‘Millennials’ Forcing Big Changes At Hillel
Campus Group To Tailor A More Universal Message To Fit With New Generation Of Students

November 4, 2005 | By Gabrielle Birkner

In light of a soon-to-be-released study showing that college students who identify as Jewish are increasingly likely to be products of interfaith marriages, to have non-Jewish boyfriends and girlfriends, and to shun denominational labels, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is shifting its message to gain traction with this new generation.

Known as “Millennials,” this cohort—considered to be more conventional, ambitious, globally aware and technologically savvy than their Generation X counterparts—was the subject of the first-of-its-kind, Hillel-sponsored study, portions of which will be unveiled Nov. 14 at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Toronto.

Hillel did not make the report available, but organization executives said the study revealed that Millennials see Judaism as a cultural rather than a religious identity; are interested in participating in Jewish holiday rituals; expect to become more active in Jewish communal life as they get older; and self-affiliate as Jews, even if they have only one Jewish parent.

“It’s dead on,” said Colette Beyer, a Jewish student leader at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., who was privy to some of the study’s initial findings.

“It said a lot about us: that we’re hypercommunicative, that we have helicopter parents”—super-involved mothers and fathers who hover over their children—“that we lack interest in traditional Jewish institutions,” she said.

Hillel officials say the results, compiled during the past year through face-to-face interviews and online surveys, will prove invaluable as the organization embarks on a five-year plan to double the number of undergraduate and graduate students having “meaningful Jewish experiences.”

Though Hillel has yet to define just what passes for a “meaningful Jewish experience”—that will be tackled at its annual staff conference next month—the organization already has changed its mission statement to reflect its attempt to attract a larger segment of Jewish students.

Hillel has abandoned its longtime mantra—“to maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews—in favor of one that casts a wider net. The “doing Jewish” slogan, whose double entendre was spoofed for years by college coeds, has been supplanted by the mission “to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.”

Danny Greene, a recent graduate of Stanford University, where he was a Jewish student leader, agreed with the change. He said that in order to bring Millennials into the Hillel fold, the organization must address the universal values that are so important to his contemporaries.

“We are at once distinctly Jewish and part of the community at large,” said Greene, now a Hillel Bittker fellow. “They want to participate in social-action projects that don’t speak only to the Jewish community but to the community at large, and projects that the whole campus population, not just Jewish students, can take part in.”

Jewish students more than ever are integrated into the campus community, he said, and therefore are “driven less by fear and guilt, and more by possibility and opportunity.” Greene asserted that Generation Y’s brand of Judaism is less likely to be defined by anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.

To compile the data, Hillel sponsored a series of focus groups that plumbed the behaviors, motivations and expectations of Millennials. About 600 students, parents, philanthropists, and Hillel professional and lay leaders participated during the past year in several small-group discussions held at college campuses, Hillel staff conferences and the organization’s Washington headquarters. Some Hillel campus professionals and local lay leaders also answered open-ended questions online.

Additionally, some 600 undergraduate and graduate students answered an online multiple-choice questionnaire that asked about their religious upbringing and identity, their participation in Jewish communal activities and the role they envision Judaism playing in their lives long-term.

“We have a mission that’s broader and more far reaching than it was before,” said Julian Sandler, chairman of Hillel’s strategic planning committee, which commissioned the study.

Sandler said Hillel needs to focus on attracting what he described as “the swing vote,” the approximately one-third of Jewish students who reported that Judaism was “somewhat important”—not “very important” or “unimportant”—in their lives.

“This middle is where we can have the biggest impact if Hillel positions itself as a welcoming, less exclusive group,” he said.

The study found that Hillel is currently reaching about a third of Jewish college students nationwide.

Over the past decade or so, and especially under the leadership of former President Richard Joel, Hillel has grown from a chain of Jewish chapels to brand-name, full-service campus centers. Hillel professional and lay leaders agreed that the organization needed to rethink its short- and long-term objectives, especially in light of the new generation of Jewish students.

Penn, Schoen and Berland, an independent, Washington-based market research and polling company, facilitated the discussion sessions and administered the online questionnaire. Working pro-bono, PSB organized and analyzed the data generated, presenting it to Hillel in a 30-page report.

The results of the study, which have been shared with Jewish campus professionals and selected students, will shape the strategies Hillel employs to reach its overarching objective to double the number of students having meaningful Jewish experiences during their college years, and its subordinate goals to expand and diversify its funding sources, to engage more graduate students, to recruit, develop and retain first-rate professional staff, and to inspire a new generation of Jewish communal leaders.

These goals will be presented early next year to the Hillel’s Board of Directors. If approved they will be the focal point of the organization’s five-year strategic plan, though the organization has yet to decide precisely how they will be implemented.

At the GA, Hillel President Avraham Infeld will discuss some of the highlights of the report, which will be released in full next May at Hillel’s “Summit on Jewish University Life” in Washington.

Also at the GA, Hillel will hold a session called “Meet a Millennial,” where Jewish leaders will have an opportunity to meet their Generation Y counterparts.

Many of the findings were consistent with the conclusions drawn by Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.” In their book, published in 2000, Strauss and Howe brand Generation Y—children born to baby boomer parents between 1982 and 2000—as sheltered, confident, special, team-oriented, conventional, pressured and achieving.

They also complement previous research about Jewish young adults conducted by Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University, Linda Sax at UCLA, and Steven Cohen of Hebrew University.

“This generation has a different understanding of identity,” said Graham Hoffman, Hillel’s director of strategic resource management, who co-authored the study’s online student survey. “They see their identity as a set of windows on a computer screen, and any number of screens can be open simultaneously.

“For them, it’s not just a question of am I a Jewish American or an American Jew. They see themselves as American, Jewish, heterosexual and a volleyball player all at once. They don’t feel the need for one of those windows to take over the whole desktop.”