A few years ago, an impressive student named Allison became very engaged in our MEOR programming on the NYU campus, attending our weekly classes and participating in Shabbat meals and events with the whole student group at my home. Allison even joined us for a MEOR trip to Israel, recruiting other students to join us on the transformative journey. She stood out as a leader throughout the trip, making all of the new students feel comfortable in an unfamiliar environment.
I was so proud of Allison and quite impressed with her growth. That’s why I was crestfallen when she opted out of MEOR after a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. All at once, she cast aside her experiences in Israel and traded in the mantle of Jewish leadership for the ability to lead tours of NYU’s Greenwich Village campus.
To be sure, she had really enjoyed the “Jewish thing.” But after experiencing the “Europe thing,” she had moved on to the “Sorority thing.” More and more, college students approach their undergraduate experience like bright and curious tourists, flitting between locations, activities and identities. As such, our engagements with them often feel fleeting and incomplete.
While I believe this phenomenon is widespread, it is perhaps more pronounced at NYU, where more than 3,000 NYU undergraduates choose to study abroad every year. These students want to learn new languages and experience new cultures, and the Jewish students who attend MEOR programming are no exception. Several of our students have become fluent in Chinese, while others have consulted for companies in South America, all in the context of their NYU undergraduate education.
This cultural and geographic diversity mirrors the pluralism of NYU’s Office of Global Spiritual Life, which hosts 70 chaplain affiliates representing various faiths, denominations, and groups on campus. Within the Jewish community, students increasingly avoid identification with any one Jewish denomination, preferring to participate with each denomination on their own terms.
For example, a student like Allison will pray with the Conservative group, build houses for poor families with the Reform group, and delve into Jewish history and Torah learning with my team at MEOR. The next semester, she will shake things up a bit, studying with the Reform group, celebrating Shabbat with Chabad, and joining MEOR on a Jewish identity building trip to Poland. As for the next year, she may very well find herself on NYU’s campus in Florence, without any Jewish influences whatsoever.
Again, while this phenomenon may be considerably more striking at NYU, the fact is that all campus educators who are tasked to engage with Millennials must grapple with the realities of a post-denominational world that is supremely interconnected and fluid. It is our challenge as educators to help these students develop their own unique Jewish voices, even as they are preoccupied with learning so many other languages. Because a post-denominational world does not need to be a world without roots.
The “Allisons” of the world will always love to travel, to encounter the new and different. But without a strong home base, a life of sight-seeing would become the curse of Cain. In contrast, a student with strong Jewish roots will feel empowered and will be able to contribute deep and meaningful insights to the global conversation, rather than echoing the conventional.
As informal Jewish educators on American college campuses, we should recognize that America is hardly the proverbial “melting pot,” but rather a rich tapestry of communities and ethnicities. Our Jewish students can best contribute to this tapestry by discovering the unique texture and color of their Jewish lives and identities. It is clear to me that Allison came to this realization on her own, because after graduating from NYU last year, she began attending the weekly programming for young professionals at “MEOR Manhattan” on 13th Street.
We must also realize that the old barriers that inhibited a student’s introduction to Torah study have all fallen, and that is a hopeful change for the better. Indeed, it has never been easier to meet and engage a student like Allison. But while we find it easier to grab her attention, we also find it more difficult to hold her attention.
So, it is essential that we have the best ideas in the room. We may not be able to offer the best food or the most glamourous nightlife, but we can leverage the authenticity of our communities and the passion of our educators to attract students who long for the security of strong roots. During their Odyssey years, these students will continue to explore in a world without borders. But when they look for a meaningful life and an idealistic environment in which to establish their own families, they will know exactly where to find it.
Without a doubt, if we do our jobs properly, their explorations will only reinforce their respect for our unique community and the wisdom and beauty at its core.
Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo is the Director of Education for MEOR programming at NYU, where he works to inspire, educate and empower a new generation of young Jewish leaders. He is the author of ‘Learning to Grow: a Spiritual Guide to Your Year in Israel.’
By: Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo
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