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The topic of college students who feel disengaged from the Jewish community has sparked a lot of conversation.  One of the questions that I’ve been asked is whose fault is it.  Parents?  Kids?  Synagogues?  Youth groups?  Hillel programs on campus? 

What are we doing wrong?  What can we do better?  Jewish summer camps are successfully making Judaism relevant, meaningful, engaging and fun.  But only a small percentage of Jewish kids go to camp, and there are 10 months every year when those kids aren’t getting what they need and want.

My young friend at FSU shed a little more light on her situation for me.  What she said was fascinating and it’s worth hearing her own words (with some light editing; emphasis mine):

Tonight I was discussing all this with one of my Christian friends. At her campus ministry, they have small freshman interest groups for bible study. She described the intimate connection within her group. At the beginning of the year they were trying to make the groups smaller by moving some people around (her group was 11 people and that was larger than their ideal). After a week, one girl volunteered to switch, but they decided to keep the original size because the dynamic already felt wrong without her, and it was more important for them to keep every individual they had bonded with than to reduce the size.

It’s clear to me that my friend feels like an integral part of that organization. She is valued as an individual and she knows it wouldn’t be the same if she missed a day… Here when I go to Hillel, they are very good hosts, and they encourage me to come back, but I don’t feel like they will miss me because there is very little intimacy. And not much intellectual conversation that would be enhanced by my participation…  So in my opinion, what we need is to establish more intimate cohorts to make students feel connected and stimulate their interest.

I would rather know 5 or 10 people very well and establish something substantial than sit around and eat bagels with 50 people who only get a chance to tell me their names and majors. Imagine if Communiteen had only consisted of the bagel part! It was a lovely touch but there is so much more to it.  I know the right people to talk to at this point, and I’d love to recruit my own little Communiteen-esque group and maybe start something new here that I bet a lot of people might not even know they are missing. Who knows how successful I will be in devoting myself to this, but at least it’s one idea to throw out there.

Communiteen is an innovative teen education program hosted by the Sarasota Jewish Federation.  It gives teens a chance to explore Judaism and Jewish thought.  It encourages them to think for themselves.  It presumes that they’re intelligent and thoughtful human beings who want to talk about Judaism with their peers (from across the Sarasota-Manatee community) and with teachers who treat them with respect.  Every participant is valued. 

I’m glad that my friend isn’t willing to give up.  And I’m proud that she is willing to take it upon herself to create something that can meet her needs, and, as she said, something that “a lot of people might not even know they are missing.” 

And I’m truly honored to have been her teacher.