For years, college campuses have been the battleground for hot-button issues in the Jewish community like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Now, campuses are becoming a testing ground for young Jews to push back against longstanding notions about the structure of Jewish communities.
More than 90 students from 29 schools will gather at Brown University later this month for a conference organized by Judaism On Our Own Terms (JOOOT), a network of independent Jewish communities on college campuses that was founded earlier this year. With a network of at least 13 independent communities on such campuses as Tufts University and Smith College, the organizers say the conference will allow students to share best practices and learn from each other’s experiences building communities outside the traditional Hillel and Chabad communities typical of many college campuses.
“This conversation about how can we meet individual Jewish needs is not one on a small scale but a national conversation,” said August Kahn, one of the founders of JOOOT. “Judaism On Our Own Terms represents in many ways a glimpse into the future of what Jewishness can be on a national scale.”
The network of independent communities reflects a movement away from traditional Jewish community structures as millennials and members of Gen Z craft a Jewish community in their own image. As synagogue membership has fallen out of favor with young Jews and pop-up style services have grown in popularity, independent college communities are the next step for young Jewish adults searching for a place in the Jewish community — or simply setting up their own. The name of the community network, Judaism On Our Own Terms, speaks directly to that impulse. Rather than making do with what already exists, they are shaping Judaism into something that works for them.
I feel like a lot of times the Jewish establishment says that young Jews aren’t engaged in Judaism and are uninterested in Judaism. The numbers show that young Jews in general are interested in Judaism, they just want something different and they want to feel included.
JOOOT is, to some extent, a continuation of the work begun by Open Hillel, the organization founded in 2012 to pressure Hillel to dispose of its “standards of partnership” that bar anti-Zionist speakers at Hillel events. In fact, one of the founders of JOOOT, Eva Ackerman, is an organizer with Open Hillel.
“I feel like a lot of times the Jewish establishment says that young Jews aren’t engaged in Judaism and are uninterested in Judaism,” said Ackerman. “The numbers show that young Jews in general are interested in Judaism, they just want something different and they want to feel included.”
The idea for JOOOT first came to Ackerman, a graduate of Bryn Mawr, and Kahn, a student at Pitzer College in California, last spring. Kahn has been involved in starting Nishmat, an independent Jewish community at Pitzer, which is part of the Claremont Consortium and is served by the Claremont Hillel. Ackerman had been a part of an independent Jewish community at Bryn Mawr and had been in touch with students across the country who were interested in forming independent Jewish communities through her work for Open Hillel. At the end of last summer, they gathered about 30 Jewish college students in Boston for a workshop that would eventually lay the groundwork for JOOOT.
“Over time it became apparent that there were a bunch of independent Jewish communities across the country who all thought that they were creating this new experience,” said Ackerman.
In May, JOOOT released a guidebook with tips and ideas about how to build an independent community. The online guide includes sections about communication, establishing group practices, and building coalitions. “Understand where your campus community is and what needs aren’t being met by existing Jewish life,” the guidebook begins. “It’s important to be honest at this stage — Hillels will almost always have more resources than student groups (and lots of free food), so focus on aspects of community that you can help create!”
For some students, being part of an independent Jewish community appeals to a desire to take control of their religious lives on campus. Unlike Hillel services, where a rabbi might lead and determine the style of the service, independent communities are entirely student-run. For several of the JOOOT communities, potluck Shabbat meals are a fixture in their events calendar.
For others, what drives them towards an independent community and away from Hillel is more political in nature. As donors have increasingly been the subject of scrutiny over connections and donations to politicians, some students have grown increasingly uncomfortable being the beneficiaries of donations by Jewish philanthropists with ties to Donald Trump. Sheldon Adelson, a major donor to Hillel and Israel advocacy organizations, is a major supporter of Trump.
“Many of us grew up with a one-sided view on Israel and then move into social justice spaces and are confronted with the other side and need a space to debrief that confrontation at the end of the day,” said Ackerman. “It was important for a lot of us to have a space where you didn’t have to take a stance on Israel.”
“I think a lot of the time the dedication towards donor ideals and their politics tends to get in the way of actually meeting the needs of students,” said Kahn.
For some students, independent Jewish communities seem like an easier way to build a pluralistic community. That was what attracted Gemma Sack, a sophomore at Brown University, to Friday Night Jews, Brown’s independent Jewish group. “I’ve never felt unwelcome at Hillel,” said Gemma Sack. “What I like about Friday Night Jews is that it actually gives the space for pluralism and diversity of thought in a kind of modern Jewish community and a Jewish community on a college campus.”
Matt Berger, vice president of communications at Hillel International, emphasized Hillel’s role in providing resources for students to build meaningful Jewish life on college campuses. “Hillels around the country are focused on empowering students to create programs based on their Jewish values, with the support of our professionals,” said Berger. “Many of our most successful programs have been conceived and led by our student leaders and we encourage all students to design and participate in Hillel experiences that reflect their communities.”
It may not be the Judaism that our siblings, our institutions, may be looking at, but it’ll be real for us.
With 90 students signed up for the conference next week and dozens still on the waitlist, the independent Jewish community model seems to be spreading. With the conference happening over Shabbat, attendees will participate in services and dinner with Brown’s Friday Night Jews before beginning sessions on leading songs and rituals and building democratic leadership structures. Organizers are also hoping to include time for unstructured discussions among participants as well as a Saturday night party — after all, they are college students.
“It may not be the normative Judaism that our parents saw but it could be what maybe our grandkids will see,” said Kahn. “It may not be the Judaism that our siblings, our institutions, may be looking at, but it’ll be real for us.”
“It feels like groups like this and groups that are affiliated under the network of JOOOT are really responding to a student need,” said Sack, “like there was a vacuum just waiting to be filled.”