Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=65013
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 3:37:24 PM CST
WASHINGTON--The sukkah outside George Washington University’s Hillel was crowded with students. Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews—as well as others looking to explore their Jewish roots -- gathered in the tent to celebrate Sukkot, a holiday commemorating the 40 years Jews wandered the desert after leaving bondage in Egypt.
Jewish grandmothers would have been proud, recognizing the students’ attempts to continue a tradition that many of them celebrated with their families before coming to college.
Except for the sushi.
It was “Sushi in the Sukkah” last week for some 20 GW students, who learned how to create salmon rolls while observing Sukkot.
“I don’t think my parents gathered like this,” said Emily Schwartz, 20, a Reform Jew from Michigan.
George Washington University students weren’t alone in fine-tuning the holiday to reflect youth culture.
Down the street, Georgetown University’s Jewish Student Association enjoyed “hookah in the sukkah.” With “pizza in the hut” at campuses across the country, even an “Iron Chef cook-off” in a sukkah at the University of Illinois, many Jewish students wove modern influences into Sukkot celebrations.
Jill Herskovits, 21, president of the Georgetown Jewish Association, said while events like “hookah in the sukkah” are “a little rebellious,” they envelop students in a strong Jewish environment that reflects the values learned at home.
“It becomes a part of your week. You really understand each other, wherever you come from. (Jewish students at Georgetown) were raised the same way and understand things about me that others don’t,” she said.
Hookahs are clearly a hook. Yet fancy pipes aside, could innovative practices indicate a growing secularization among young Jews? Or, do these tweaks on tradition represent a developmentally appropriate approach to religion? Whatever prompts the innovation, one scholar said, organizations working with college students will inevitably encounter the challenge of how to encourage new ways to practice that still retain the substance of the rituals students learned at home
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue, in Washington, DC, worries that Jews today feel less connected to their religious communities.
“It’s just a different world.. The days of the rabbi standing at the door welcoming the community are over,” he said.
Herzfeld said he’s had to work harder to “reignite a flame that has gone weak.”
For several years Herzfeld has set up a Sukkot sukkah in downtown Washington and given away thousands ofpizza slices. He said free food from an accessible sukkah helps draw people in who otherwise might not celebrate the holiday.
But once in the tent, the effects of bonding with fellow Jews—if even for just a few minutes--may last much longer than the hour it takes the pizza to disappear.
“There is so much power and strength that comes to the tradition of our ancestors,” Herzfeld said.
Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg, assistant director of the George Washington University Hillel, said many Jewish students arrive on campus eager to practice their faith.
The others present a challenge.
“There are very large numbers of students that without active engagement and a lot of promotion will remain on the margins…” he said. “Some don’t immediately see the value in Jewish culture or religion, or don’t see the immediate purpose of being more involved in those events.”
Jeff Rubin, spokesman for the national office of Hillel – the Jewish students organization -- said fears that younger Jews were too secularized erupted in the 1990s, when the results of a landmark study on Jewish Life revealed growing numbers were marrying non-Jews.
“There was trepidation in the community,” he said.
In response, Hillel chose to work on engaging the majority of the 400,000 Jews on campuses worldwide, rather than focus exclusively on a minority already firmly entrenched in their religion.
“Back then, holding observances was for the observant. We’ve blown that notion apart,” Rubin said.
GW student Michael Garber, 20, from Massachusetts, said he’s spent time in Jordan—and exposure to individuals with different religious backgroundsenhanced his faith.
“I was able to discuss my point of view with others who felt differently and I wasn’t used to that. Talking to people with different opinions strengthened how I understood why I believed,” he said
Is “Tweaking” really new?
“Sushi in the Sukkah” may represent a modern interpretation of Sukkot, but Shaul Kelner, assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, said he was hesitant to consider the George Washington University event a significant departure from the behavior of older American Jews.
“Every generation creates its Jewishness in a generationally specific way. And reformulates practices appropriate to them,” Kelner said.
Emily Schwartz said the sushi was tasty, but that she came to the sukkah out of faith.
“I was committed to having meals in the sukkah,” she said. “I felt it was fulfilling a mitzvah (commandment).”
Young people often lead the way in adopting new practices, said Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
“Changes are fastest among the young people. They are the most exposed, they are the most flexible and adaptable,” he said.
Kosmin said college groups face a challenge when trying to offer programming that is both enticing and recognizable.
“Hillel (wants to) keep kids in contact with a familiar environment so they don’t stray. But at the same time since it’s a college environment, it can’t be what they had at home. Judaism on campus can’t be what you had in the suburbs,” he said.
Harry Naftalowitz, 17, an Orthodox Jew from New York, came to “Sushi in the Sukkah” while checking out George Washington University as a potential college choice.
“My parents didn’t have something like this and it’s very important. I want to get in touch with my roots,” he said, munching on a salmon roll.