It may be the holy grail of American-Jewish life — how to bring (or keep) college students and recent college grads in the fold, and in the pews.
Two Long Island rabbis may have hit on a winning formula to connect them to a synagogue and to get them some home cooking if they’re studying abroad. And there’s no “pay-to-pray” price tag.
In its first year last year, some 200 participating synagogues in the U.S. threw their doors open for college-age Jews, permitting them to attend High Holy Day services and other activities for free throughout the year. It is believed to have attracted perhaps 5,000 people.
Beginning with the High Holy Days this year, nearly 700 synagogues will be participating in the program, including 51 in New Jersey and several overseas.
Known as Synagogue Connect, it was founded by Rabbi Ronald Brown, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am of Merrick and Bellmore and Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Center.
People ages 18 to 26 may now take part in the program at 119 of the 671 participating synagogues. The change was made to serve graduate students and to match eligibility requirements of Birthright Israel.
“It’s like a smorgasbord — go to one synagogue one week and another a different week, hear the different rabbis and see which one you like,” Brown said.
He added that the addition of overseas synagogues was because there are “so many students who go for a semester or a year abroad.”
Of the 671 participating synagogues, 324 are Reform, 210 are Conservative, 53 are Chabad, 33 are Reconstructionist, and 29 are Orthodox.
Also new this year: Synagogue Connect will be partnering with Kahal: Your Jewish Home Abroad. Founded in 2013, the organization connects Jewish students studying abroad with local Jewish families. It served 1,100 students last year and expects to serve 1,700 this year in 39 countries and 70 cities worldwide.
Regarding home hospitality for students studying in the U.S., Brown suggested that students away at college call the local synagogue “and say they would like to come Friday night. They could also ask if dinner with a local family could be arranged.”
The international Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, with chapters on more than 180 campuses, has endorsed the project. In a letter, its executive director, Andrew Borans, wrote that the project “is an important step in connecting Jewish students to their Jewish roots and strengthening their Jewish identity and Jewish pride.”
Although Brown said it was not possible to know how many students took advantage of the program last year, he said the Synagogue Connect link on Alpha Epsilon Pi’s webpage had 30,000 hits and 3,000 hits asking for directions to individual synagogues.
“If 5,000 students took advantage of it, that is 5,000 students who went to synagogue who might not have gone,” he said.