Focusing on the need “to turn people on to Judaism for the first time or to deepen an already strong commitment,” Rabbi Julie Roth is busy implementing a new strategic plan at Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life.
Roth, executive director of an organization that incorporates the campus Hillel and 11 other student groups, is using six months’ worth of research “to bring this program to a much larger group of students.”
“How do we take things to the next level?” she asked.
The rabbi acknowledged that at least 80 percent of Princeton’s Jewish students are involved with Hillel at least once a year. The “next level,” as outlined in the strategic plan, would be to deepen those students’ connections to Jewish life.
After interviewing Jewish students on other campuses; hiring a consultant to run focus groups; and using a student, alumni, and staff task force to summarize findings and recommendations, the center has renewed its statement of purpose.
“Our mission is to reach every Jewish student at Princeton, but not just to reach them to come to a Passover seder once a year,” Roth told NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 10 phone interview. “Our mission is to inspire them to contribute with passion and knowledge to the Jewish community and the world.”
Out of 5,000 undergraduates and 2,500 graduate students, Roth estimates that 700 are Jewish. Among the 500 who are undergraduates, she believes 125 of them “are heavily involved with us on a weekly basis,” and one-half of the Jewish undergraduates “are involved at least twice a month.”
Roth said there are a lot of activities on the campus to attract students’ precious extracurricular energies. “We are competing not just with academics but with many other student activities — the arts, the newspaper, student government, the Young Democrats, and Young Republicans,” said Roth.
There may be other deterrents to student involvement in the center, Roth said. “We are competing with the misimpression that they will be judged by how they do or do not practice Judaism or that Judaism isn’t as intellectually engaging or relevant as other things.”
The center is aiming for greater relevance by offering students what it calls “learning fellowships” in Jewish influence on such topics as business ethics, biomedical ethics, and religious pluralism.
Although they offer no financial stipends or course credits, the fellowships will include guest scholars, retreats, and field trips; the aim of the program, Roth said, is to attract students who might not be interested in Hillel’s religious activities.
“We envision building up from one or two to six fellowships a year, each with a cohort of 15 to 20 students,” she said. “We want to add one on the arts and one on the environment.”
The center also wants to increase its number of overseas trips. Beyond its Birthright Israel trip, it cosponsored a trip to Spain with a focus on that country’s Jewish-Muslim history and a project in Guatemala with the American Jewish World Service.
“These immersion experiences have had a powerful impact on students, but we would like to expand opportunities beyond two trips a year, so that every undergraduate who comes here has the chance to participate,” said the rabbi.
Acknowledging that the trips and the fellowships can be costly, Roth said the strategic plan “calls for a significant higher investment in our program. We don’t charge dues. Parents and alumni are called on to make donations, and we seek to partner on some programs with other organizations at the university.”
She said such contributions are wise investments in a worthwhile program. “We have a very personalized approach and a close-knit but very diverse community. We have Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities who all have services here on Friday nights, but no community is an enclave unto itself. When we have 25 students for Shabbat dinner, that creates friendships across denominational lines,” said Roth.
“What makes us strong is we get to know our students on an individual basis and connect them with experiences that speak to them.”