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Campuses have role to play in survival of Judaism

University of Missouri-St. Louis has been seeking to establish a new Hillel chapter, and I was asked by the organizers to write a commentary addressed to potential members. What follows are some themes I struck in making the pitch for young people to become involved in Jewish campus life, whether at UMSL or elsewhere

Colleges today are constantly trumpeting the importance of diversity, of having a student body that includes multiple minorities in terms of race or ethnicity, gender and — yes — religion. If you are a Jewish student on campus, you may not think of yourself as a minority, but you are. 

Worldwide, there are only 15 million Jews out of a population of more than 7 billion. Roughly 80 percent of all Jews are found in just two countries: Israel and the United States. Jews are only a small percentage of all students who attend UMSL and many other universities.  

You should feel proud of your heritage. Channeling Churchill, rarely have so few done so much for so many. For example, almost one-quarter of all the Nobel Prize laureates since 1901 have been Jewish – more than 40 percent of the prizes awarded  in economics, 25 percent in medicine, 25 percent in physics and chemistry, and the kudos go on. From Albert Einstein to Elie Wiesel, Jews have made enormous contributions to humanity. 

It is especially impressive when one considers the constant persecution Jews have experienced over the millennia, from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in ancient times that led to the Diaspora, to the Spanish Inquisition during the middle ages, to the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 19th century, to the Holocaust in the 20th century. 

The “wandering Jew” has spent much of his or her time preoccupied with running away from assorted assailants. Jewish existence has been an ongoing struggle. That said, Jews have viewed the need to overcome anti-Semitic prejudice as a hurdle, not a barrier, to success. 

The “people of the book” have succeeded largely through education. A 2016 Pew Research Center study, “Religion and Education Around the World,” found that globally, Jews have the highest average years of schooling. The study found that 75 percent of Jewish adults in North America have at least an undergraduate degree, compared with 40 percent of the general population. 

However, Jews today once again find themselves challenged, as there is evidence that anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide. In recent years, researchers have counted an average of 500 violent anti-Semitic incidents in Europe annually, including attacks on people and vandalism against synagogues and other Jewish sites. In the United States, there has been an upsurge in such incidents as well.  

One might think there would be far fewer such cases on college campuses, which are supposed to be more liberal and respectful of diverse perspectives. What is most disturbing is that colleges themselves have been exhibiting growing anti-Semitism.  

Indeed, according to a 2015 Huffington Post report: “Nowhere is this phenomenon more rampant than on college campuses. With the incessant barrage of anti-Israel legislation sweeping into student governments across the country, anti-Israel rhetoric has slowly but surely transformed college campuses into breeding grounds for false perceptions of Jews and their beliefs. The systematic singling out … and setting of double standards in relation to the Jewish state has led to the systematic singling out … and setting of double standards in relation to the Jewish people: discrimination at UCLA … swastikas at the University of California-Davis, Emory University and … George Washington University.”

Israel should not be immune from criticism over the Palestinian issue – mistakes have been made on both sides – but the hypocrisy toward Israel is palpable. As the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer once put it, “Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people, and there is no refugee problem. … [Yet] everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab.” 

Students and faculty throughout higher education have been pushing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, while ignoring the human rights atrocities in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.

As outrageous as academic attacks on Israel are, even more outrageous are the personal attacks on Jewish students. The aforementioned incident at UCLA was an especially egregious example of how anti-Israel sentiment is spilling over into anti-Jewish discrimination. A Jewish student was almost denied appointment to the student government’s Judicial Board based solely on her Jewish identity. She was questioned whether being Jewish might prevent her from being an impartial member of the court. No similar questions have been asked of Christians or Muslims. 

Jews are threatened not only from without but also from within. In some respects, we are our own worst enemy, as we are at risk of losing our culture through self-inflicted wounds. How so?

The proverbial canary in the coal mine may be the decline in the number of Jewish delicatessens in the United States. The 2014 documentary film “Deli Man” was hilarious but also very sad. The movie noted that in the 1930s New York City had more than  1,500 kosher delis, whereas today there are an estimated 150 left in all of North America. (I visited the Carnegie Deli in NYC two days before it closed Jan. 1, as even kosher-style legends are passing.) 

The disappearance of hot pastrami sandwiches and knishes would not be so tragic if it did not signal the dwindling of the Jewish community.

A 2014 study by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis found that of the 90,000 people living in “St. Louis Jewish households,” 40 percent identified as either “not Jewish” or only “partly Jewish.” Due to growing intermarriage and other factors, the decline in Jewish identity is evidenced by declining synagogue affiliation and reduced observance of Jewish rituals, such as conducting Passover seders and lighting Hanukkah candles. 

Recent Jewish Light articles have highlighted the fact that erosion of Jewish identity, along with reduced support for Israel, is especially occurring among Jewish millennials and college students.  

So what is the point of all this?  

Very simply, a religion — that is, a people — whose roots go back thousands of years, whose ancestors heroically sustained their values against all odds, and which can claim to have been a “light unto the nations” will not endure unless the current generation of young Jews reaffirms their identity and converts are attracted to the faith. 

This means getting involved in Jewish life on and off campus.