Jews that did not embrace Judaism in the past, and now they want to figure out Judaism for themselves.
A 1995 study by Virginia Gordon showed that 20-50% percent of college students are undecided about their major and 75 percent have changed their major at least once. Now, fast forward 20 years and add hundreds of new areas of study and sub-fields for students to major in. For many of today’s students, good grades and positive feedback from friends and family allow them to confirm a major or career path, instead of whether they are passionate about or enjoy a subject.
So how do synagogues work with a generation that seeks individualization, is indecisive, and isn’t sure where they fit with Judaism? The answer is in the models that Hillel and Chabad use on college campuses across the world every day: create connected communities and use social media.
Let me give you an example.
I recently met with a student, Joe, who wanted to bring a comedian to campus. Joe’s plan was to use the event and the performer’s name to bring an audience of students he’d never met before. Sounds like a good plan, right? Unfortunately, I saw this plan play out last year. The event that our students expected would attract over 150 students sadly only drew a meager crowd of about 50. Of those who went, only two were students who were not connected to the group that programmed the event.
It all goes back to connected communities: If I see a flyer for a Jon Stewart performance near me, I want to go. However, if I don’t know anyone going, the odds that I will attend the event significantly decrease, and the odds that I leave the event early if I don’t meet anyone there will dramatically increase. I, like many of my cohorts in the 18-25 age group, want to have a shared experience with friends. The 18-25 generation is NEVER alone– we are always connected to either text messages, Snapchat, or Facebook. We tend to be uncomfortable in situations that make us step outside our comfort zones.
So how does a synagogue attract young adults to an event? By using folks they already know in the 18-25 age range who are community builders. Each year, UVM Hillel hires four to six interns whose job it is to build a community of 45-60 Jewish students and engage them about their Judaism. This model is the reason why Hillel is successful. When I get excited about a comedian coming to campus and I share my enthusiasm with my 6 interns, they then are excited and share their enthusiasm with their communities. Their “engagees” now have a friend their age whom they can expect to see at the event. Then they feel comfortable inviting their friends because they feel comfortable going. It is through this model that I have reached at least 150 students by only talking with six people.
So now I’m ready to branch out through social media. How many more folks those 150 reach, who knows; it could be hundreds or even thousands – but it all started because I created the connection with six people who took the time to make personal connections in their circle of friends.
MJ Lowinger is the Engagement Associate at University of Vermont's Hillel.