It may be the holy grail of American Jewish life — how to bring (or keep) college students and recent college grads in the fold, and in the pews.
Two Merrick, L.I., rabbis may have hit on a winning formula to connect them to their “home” synagogue (or one like it while they’re at school), and to get them some home cooking if they’re studying abroad. And there’s no “pay-to-pray” price tag.
In its first year last year, some 200 participating synagogues in the U.S. threw their doors open for college-age Jews, permitting them to attend High Holy Day services and other activities for free throughout the year. It is believed to have attracted perhaps 5,000 people.
Beginning with the High Holy Days this year, nearly 700 synagogues will be participating in the program — several overseas.
Known as Synagogue Connect, it was founded by Rabbi Ronald Brown, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am of Merrick and Bellmore (L.I.) and Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Center. Rabbi Brown said he expects several thousand more people to take advantage of the program this year, not only because there will be more synagogues participating, but that also older people will now be eligible.
Initially, participants had to be 18 to 22; this year, people ages 18 to 26 may now take part in the program at 119 of the 671 participating synagogues. The change was made to serve graduate students and to match eligibility requirements of Birthright Israel.
“If you are finished with college but would like to go to synagogue, check our website for the list of participating congregations,” Rabbi Brown said, noting that Synagogue Connect is open to all those 18 to 26, whether or not they are in college and whether or not their parents belong to a synagogue.
Students in communities in which there is more than one participating synagogue are invited to worship at any of them.
“It’s like a smorgasbord – go to one synagogue one week and another a different week, hear the different rabbis and see which one you like,” Rabbi Brown said.
He added that the addition of overseas synagogues was because there are “so many students who go for a semester or a year abroad.”
Of the 671 participating synagogues, 324 are Reform, 210 are Conservative, 53 are Chabad, 33 are Reconstructionist and 29 are Orthodox.
Also new this year: Synagogue Connect will be partnering with Kahal: Your Jewish Home Abroad. Founded in 2013, the organization connects Jewish students studying abroad with local Jewish families to provide an immersive experience. It served 1,100 students last year and expects to serve 1,700 this year in 39 countries and 70 cities worldwide.
Alex Jakubowski, Kahal’s founder and executive director, said his organization has worked with Synagogue Connect “to help them expand their platform, which we find to be of great utility for students and families alike. We do work with students from outside the United States who travel here, placing them with local families and the like, but have not expanded to work with U.S. students studying around the country.”
Regarding home hospitality for students studying in the U.S., Rabbi Brown suggested that students at away colleges call the local synagogue “and say they would like to come Friday night. They could also ask if dinner with a local family could be arranged.”
The international Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, which has chapters on more than 180 campuses, has endorsed the project. In a letter, its executive director, Andrew Borans, wrote that the project “is an important step in connecting Jewish students to their Jewish roots and strengthening their Jewish identity and Jewish pride.”
Although Rabbi Brown said it was not possible to know how many students took advantage of the program last year, he said the Synagogue Connect link on Alpha Epsilon Pi’s webpage had 30,000 hits and 3,000 hits asking for directions to individual synagogues.
“If 5,000 students took advantage of it, that is 5,000 students who went to synagogue who might not have gone,” he said.