Jewish life on campus is the best of times for some students, but for most it is the worst of times. Consider the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, whose Jewish students represent about 25 percent of the student body. There is a vibrant Jewish community centered at Hillel, as well as Chabad and other Jewish organizations, but the majority of Jewish students just aren’t involved in Jewish life on campus. Sure, Hillel and its active leaders provide the coolest programs, finest building, and tastiest kosher food (recently voted best food on campus), but most Jewish students still don’t come. Or they show up once and never came back.
For example, of the 2,500 undergraduate Jews at Penn, 400 show up regularly to celebrate Shabbat. The first week of the school year might even draw 800 people, but half of them never return. And Jewish life at Penn is considered among the best in the country.
As a member of Penn’s affiliated Jewish community, I began to sense this great disparity between the “regulars” and the “non-regulars,” the “insiders” and the “outsiders” of the Jewish community. As one of the only students who could quote Bible as well as the latest pop culture and for whom Shabbat was a pinnacle of my week, it was strange to be living a life apart from the majority of my Jewish peers, who were often Jewish by name or birth alone. But I sensed and heard in those uninvolved students not a lack of desire to be involved, but rather disinterest in joining an institution, organization or denomination — which they saw as was the only way to be Jewishly involved. I can also imagine them not feeling welcome at a 400-person Shabbat dinner and lacking the networks and relationships to feel comfortable just showing up. And so they didn’t.
But, I figured, why don’t I, as a fellow student and a Jewish “insider,” try and share meaningful Jewish community and experiences with others? Take Shabbat — there are so many reasons that I love it: it’s an oasis from the stress of classes, a time to bond with friends, a space to explore important values, home-cooked food, and the serenity and spirituality I was raised to love. Why not attempt to share all that with some of my 2,000 uninvolved Jewish peers who might be interested? Perhaps an invitation from a friend, from Hart Levine, would go further than a flyer for some event — both to get them in the door and to help them feel comfortable in a Jewish community.
And so, a few other insiders and I started inviting our uninvolved friends and classmates to small, student-led Shabbat dinners in the dorms. People came — and they loved it. They appreciated the break from work, meeting new people, talking about philosophy (and pop culture), and having an intimate sit-down dinner, along with the serenity and spirituality of Shabbat. We worked on cultivating micro-communities around our Shabbat tables, building relationships between the insiders and the outsiders, helping people feel comfortable in the Jewish community, and connecting them to whatever aspect of Jewish life they wanted.
One student, who had previously refused to step foot into Hillel, was invited to one of these meals by her lab partner. After Shabbat dinner, she sent a Facebook message of thanks that read, in part: “I was surprised by how familiar your Shabbat table felt; it was exactly what I needed to finally feel at home and anchored in a community, for the first time in college. Maybe I’ll even run into you at Hillel one of these days.”
This woman went on to become an integral and proud part of the Jewish community, went on a Birthright Israel trip, and has become a close friend of mine.
Her story is but one of many; this past year more than 1,450 Jewish students, most of them uninvolved in Jewish life, came to Shabbat dinners like these at 18 college campuses. We call it “Heart to Heart,” because it’s really about those personal, meaningful relationships among students, and about building a loving and caring Jewish community. These “Heart to Heart” Shabbat dinners are helping trigger a movement on campuses across the country, empowering insiders of the Jewish community to share of themselves and their Jewish background and connections — peer to peer, in a way that Hillels and Chabad and “outreach” rabbis cannot.
It takes inspiration, support, and grassroots community organizing, but it works more efficiently and cost-effectively than anything else out there. With backing from the Orthodox Union, Hillel International and others, Heart to Heart has quickly developed into a grassroots movement changing the face of Jewish communal life. And 157 “Heart to Heart” Shabbat dinners and thousands of heart-to-heart conversations later, I’ve found just how meaningful, vital, and feasible it is to bridge the gaps in our community, and to help all Jews in college create the foundations for the Jewish communities of our future.
Hart Levine is founder and national director of the Heart to Heart Project.