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August 13, 2013 By:
Synagogues Seek to Stay in Touch With College Students
What do hamantaschen, a Starbucks gift card and a pharaoh punching bag have in common?
They’re all goodies that Jewish college students may find in care packages sent by their hometown synagogues.
Synagogues across denominations keep in touch with college students in a variety of ways, from sending holiday food packages and putting the students on the newsletter mailing list, to inviting them to participate on Facebook pages and having the rabbi visit campus to take them out for dinner.
The Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union all encourage such connections, with many synagogues requiring only that parents supply a campus address but others charging parents a fee.
At the Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., students receive care packages for Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Purim and Passover.
The packages most typically consist of kosher holiday-related foods, but freshman can also expect an electric menorah for Chanukah, while older students might get a mug or glass dreidel.
Plus, they’ll get the occasional email from their rabbi, as well as information about Birthright Israel, the program that sends young adults 18-26 to Israel at no cost.
“I get wonderful, wonderful little thank you notes,” says Naomi Feinkind, who has chaired Greenburgh’s Koach outreach program for the past decade.
“I get kids that are in their late 20s who say, ‘I still have that menorah,’ ” she says.
Feinkind recounts the time a student told her that he and his roommate, who was also Jewish, had been thinking about getting a Christmas tree their freshman year — until the Chanukah package showed up. “They scuttled the tree,” she says.
In the Philadelphia region, connecting with college students is also a priority.
In November and December, Adath Israel in Merion Station sends students a care package with candles, a dreidel and a Starbucks gift certificate. Rabbi Eric Yanoff includes a note that says, “We couldn’t send you a latke but have a latte on me.”
“The college campuses are doing better and better jobs at empowering young adults, and we have to support that on the synagogue side so that when they get out of campus life, they say, ‘The synagogue is a natural extension into my life as a Jewish adult,’ ” says Yanoff.
For the rabbi, the outreach goes beyond care packages. On Yom Kippur, the congregation will host a discussion in the afternoon called Future Now, where college students and young professionals, whether they are members or not, are invited to discuss what they think the Jewish community will look like in the future and how to ensure a continued existence.
Yanoff said he often serves as a counselor for students who encounter anti-Israel biases on their campuses.
“I want them to think, if I have an issue where something is uncomfortable on campus, I’ve got this guy I can contact. I can email him to get advice,” he says.
At Congregation Beth El in Yardley, the Eric J. Marinoff Memorial College Outreach Fund was established in 2009 to help the synagogue connect with students.
In addition to sending care packages, the shul hosts events during winter and summer breaks for college students, such as wine-and-cheese socials.
Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg says that he is not only trying to maintain the connection with students in anticipation of their graduation but also hopes that keeping in touch with students will encourage them to become more involved Jewishly on campus.
“I don’t know that it’s because of us, but we’ve had several students who have taken leadership roles” in Jewish organizations on their campuses, Gruenberg says. “So I think on some level, that’s the ultimate success story.”
At Adat Shalom in Farmington, Mich., Jodi Gross has been working on college outreach since 2006. “When students go away to college, I think they’re in that part of their lives where they’re looking for something,” she says.
“It’s important that they know that the rabbi, the cantor and myself, as education director, are there for them if they need help.”
Adat Shalom students receive a Starbucks gift card for Chanukah, along with a letter from the rabbi or cantor, and a food package for Passover. “We send the junk food,” she says, “usually the kinds of things that you can’t find near campus,” along with information on how to make a kitchen kosher for Passover.
She also maintains a Facebook page geared to the students and invites students coming home for the High Holidays to help lead youth services so that they remain connected to the synagogue. And, with 80 percent to 90 percent of Adat’s students attending schools in state, one of the clergy tries to visit each campus at least once a semester.
Josh Maroff, who’s entering his second year at Michigan State University, doesn’t think the Facebook page is much help. “It’s not like a conversational page,” he says.
However, overall, he calls the outreach, particularly the campus visit, “a nice way to remind you there are people at home who care about you, to remind you about the importance of Judaism.”
His freshman year he was one of about 15 students — half from his class — to attend a dinner with Rabbi Aaron Bergman. It was really nice, Maroff, 18, says, “to have the Jewish conversations we had in Hebrew school that we hadn’t had in a while.”
For his part, Bergman says, “I’m just there to hang out.”
“Let’s have some food together and hang — just to see what’s on their mind and what they’re thinking, who looks happy and who looks not so happy,” he says.
Staying in touch is part of maintaining continuity, officials say. “Hopefully, they’ll remember us in the future or remember that a synagogue cared about them,” Bergman says.
“I just want them to have a good thought about the Jewish community.”
When Ari Paskoff joined Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., as youth director a couple of years ago, he thought that gifts, such as an Egyptian pharaoh punching bag or matzah-decorated juggling balls, might be a little cheesy. But he found that students get a kick out of them.
Plus, he says, the holiday packages, which also typically include holiday-related foods, make an impact on the congregation’s younger students.
“When I’m packing the stuff, the youth groups I work with will see what we’re doing and say, ‘I can’t wait till I get that in college,’ ” says Paskoff.
Exponent staff writer Eric Berger contributed to this story.