I wish to offer a bit of perspective on the recent debate within the American Jewish community concerning when Jewish students ought to invoke Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
It is true that on a number of campuses anti-Semitic anti-Israel activity is a serious concern to students. On these campuses, the entire community must take the intersection of anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitism seriously, using the courts, the university’s administration, public support and yes, where applicable, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Students also may avail themselves of the courtroom of public opinion, reporting instances of anti-Semitism to the news media, drawing public attention and, hopefully, opprobrium. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
However, truly hostile anti-Israel activities on campuses are not commonplace in the U.S. In fact, today’s Jewish college students generally are safer from anti-Semitism than they have ever been. Until the late 1940s, anti-Semitism was pervasive and institutionalized on countless campuses nationwide. Quotas kept qualified Jews from attending top-tier universities, and even those who were admitted were barred from numerous campus activities, such as participation in many Greek organizations.
The American Jewish community no longer faces these obstacles. If anything, the problem has been turned on its head: Jewish students, fully part of American society, are losing touch with the richness of their religion, history and culture. It may be said that the primary challenge facing American Jewish collegiates is lack of Judaic knowledge and apathy toward communal involvement.
Indeed, only a modest fraction of Jewish college students participate in communal Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Many, including even those who attended Jewish camps or day schools, cannot read, write or speak Hebrew proficiently, which distances them from the core texts and ideas of the Jewish people. While knowledgeable and committed Jewish students can be found on campuses across the country, these students are not representative of the larger Jewish campus population.
A dearth of compelling Jewish educational and spiritual experiences on campus is part of the reason for the disconnect between Jewish students and Jewish life. The Jewish community ought to seek out and invest in innovative approaches designed to engage Jewish students with the breadth and depth of Judaism.
While this is not the forum to draw public attention to particular programs that Chabad offers, given the context, one particular initiative is worthy of mention. The Sinai Scholars Society is an eight-week course that focuses on core Jewish ideas that emerge from the Ten Commandments. More than frontal learning, the course acts as the stimulus for students to discuss the very nature of life through a uniquely Jewish lens. For some of the class participants, this is the first time they have grappled with these issues since their bat or bar mitzvah.
A study by sociologist Ezra Kopelowitz indicated that a significant majority of Sinai Scholars participants report a greater sense of Jewish belonging and a deeper intellectual understanding of Jewish life.
Programs such as this offer the knowledge and involvement that our students — and the broader American Jewish community — so desperately need.
Anti-Semitism is a scourge and we must employ all means to protect students. But focusing primarily on anti-Semitism directed at students will neither directly strengthen the Jewish community on campus nor raise the Jewish self-identity of the individual college student.
Instead, we ought to focus our energies on the most pressing concerns: Educating a new generation of American Jews to be knowledgeable about Judaism and communally committed.
Rabbi Hersh Novack is the founding director of Chabad at Washington University in St. Louis–Rohr Center for Jewish Life. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light.