What Makes an Event Jewish?
Jewish students organise a limited number of events each term, have limited resources, and limited energy. For this reason, there is a need to carefully consider which events are worth running, and which aren't. One of the important questions that needs to be asked when considering what to run is the question of what the Jewish impact will be. Some events could be fun and interesting whilst none-the-less not being very Jewish at all. If an event is fun but not Jewish there is a question about how worthwhile it is to run. To answer the question 'How Jewish is this event?' one needs to consider what counts as 'Jewish' at all. There are a number of different ways of thinking about being Jewish, and so a number of different ways of thinking about how activities that a Jewish student group run can 'be Jewish'. It is very worth considering what the aims of Jewish student activities are, and then applying these thoughts to events to make them 'Jewish' in the right way.
Jewish because Jews mix with each other
One view of Jewish life conceptualises Jews as an ethnic group, or perhaps even a 'people'. Jews are different from others, and ought to be different from others. What is important for Jewish survival is that Jews continue to do the same things as each other, and different things from non-Jews. This isn't a religious way of seeing the Jews - it doesn't matter if Jews are different from others because they eat Kosher or if they are different because they eat at a Kosher-style delicatessen. When Jews live in the same places as each other, do similar jobs to each other, and mix with each other, Jews continue to exist as an ethnic group.
Different is good. Together is good. This approach to Jewish life implies the position that an event is Jewish if Jews are there and mix together. The more exclusively Jewish the event is, the better. The more unique the activities that Jews engage in at the event, the better. So, a night club with Jews and non-Jews is okay, a night club full of Jews is good, but a synagogue full of Jews is the best, because only Jews go to synagogue. The ethnic approach takes the position that Jews should mix with each other at events, and that the events should, ideally, be to do things that only Jews are interested in doing.
Jewish because strengthens Jewish practice and behaviour
A popular way of seeing Jewish life is to consider the number of people performing Jewish practices as the important variable. The more people keep Shabbat, or put on teffillin, for example, the better the Jewish People are doing. This view takes a certain number of practices and behaviours, that perhaps vary according to the 'sect' of Jews dealt with (for example, Reform Jews should be judged according to whether they do 'social action' instead of putting on teffillin), and measures how many people do these practices and behaviours. The lists of desired practices and behaviours will usually derive from a religious view of being Jewish, and so take in things such as keeping Kosher, observing Shabbat, attending synagogue, giving money to charity, and so on.
This view of Jewish life is consistent with the traditional approach that says that it isn't what you believe that counts, just what you do... The implications of this approach for Jewish student groups is quite clear - Jewish activities should be aiming to change the way people live their lives: their behaviours and their practices. Social events with no educational content can really only be justified because they get people involved in activities, and the next activity they attend might be educational. Events should aim to be educational, and focus on how people live their lives, and how they could change.
Jewish because develops Jewish identity and feeling
Another view of Jewish life is that what matters for the survival of the Jews is that enough Jewish people feel Jewish and identify as Jews. If people feel Jewish, they are Jewish. What they 'do' matters a bit, but Jewish practice isn't enough to predict Jewish behaviour in the future. If somebody feels very Jewish they are likely to pass this feeling on to their children, commit to Jewish practice in the future, and so forth. Recent research has found that Jews often feel very deeply committed to Jewish life, while they maintain often idiosyncratic and usual Jewish behaviours. Today's Jew might fast on Tisha B'Av but not on Yom Kippur, put on tefillin but not go to synagogue, and generally act in surprising ways that render 'practice' based approaches to Jewish life slightly outdated. What matters, some say, is ‘the Jew Within’.
Practically speaking, a focus on feeling and identity means that pretty much any event could be considered Jewish. If people come away feeling Jewish, then the event was Jewish. That could mean a social event, a learning event, or a day in synagogue could all be considered usefully Jewish, but only if they get people to identify as Jews. Of course the danger here is that this way of considering Jewish life doesn't really give enough direction to planning; how are student leaders meant to judge whether an activity is really 'Jewish' if everything is subjective? The answer here is to twofold: firstly, it is important to note that because Jews feel such a wide variety of things there ought to be a large variety of activities, secondly, some activities obviously have more chance than others of affecting Jewish feeling, and this ought to be noted.
Jewish because improves quality of Jewish community
An elitist view of Jewish life says that the measure of Jewish communal health isn't best obtained from measuring a lot of individuals and taking the average, but rather by looking how healthy communal institutions are, and how productive Jewish leaders and intellectuals are being. This view states quite simply that Jewish life has never been about what everybody was doing, and has always been about what the elite are doing. When we think about the health of Jewish communities we think of synagogues, welfare institutions, schools, intellectuals, political influence, and such like. A Jewish community that has well-supported institutions and influential leaders is healthy, according to this view.
Jewish student groups can be run according to an elitist view of what Jewish survival is about. The organisation itself is important - in terms of support and finances. Political influence is important, and to be emphasised. Helping with communal institutions is important. What people think of Jews is important. The core of most-committed members are important, and events ought to be organised for them. According to this view one should ignore the students falling away around the edges, but focus instead on the elite.