To keep Jewish college grads connected, it takes a village

As Berkeley Hillel director for the last seven years, I have come to love this time of year. Graduation is a celebration not just of academic achievement, but also the personal growth and discovery students have experienced. Sitting among friends and family watching the ceremonies, I can sense the feelings of optimism for what the future holds.

As much as I share that excitement, I also have feelings of anxiety and nervous energy — like a parent sending my children off into the world. For the last four years, when these students have needed a welcoming Shabbat dinner, a comfortable place to decompress or a compassionate ear, Hillel has been there to fill the need, working with them, challenging them and supporting them.

From now on, they’ll be on their own. It will be their job to create their own Jewish expression. If they want Shabbat dinner, they’ll need to make it. If they want to meet Jewish peers, they’ll need to put out the effort. If they want to find Jewish learning, they’ll need to seek it out. And if they want Jewish community, they’ll need to find it — or build it.

But is this really how things should work? Or should the Jewish community make an active effort to welcome these young people into the world, to embrace them, to connect them? Many Jewish opportunities exist for our graduates, but when it is time for them to take the next steps on their Jewish journey, the organized Jewish world lacks a mechanism to support them.

We need one.

Every fall, I struggle with the same problem. I’m always   

surprised to meet great numbers of new students who have been involved in youth groups or Jewish camps during high school, but who seem unaware of what Hillel does or can do for them. It’s rare for a rabbi, high school administrator or camp director to reach out and notify me about students bound for our campus. (Many private universities do share names of incoming Jewish students with Hillels and campus Chabads, but public institutions are less forthcoming.)

To best serve our youth, we need to move from working in silos and understand this simple idea: The more we communicate and share information, the more vibrant our community will become.

We invest so much money in Jewish teens and youth, and then just hope for the best. Don’t we owe it to these students to help ease their transition to Jewish life in college? And beyond?

I am far from alone in this feeling. Every year at Hillel national conferences, directors and program professionals speak about the greater impact we could have if we knew about the Jewish students coming to our campuses. We could be proactive and reach out and welcome them, offer support and let them know we are here. Of course, these kinds of contacts happen in small and episodic ways, but what we lack is a central, strategic solution.

An educator at a local Jewish high school recently called to ask if I would come speak to his graduating seniors about Jewish life on campus. If only this weren’t an anomaly but rather part of my regular spring schedule. This is the time of year when all Hillel professionals across the country should be meeting with Jewish students graduating from high school.

Imagine how meaningful it would be if each student received a welcome letter from the Jewish community on their college campus, how it would ease their transition and make them feel supported. Taking it a step further, imagine if Hillels and campus Chabads routinely alerted Jewish communities about new university graduates headed their way, and those communities reached out to them.

At future graduation ceremonies, then, I would watch graduates cross the stage no longer feeling anxious and nervous, but instead excited about their futures and confident these students whose lives I’d touched would be fully supported as they prepared to continue their journeys and enrich the Jewish world.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive director of Berkeley Hillel.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive director of UC Berkeley Hillel.