More than one way to be Jewish

More than one way to be Jewish

The recent hiring of Dan Marcus to be the next executive director and CEO of the Hillel Jewish University Center is welcomed news by many in this community.

Marcus, after all, is a known commodity in Jewish Pittsburgh, having come to the city in 2001 to be the Hillel

JUC’s programming director for Carnegie Mellon University. He then became assistant director under Weil in 2003 — a job he held until 2006 when he left to become executive director of the Hillel at Johns Hopkins University.

So he knows the Jewish campus community here very well.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll settle for what he knows, and neither should we.  

Marcus, who is British, left Johns Hopkins in 2007 to become chief executive of the Union of Jewish Students in Great Britain.

While there, he initiated a survey on British campuses — something he hopes to replicate here, he told us — a Jewish identity survey to gauge the level and diversity of Jewish identity among British students.

“My instinct told me Jewish college students are interested in their Jewish identity, but they may appreciate it in a different context than in previous generations,” Marcus said. “We want to understand what it is that motivates, what it is that excites and what it is that connects students to their [Jewish identity] … and then how do we configure our resources and activities and program and leadership training to fit those needs.”

We’re intrigued by this idea, and we hope Marcus does follow through with it. Not only would it assist Hillel JUC as it structures its programing, but the results also could give the entire community more insight into how young Jews connect with their faith — something that could ultimately be useful to congregations as they reinvent themselves to attract younger families.

Some of the results may be disturbing. Likely, they will confirm what we already know, that many younger families do not relate to traditional Shabbat and holiday observance, or to the entire synagogue experience.

That doesn’t mean we close our synagogues and stop holding services, but it does mean we must continue to find new and relevant ways for Jews to connect with Judaism.

Temple Sinai and Hillel JUC offered a great example last year when, on erev Rosh Hashana, they held a social function and evening of learning at the Carnegie Museum Cafe. They even jazzed up the tradition of apples and honey by serving apple and honey cocktails and appetizers. There was also prayer and discussion of values such as forgiveness.

OK, maybe it’s not for everyone, but neither is sitting in a sanctuary davening from the venerable siddur or machzur.

The better we understand the next generation of Jews, the easier it is to meet them on a spiritual plane that works for all — and the greater the chances that their children will be Jews, too.

After all, to quote Rabbi Ezra Ende, a former Pittsburgh rabbi who visited here this past week, “there’s more than one way to be Jewish.”