Young Jews Find Their Roots with College Group

Article excerpt

Byline: Ruth Silverman Daily Herald Correspondent

Recently, at a crumbling synagogue on Chicago's North Side, a pair of Jewish college-student volunteers began to clean the ark that houses the sacred Torah scrolls, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. One student handed a Torah to the other and suggested placing it carefully on a table.

The volunteer did so and turned to ask, "By the way, what is this?"

Rabbi Paul Saiger winces when he hears stories of young Jews totally ignorant of their own tradition.

"Being Jewish is a choice, not a condition," says the executive director of Hillels of Illinois.

Mention Hillel to most people who were Jewish college students in the 1950s through the 80's and you're likely to get a wrinkled nose and a dismissive chuckle in response.

Now, many people who formerly considered the Jewish campus organization "nerdy" are hoping it can bring their own children back into the fold.

Apparently, the statistics have frightened them. The rate of Jewish intermarriage outside the faith is now more than 50 percent. Only 28 percent of children in mixed-faith marriages are raised Jewish, according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. Another 41 percent are being raised in a non-Jewish religion.

But where the non-Jewish partner converts, suddenly the numbers go up. In those households, 60 to 70 percent of children are raised as Jews.

"The current pattern probably means there will be a net loss to the core Jewish population in the next generation," the report states.

In an effort to reverse the trend, Hillel's methods are changing. The organization still provides services to college students, as it did when it began in 1922 at the University of Illinois.

But instead of sitting back and waiting for already committed youths to come calling, the organization now aggressively recruits students who don't necessarily identify with - or even understand - the 5,000-year-old religion and way of life of their forebears.

Fortified by $22 million given to Hillels throughout the country in recent years by its International Board of Governor's chairman, Edgar Bronfman, the organization has an additional goal. It is to get the maximum number of Jews to "do Jewish" with other Jews, says Richard Joel, international director of Hillel.

Both men were among a lineup of Jewish professionals, benefactors and students at a summertime Chicago dinner that drew more than 600 people and raised more than $250,000 for Hillels of Illinois.

Bronfman calls his vision a "Jewish Renaissance."

"Every Jewish child should get a Jewish education, regardless of the ability to pay," he said. "And each one should make a trip to Israel by the time they graduate from college - to instill a sense of Jewish pride. …