When Rabbi Heath Watenmaker is asked to describe the role he plays at Rutgers Hillel, he talks about a student named Jessica. When he first saw her, she was reading a Torah.
Jessica had come from a home with very little Jewish connection, but she had become curious.
“So she decided to start at ‘the beginning,’” he said. Watenmaker suggested that she try hevruta, the classical method of studying Torah with a partner. He and she began to meet each week in the lounge at Rutgers’ Douglass campus center in New Brunswick.
Watenmaker encouraged her to see that she could combine her passion for feminism with her new religious interest — and he gained through the relationship as well, seeing the material “through a female lens.”
Giving students the sense that their Jewishness “is a core part of their identity, with meaning and value in their lives,” is central to Watenmaker’s role as the Reform Initiative Outreach director hired by Hillel last year.
Watenmaker described the position and the local support that made it possible at Temple Har Shalom’s major donor event, held at Wine and Water Restaurant in Watchung.
The Union for Reform Judaism reduced funding to the Hillel three years ago when the economy tanked. Local organizers responded by rallying congregations — inspired by an initial challenge grant from Arthur and Betty Roswell of Bridgewater — to fund a Reform rabbi at Rutgers. Har Shalom in Warren joined 21 other congregations in that effort, helping to raise almost $150,000 toward the $250,000 required to meet the matching grant.
Addressing the 30 people at the Circle of Concern dinner, Watenmaker outlined how important it is to keep a connection with young people who might otherwise distance themselves from the community. He framed it as ensuring that the “chain of tradition not be broken.”
He said about one-third of the 6,000 Jewish students at Rutgers are believed to be from Reform homes or unaffiliated. Some had responded to religious programs offered by Orthodox or Conservative rabbis but many, he said, “were somewhat intimidated by the confidence and sense of ownership about their Judaism shown by the students from those groups.”
Many of the students he meets stopped their Jewish involvement at bar or bat mitzva age. They need to be “challenged to go beyond ‘pediatric Judaism,’” he said.
Watenmaker, a Los Angeles native with master’s degrees in social work and in Jewish communal service, was ordained last year at Hebrew Union College — on the same day that his son was born. Drawing on that background, he set out to show students that there are “deep and diverse ways to study and to worship, ways that respect both Jewish tradition and modernity, and can add meaning and holiness to their lives” without requiring them “to check their interests at the door.”
Working on Rutgers’ New Brunswick and Piscataway campuses, his job has involved a lot of coffee drinking. Watenmaker said he engages the students wherever he can — in cafes, playing pool, in dorm rooms, and even, with the older ones, in bars. He invites discussion, about identity and values and community, and, if they are interested, invites them to take part in biweekly discussions of the Torah portion, to attend services, and to come to Shabbat meals.
Watenmaker said people might think that “Reform and liberal Jews often don’t have a longing for community that many of the Orthodox Jews feel, but there is a value to being part of a vibrant Jewish community. The students want to feel wanted.”
He advised the parents present to talk to their college-bound kids about their own religious choices, to help them prepare for the options they’ll face. He suggested too that they call the Hillel at the college their kids will be attending, to let them know about this new Jewish student — even, as one audience member suggested, if they don’t tell their kids they did that.
Members of the audience asked Watenmaker about the students’ attitudes to Israel. While other members of the Hillel staff deal with Israel programming, he made it clear that his work meshes with theirs, part of the overall effort to help the students explore their Jewish identity.
“I work closely with the Israel advocates,” he said, “to help give students a diverse and honest picture of what Israel is about — not just a rosy, puppy love, but a real love, acknowledging the fact that there are lots of different view-points.”