The Talmud says, "Chayav bivno lelamdo Torah, u'lelamdo amanut, v'yesh omrim af l'hashiyto bamayim, we are required to teach our children Torah, to teach them a profession and, some say, even to stay afloat in water."
As Jewish parents committed to raising our children according to our mesorah, it is easier to implement the Talmud's mandate when our children are young. We provide them with a Torah education, cultivate their many interests and even teach them how to swim. It's when they reach college age that following our mesorah becomes more difficult. Many of the college youth of today are in a spiritual crisis; Jewish students even more so.
Even those students who have studied Torah through grade twelve leave home to attend secular universities. True, they have their Torah education. And they will certainly learn a profession.
But what about "staying afloat?" How can we expect college youth to battle the waves of secularism that so often carry them far from safe shores? And if it's difficult for our children, who have the benefit of extensive Torah education, how much more so for those students who lack Torah backgrounds?
The Orthodox community in general, and the Union in particular, must be more sensitive to this problem. We pay lip service to the epidemic of assimilation among college-aged adults and yet, despite the many wonderful programs and services we offer the community, we have no fully developed college program. My own narrow vision is perhaps due to the fact that all my family members and many of my friends attended Yeshiva, Stern or Touro Colleges, places of higher learning where I believe all Orthodox students preferably should spend their college years.
As parents, we take a great gamble when we allow our children to attend secular universities where the university Weltanschauung often is antithetical to a Torah lifestyle. While a great many Orthodox students not only thrive, but also exert a positive religious influence on their peers, it is also sadly true that the road to a secular diploma is strewn with broken commitments to Torah hashkafah and lifestyle. In an ideal world, institutions as wonderful as Yeshiva, Stern and Touro Colleges would have several undergraduate branches throughout the United States.
But this is not an ideal world, and it is time our community dealt pro-actively with the realities confronting our college youth.
One of those realities is that the majority of yeshivah high school graduates in the United States enroll in secular universities or colleges. Studies indicate that this group of students is concentrated mainly in 31 universities throughout the United States.
Another reality is that the overwhelming majority of Jewish students on campus are not Orthodox and have little or no Jewish background. Our choices are clear: Either we abandon these two groups (or continue minimal programming), while complaining about assimilation and intermarriage; or we combat secularism by taking up the gauntlet and creating new and imaginative initiatives. Orthodox Jews on Campus Those universities with large Orthodox student populations, such as the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, provide activities and facilities to meet many of the needs of Orthodox students. In other universities, however, Orthodox students often feel abandoned.
My conversations with students from various campuses revealed that many feel they receive no support from national Orthodox institutions. In addition, Orthodox students in commuter schools do not have the benefit of daily minyanim and dormitory facilities that help forge camaraderie among campus collegiates.
They also experience hostility from non-Orthodox campus groups, primarily on the issue of pluralism. As a first step, we must find a way to identify Orthodox college students on secular campuses, perhaps through the yeshivah high schools and NCSY. Knowing who they are can help us serve them by creating Orthodox programs for them. I propose that during the final months of high school, we contact these young people and inquire as to which colleges they will attend, then offer to train them to work on their respective campuses on Orthodox Union kiruv initiatives. This will enable the Union to have a cadre of trained volunteers, who will work on key campuses under the leadership of our professional staff. Hillel - The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, under the guidance of President and International Director Richard Joel, is, by definition, non-denominational.
For Hillel, all Jewish groups are viewed not as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to broaden Jewish student horizons. Hillel is prepared to work with us on any campus program that will engender student interest in spirituality and religious observance.
In order to win the battle for the hearts and minds of our collegiates, the Orthodox community must commit itself -- in terms of time, expertise and money -- to creating a cogent college outreach program. The Orthodox Union has limited involvement in college programs already in existence, such as Kiruv (which until recently was funded by Yeshiva University) and American Students for Active Pride (ASAP). The OU's Shoresh Program, the college division of our successful Pardes Project, now thrives on close to 120 campuses throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Extensive discussions with the leaders of these programs, as well as Hillel, indicate that with a proper commitment on our part, we could develop a unified college outreach program. Non-Orthodox Jews on Campus The non-Orthodox Jewish students on campus are divided into two groups: those affiliated with Hillel, even if only for brief encounters during the year, and those who have never put a foot through its doorway.
The Union must find avenues to reach these students, too. College outreach, for the Union, is a new endeavor. Through 40 years of trial and error in NCSY, we now know which outreach initiatives work for high school students. That same commitment to kiruv -- both chizuk krovim and kiruv rechokim -- must now be extended to college-aged youth. This will require a new division with professional leadership, as well as a commensurate budget. It is a monumental task, but it is long overdue.
The college campus is our community's last opportunity to interface with young people before they enter the "real world" and are subject to the tides of assimilation and intermarriage that are sweeping their peers out to sea. We must teach them the necessary survival skills to stay afloat. As a first effort, we should encourage each Union synagogue, especially those located near a college campus, to welcome college students through home hospitality and Shabbatonim. For example, college students from the Chicago area have told me that they would welcome Shabbatonim and programs that would be open to all Jewish students attending various universities in their metropolitan area. Citywide programs such as these should be replicated nationwide.
Almost every college student has a computer and an e-mail address; they all watch cable television and read the student campus newspapers. The Union must allocate funds to reach students through these media. It behooves the Union to develop a CD-ROM, video and audio-visual series for college students to explain the Torah view on sexuality, dating, intermarriage and other issues prominent in their lives.
The Orthodox community has outstanding men and women, such as those featured at our conventions, who can share their wisdom and understanding with our youth through these presentations.
A major contribution to Jewish campus life by Hillel was the creation of a one-year post-graduate internship on campus to serve the Jewish student body. It is an idea we should emulate. It is an opportunity to reach students through leaders who have been affected by the magic of NCSY, the benefits of yeshivah education and the deep commitment fostered by study in Israel. In order to affect this new venture in the Union, individuals and foundations must first acknowledge the desperate need and then commit to underwrite such an initiative.
The Union made a commitment to outreach and has excelled with high school students through NCSY. The time has come to take the next logical step and do the same for university students.
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