10/09/2013 08:26 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2013

What the Debates About the Pew Study on Judaism in America Missed

The Pew study on Jewish affiliation has come and gone, with enough ink spilled to render all further conversation redundant. And yet, as someone who has worked with Millennials since my ordination in 2009, a crucial piece of why I believe we're failing to connect with so many young Jews (a.k.a. the future of Judaism) has been left out of the conversation.

A critique that has been absent is of the work our Hillels (Jewish student centers at colleges and universities) are succeeding -- and failing at. As one of a few Reform Rabbis who has worked full-time at Hillels up and down the East Coast (at NYU, Yale and UVM), my experiences on those campuses was often that the Judaism being offered to and pushed on the bulk of 'disengaged' students (a term I'm uncomfortable with, as it often assumes a one size fits all bar of what constitutes engagement) is not a Judaism they were comfortable embracing. It was, simply put, not liberal Judaism, not big tent Judaism.

The vision in place is well-intentioned; the senior Jewish educator model pioneered by the Jim Joseph foundation and Hillel International is brilliant -- but it employs far too few liberal Rabbis, and does not hold them up as models of Jewish leadership. Instead, Hillel International leadership has held up Orthodoxy - and successful (male) Orthodox Rabbis on campus as the gold standard of Judaism on campus, for all young Jews. In part, I believe this is because a great deal of Hillel's funding comes from foundations like the now defunct Avi Hai foundation, the Wolfson foundation and other major Orthodox donors. Simply put, the Orthodox community has done an excellent job of putting their money (and their best leaders) where their hearts are -- and where they expect their future to be. In part this is because they know that orthodox students are bound by Jewish law to make use of Hillels during their time in college -- and because they believe that Orthodox Rabbis they will find on campus should be passionately and brilliantly devoted to showing why they love being Orthodox, and in part because they know that college is the ultimate inflection point. We choose our adult identities in these years, and often, our religious identities as well. That's wonderful. I mean it. But it's only wonderful for those students whose Jewish education and commitment is already solid, for whom the bar has already been set 'high', those who have gone to day school, or for whom Orthodoxy resonates. For them, Hillel feels great, and is welcoming. But for so many more of the students I made it my mission to serve during my time in Hillel (that are, at least on paper, Hillel International's 'target demographic'): the hundreds of 'unengaged' that show up at Passover seders and High Holiday services, the thousands who come from liberal Jewish homes, interfaith families, Reform congregations, nominally Jewish backgrounds -- and who bring to the table a set of profoundly egalitarian social values -- a push toward greater observance simply will not resonate, whether we like it or not.

For these students: who have grown up with 'isms' that they often take just as seriously as Judaism (feminism, progressivism, environmentalism (and though this is not an 'ism' -- ambivalence about Israel)), encouraging a more traditionally observant life or regular text study may simply not be the solution to engagement. These students, I have found, are deeply hungry for a Judaism that aligns with and informs their social values; a Judaism that treats women as absolute equals, entitled to the same respect and obligations as men, a Judaism that is LGBTQ friendly, a Judaism that recognizes that students may have only one Jewish parent and many non-Jewish friends, a Judaism both deeply humanistic and still unique; grounded in its own values, texts and traditions. Above all, a Judaism that recognizes that a student's religious and spiritual identity is often only one part of a multi-faceted identity, which, whether we like it or not, may simply not be the most important part. This is a Judaism that says: tell us what matters to you, and why, and we'll start by caring about and honoring those passions and values, instead of trying to replace them with our own. This is a Judaism that says: we're happy to have you and integrate you into our campus communities regardless of your level of Jewish education, observance, family background, Israel politics, the religious background of your romantic partner, or level of ambivalence about us. This is a Judaism that says: your ambivalence about the tradition is itself profoundly Jewish, mirrored in centuries of squabbling Rabbis, and Jewish communities who strove to be simultaneously of the greater culture, society and community they inhabited and still -- and yet -- uniquely Jewish. This is a Judaism that holds up Rabbis of similar backgrounds (and especially of different genders and sexual orientations) and declares them just as legitimate and valued teachers of the tradition as the most brilliant and charismatic male Orthodox Rabbis.

I am hopeful. I believe this is possible. But I also believe it is pragmatic; the future of greater American Judaism. It may not align with institutional interests of increasing traditional observance (or perhaps it may, in the long run), but it will do the critical work of truly meeting the 80 percent of Jewish students on campus who don't regularly affiliate with Hillel where they are, rather than where we want them to be. Once we do that, we may find that they will want to come to our table. From me to them: we'd love to have you. We'd love to hear where you've been, what you've been up to and why you haven't been with us. Sit down. Stay for a while.