THE ON-GOING ABANDONMENT OF JEWISH STUDENTS
A student activist’s lament: when will the community realize that we are the answer?
YOSEF I. ABRAMOWITZ
This post was originally published on www.peoplehood.org and has been republished here with the permission of the author, Yosef, who served as WUJS Chair 1987-1989
When the Jewish people stood at Sinai, the Holy One asked for a guarantor before He would present them with the Torah. “Our ancestors are our guarantors," they responded. But this was not enough. Then the people offered, “our prophets are our guarantors," And again it was not enough. Finally, the People of Israel said, “Here, our children are our guarantors."
Then, the midrash tells us, the Master of the Universe replied, “They are certainly good guarantors. For their sake, I give the Torah to you."
In our generation, the guarantors of God’s Torah have been abandoned. This is not just my feeling, but the cumulative conclusion of two decades of Jewish student leaders.
Student leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Harvard senior Lori Fein pioneered a national Jewish pride week because “the first thing students shed when they reach campus is their Jewish identity." University of California at Davis junior Donny Orenstein founded a chapter of the Progressive Zionist Caucus on his campus because “the anti-Israel forces on the left are so powerful that Jewish students mindlessly also adopt anti-Israel positions."
Name an issue, and there is a Jewish student activist doing something about it. Yet while there is little uniformity among this politically diverse and largely unconnected group of activists, there are two things we all agree on: One, the overwhelming majority of Jewish students on campus are not involved, and, two, the Jewish establishment couldn’t care less. It’s a sad story. Here’s mine.
I was one of those kids who went to Jewish day school till eighth grade, and then realized in public high school there was a wide, wonderful non-Jewish world out there. Luckily, I was seduced by a Zionist youth movement away from making Brookline High School the totality of my world and social circle. A transforming movement was, a decade ago, when President Reagan proposed selling AWACs to Saudi Arabia and billions of dollars of other weaponry.
I felt compelled to act, and I had a Jewish framework in which to do it in. We lost the vote on the AWACs, but at a young age I learned about organizing, leaflets, lobbying, position papers, media, and, most of all, the dynamics of power.
The organized Jewish community also learned hard lessons about the dynamics of power and worked to strengthen its position ever since. Yet in flexing its considerable muscles over the years, the community continues to ignore those from within who are without power: Jewish students.
Having not found a meaningful and paying occupation, I’ve turned into a perpetual student. In addition to a couple of diplomas, what I do have under my belt is ten years’ experience of Jewish student activism. And this is what I’ve learned: That unless student activists do something drastic, our concerns, and those of the campus in general, are only going to receive lip-service but nothing else. Encouraging words, but no cash. In our community, poor students have no vote. No vote, no dollars. No dollars, no campus programming. No campus programming, no Jews.
The community has made some very short-sighted decisions, mostly by its inaction and severe underfunding of the campus. The lack of support for Jewish student leadership efforts has helped undermine the critical mass of student activists necessary to build and sustain a movement.
Funding could mean more than a handful of Jewish student publications on campuses, innovative programs on a full range of issues, large numbers of students participating in programs in Israel and greater involvement and activity in Jewish campus organizations.
Where there is despair, there could be hope.
Boston, 1969. Student activists demonstrated at the General Assembly (GA) of the Council of 2Jewish Federations, protesting the lack of attention and financing of Jewish education.
Hillel Levine, then a 23-year-old rabbinical student, told the assembled that college campuses were a spiritual wasteland for Jewish students and demanded that attention be paid.
With that, the first shots were fired in a war that was declared but never truly fought. Through attrition, minor changes in the community, and the constant turnover of the student activist guard, it is the crusade that never reached the Promised Land. And the only people around who might remember those first shots are the now-grown 1969 activists and their audience of twenty-two years ago.
Lacking historical understanding and insight, political power, and stable funding, Jewish student activists concerned about the Jewish community have since turned almost exclusively to shtick – to attention-getting gimmicks – in order to make their ideological points.
The message is always the same: If you don’t make students a priority now, the community will suffer greatly later.
The General Assembly (GA) of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), which now attracts roughly 3,000 delegates nationwide, has remained a focal point. At the second GA I attended, in Washington, D.C. in 1984, student leaders cajoled a reluctant CJF leadership to allow Avital Sharansky, wife of Prisoner of Zion and leading Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, to address the main plenary session on behalf of her husband and the Soviet Jewry movement. I remember being amazed at the chutzpah of these student leaders and then feeling pride when Avital’s speech received a long standing ovation.
Florida, 1987. Jacob Davidson, an 18-year-old student activist from the City College of New York, made his first mark as a shtick-artist at this GA. Along with about 40 student leaders, he designed and placed 1,500 flyers under hotel doors at night. Delegates awoke to this ransom note:
We have your children. If you don’t want them back, continue to refuse to give them a Jewish education." The note was ominously signed, “assimilation."
Cincinnati, 1989. A group of us demanded to address the plenary, and CJF President Bill Berman agreed.
Fred Dobb, a Brandeis-based activist who later walked across America to promote environmentalism, was elected by a group of 40 students at 3 a.m., five hours before the scheduled speech. He used familiar Soviet Jewry battle-cries to make the point. “Let our people go!…to Israel on student programs" and announced the formation of the Student Struggle for North American Jewry, (a take-off on Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry), to fight assimilation on campus.
We felt that we had scored a major victory. Yet looking back on it, what did Jewish students really gain besides a platform for ten minutes? Communal leaders didn’t change the order of allocations; they didn’t invite us to sit on their boards.
San Francisco, 1990. A tall male student with dark features and sunglasses approached the microphone at the closing plenary. “Dear President Arafat," he said with a thick Middle Eastern accent. “Greetings from the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS). We are pleased to inform you that we have successfully infiltrated the CJF General Assembly, the parliament of American Jewry."
The clanking of coffee cups and saucers from the back of the room stopped. “We can report with enthusiasm that we are poised this year to dominate and control campus public opinion because despite their students’ pleas, the rest of the Jewish community, with their great financial and political power, have continued to deny campus leaders the resources they need to successfully counter our influence.
Within two weeks after this stunt, the United Jewish Appeal, at the urging of CJF leadership, decided to allocate $35,000 to send students on an emergency student solidarity mission to Israel, thus fulfilling one of our central demands. Communal leaders were afraid to go to Israel because of the Persian Gulf situation, but students were eager to visit.
Jacob Davidson, usually the cynic, sees a positive trend. “At the 1987 GA in Florida, the student program was weak and included kite-flying on the beach. In 1988, students drafted resolutions calling for more support. In 1989, we forced our way onto the agenda. And in 1990, they actually reserved a spot in the schedule for students to address the closing plenary."
Yet that optimism is tempered by a hard look at the numbers.
The United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the central fundraising organization of American Jewry since 1939, raised $1.2 billion in 1990. Students, who comprise seven percent of the American Jewish community, had direct say over only $93,000 of those funds (less than 1/10,000 of one percent), which went to the North American Jewish Students Appeal.
The majority of Jewish of Jewish communal funds earmarked for the campuses are allocated for the administration of B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations around the country. Last year, out of Hillel’s $19 million budget, $15.5 million came fro UJA-affiliated federations, according to Richard Joel, international director of Hillel.
What all these Jewish organizations have in common," says Jacob Davidson, speaking of the plethora of Jewish organizations in American Jewish life, including the UJA and CJF, “is that students have no say or vote. That means when it comes to budget time, our concerns are completely frozen out."
A slow neutron bomb has hit the Jewish community and they don’t even realize it" says Jacob Schreiber, a student activist and writer. “With assimilation and intermarriage rates very high and continually climbing, you are going to have the structures of the community standing without any people left."
It is frustrating to meet with executives of national Jewish organizations whose individual annual salaries are more than double the amount allocated by the federation movement for the Jewish Students Appeal.
But I have met with such leaders, a few of whom have been generous with their time, if not their funding. Their advice is to “go after more money" from the organized community. But when they are approached, the answer is no.
Three separate proposals have surfaced among student activists in the past year to solve the funding gap. All three would require federation action: A CJF/UJA-created endowment to finance student organizations, diverting the $500,000 raised by the campus arm of UJA directly back to student organizations, and dismantling the World Zionist Organization Student Department and earmarking its $1 million budget for students. When one of the three proposals was sent to UJA national chairman Marvin Lender, he wrote back saying that student funding was a priority for him and he will get to it in two to four years.
That may not be a long process to a communal leader, but to a student who activist life-span on campus is four years, it’s a lifetime.
Unfortunately, little has really changed since 1969. Sure, Hillel got more communal funding because they are part of the system, part of the establishment (yet even they are still under-funded). As for the student leaders and their independent organizations and newspapers, we continue to sit outside the circles of power, even though we keep knocking on the doors.
We will be present at your offices ad conferences and will vociferously demand the changes we know to be necessary," said Hillel Levine to the GA in 1969. “We want action and not delays. We want a change in the order of allocations and we want more equitable representation in decision making."
His words are as applicable today as they were in 1969. The difference is that in Baltimore in 1991 there are fewer of us left to repeat them. And next year there will be even fewer.
–Baltimore Jewish Times, Nov. 15, 1991
Check out amazing blogs and op-eds here by Jewish student leaders from all over the world.