Many studies have been conducted over the last decade to try and understand the nature of Jewish students in North America. All Jewish and Israeli organizations on campus wonder what motivates their student population. From the time I left Jerusalem and arrived at Yale University’s beautiful New Haven campus, I have asked myself these questions: What interests my students? How should I reach out to the non-affiliated ones?
Then, I read one amazing study. It stated that North American Jewish students are divided into three main groups: approximately 15% of the Jewish students can be categorized as "affiliated" - those who frequently come to Hillel, participate in events, and often lead projects themselves. Another 15% belong to the "anti" group - those who deliberately do not come to Hillel, do not participate in events, and cannot be persuaded. In my opinion, the most interesting research group is the third one: about 70% of the Jewish students belong to the "apathetic" cohort - those who do not come to Hillel, do not participate in events, and are not leading projects - but without any reason. That's more than two-thirds of Jewish students!
The findings of this study have helped me formulate an answer to the questions I've been asking. I realized that our mission, as the Israel programming team at Yale, is in fact to reach the "apathetic" group, the hundreds of young men and women who never walk in the door and have no connection with the state of Israel.
How should we reach them? How do we get a disinterested Jewish student to learn more about Israel? The following strategy reflects the approach that we have developed and operate with at Yale. It was created in partnership with student leaders Danielle Ellison’15, the 2012-2013 President of Yale Friends of Israel, and Jonathan Silverstone ’15, the 2012-2013 Israel Chair on the Hillel Student Board.
We call it "Taking Things Outside." Frankly, it is a very simple idea: instead of holding events at Hillel, events that will only attract the 15% who are affiliated and interested in Israel, we consciously decide to hold events outside Hillel. We deliberately try to move programs to be in other venues on the Yale campus.
How does this work in practice? Once we finalize the arrival of a speaker, group, or workshop, we reach out to the relevant academic departments and student groups at Yale and make them an offer they can't refuse: take the speaker/group/workshop for free and conduct the event by yourselves. We offer an interesting event for free, and ask them only one thing in return – make sure your students are coming.
Why do we do it? We have found this to be the optimal way to engage the 70% of Jewish students on campus. The "apathetic" Jewish student is coming to the event because it interests the student professionally, it is held by the student’s academic department, the student was asked to come by his or her professor, or because interest is sparked by a non-Jewish student group that co-sponsors the event. In the midst of pursuing a personal interest, the apathetic student unexpectedly receives a small dose of connection to the Jewish people and the state of Israel. The student discovers and learns new information about a place they previously thought of only as a desert or a war zone.
As just one example, in October 2012 we contacted the Director General of Israel's Ministry of Health, and he promised to come to Yale. We made contact with the Yale School of Public Health and offered them the opportunity for them to host the Director General. They were extremely happy with the proposal and one of the senior professors asked to facilitate the discussion. The event was a huge success: exposing more than 20 Yale students, Jews and non-Jews, to a side of Israel they did not know about before. By the way, don't worry - we did not forget the "affiliated" students – we invited them to dinner and discussion with the Director General in Hillel's dining room.
So next time you think about how to reach out to students who never come to your events - remember our recommendation: take things outside.
Amir Sagron has been the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Yale University Hillel since August 2012. Born in Beer-Sheva, Amir grew up in Rehovot and served in the Israeli Army as an Officer. He is a Lt. in the IDF reserves, and holds a BA in Political Science and International Relations from Hebrew University.