Home March 2020 How Can I Help?

How Can I Help?

Sea of hands showing unity and teamwork“How can I help?” A question constantly fired my way at Shabbat meals, Jewish communal events, and even casual conversation when I reveal that my job is working on college campuses as a Jewish and Israel educator. Jewish students and campus organizations face a unique set of challenges only exacerbated by the stress of school and the nature of the college social bubble. Often times, these challenges and perspective is difficult for “outsiders” to understand and well-meaning help can turn into increased trouble for Jewish students.
I have spent the past eight years of my life on college campuses as an undergraduate student, graduate student, and now Jewish educator and have come to intimately understand the complicated inner workings of campus politics, Jewish students, and the wider Jewish communities and organizations. This is my best attempt at an answer for the all too ubiquitous question, how can I help?
University campuses have long served as a proxy war for a variety of polarized national conversations and debates. Like any good proxy war the backers and funders are all too happy to fuel the battle flames while largely being able to elude the potential fallout, backlash, and personal harm on the ground. This trend is glaringly present in any type of conversation surrounding Israel and often by extension, the Jewish student body.
It’s no surprise to anyone that our society is becoming increasingly polarized, with both sides of an argument seemingly moving to their respective extremes. Correlating to this shift, study after study has pointed to the fact that our neighborhoods and social groups are becoming increasingly politically homogeneous—with most individuals preferring to spend their time with those who are ideologically similar than face the daily burden of interacting with dissent and challenging opinions.
But, college students do not have that luxury. Students spend their days on a small campus with a student body representative of the full national ideological spectrum and they have no escape. Students may dorm with, share a class with, or have a professor who has a vastly different take on, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their own. And herein lies one of the most important pieces of campus wisdom that I can distill.
On a national level where politics is seen as zero-sum there is a pragmatic argument to be made for political groups to come out with the most extreme, no holds barred, version of their agenda. On campus this simply doesn’t work—and that can be extremely difficult for outsiders to truly understand.
With this background in mind it is an absolute imperative to take time to talk to college students, asking about their first-hand experience—not attempting to employ any top-down solutions to any problem that arises. While this may sound obvious, it is an oft forgotten piece of wisdom. National news programs, magazines, and newspapers—not to mention Jewish communal banter, synagogue speeches, and “Shabbos table talk”—talk about the trends and potential solutions of university life often times ironically without any student input. Campus isn’t, to quote a recent headline, a “war-zone for Jewish students”, but it is a very unique slice of the wider-American society with its own eclectic culture, the navigation of which requires tact, strategy, and a deep understanding of campus.
There are dozens of ways to help out Jewish students in local universities. Talk to students and campus Jewish professionals, see what’s on their mind, show up to community facing campus events or a Shabbat dinner at the local Hillel or Chabad—I would personally be happy to talk to anyone about bolstering Jewish campus life. Like most important issues, if you really want to help the most important first step is becoming educated.
Daniel Levine is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine and the Senior Jewish Educator for Orange County Hillel. His email is Dlevine21@gmail.com

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