RJ Fall 2001

Spotlight

by Josh Hamerman

College Students Are Now Only a Click Away

"A tremendous number of Reform students go off to college without feeling they have the resources or the tools to connect their Reform Jewish identities with their campus lives," says Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, former UAHC Youth Division intern. "Where do they put their Reform Judaism? How does it fit into the pies of their lives?"

This challenge has been an uphill battle for Reform synagogue leaders, as college students have always represented the most difficult constituency for Reform congregations to serve. "College students are physically, developmentally, and organizationally transient," explains Rabbi Andrew Davids, associate director of the UAHC Youth Division. "It's been difficult to establish connections and relationships with them."

All of that is about to change. Last year, after Rabbi Joel E. Soffin of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ expressed concern that Temple Shalom's university students might not be reading his e-mail messages, Rabbi Davids was inspired to develop Etone ("newspaper" in Hebrew), a personalized online resource designed to link individual students, their congregations, and the entire Reform Movement. "This is a way for us to say 'Reform Judaism is a part of your life, and we're going to show you and make it easier for you to make the connections,'" says Rabbi Solmsen, who created the initial blueprint. Two focus groups previewed Etone in the spring of 2001, one drawn from religious school students at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY, as well as students from Hunter College, Columbia University, and New York University; and another composed of eight rabbis from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The rabbinical group was concerned mostly with privacy; the site is now password-protected. The student group questioned the frequency of content updates, which have been adjusted to change every four to six weeks (the span between visits for the typical Etone registrant).

Launched last September at http:// www.myetone.org, Etone reaches 15,000 students, or 25% of young Reform Jews working toward their university degrees. The site targets two groups--college students who have not been active in the Jewish community since becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, and those who participated in NFTY programs during high school but have not engaged in Reform activities on campus. Individuals are added to the Etone subscription list when their home synagogues e-mail their names and college e-mail addresses to the online magazine's server. Students then receive an e-mail message from the Etone staff that displays a link to their own personalized website. When students click on the link, an Etone page appears on the screen with a welcome letter written by a home congregational leader which links to the congregation, to Reform synagogues in the student's college town, to information about Reform life on the student's campus, and to a handful of articles offering a Jewish perspective on issues of concern to college students. Freshmen and sophomores can read pieces such as "Do I put a mezuzah on my doorpost if I am living with a non-Jewish roommate?" or "How to make your Jewish home away from home"; juniors and seniors can access articles on how to prepare for graduate school as a Jew. Jewish study opportunities are available at Etone's "learning center" page, which features Torat Hayim: Living Torah, Reform commentaries on the weekly Torah portion; Jewish trivia; and Israeli current events updates. Each student's Etone web page also comes equipped with a tzedek section outlining community social action and service programs, such as the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with other students to rebuild residential homes destroyed by hurricanes; articles delving into Reform perspectives on such controversial topics as gun control and capital punishment; and links to e-commerce sites, such as Amazon.com, that donate a portion of sales to charities elected by all Etone users. A "Find a Friend" directory invites Internet surfers to e-mail former religious school classmates and youth group members and to find other Reform students on their campus. To encourage participation in the Jewish community closest to campus, the site links students with their local Reform synagogues and Hillel centers, providing basic contact information along with neighborhood employment, worship, and Israel group travel opportunities. Young people studying abroad are encouraged to seek out overseas Reform congregations via a link to the World Union for Progressive Judaism site.

KESHER

A core group of approximately 2,000 Reform students--those who are looking for spiritual opportunities throughout the school year, are leaders at their respective Hillel centers, and/or desire even greater involvement in Jewish life--are referred to KESHER ("connection" in Hebrew).

At the KESHER website (http:// www.keshernet.com), active high school and college students from all over the U.S. and Canada can participate in the student listserv (message board) hosted by Shamash (http://www. shamash.org), where they can discuss Jewish viewpoints on such issues as abortion and the afterlife, as well as recent decisions by Reform Movement leaders. KESHER also provides access to Reform songleader directories; information on Israel trips and regional events; and the opportunity to post questions pertaining to Judaism at the "Just Ask" message board, answered by Rabbi Bruce Kadden of Temple Beth El in Salinas, CA. KESHER user Peter Siroka, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who served as a songleader at UAHC Camp Eisner this past summer, has found the site's songleader directory to be "especially helpful in locating songleading work," he says. "The great part is that many congregations are already aware of the directory, and they come to you when they are in need of a songleader. It's a great resource not only for songleaders but for congregations as well." Active Hillel students can download applications for "Reform On Campus" grants (up to $750 to help fund a single college program or $1,000 for an activity series) sponsored by the UAHC College Education Department and North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods. KESHER participants also receive copies of the winter and spring editions of Reform Judaism magazine in their university mailboxes. In addition, college-bound junior and senior high school students can obtain book references and instructions on how to locate universities with active Reform Jewish communities. To become a KESHER member, sign up at http://www.keshernet.com/contact. htm#database

Etone and KESHER "say to our young people 'Reform Judaism is for you too,'" explains Jenny Small, assistant director of the UAHC College Education Department. "We're still a part of your life even when you're away from home." Adds Rabbi Davids: "Some parents may be less inclined to forego their synagogue membership when they recognize that their congregation is providing significant Jewish connections for their children way past their bar or bat mitzvah and through young adulthood. Through Outreach that utilizes modern technology to address the needs of high school and college students, our young people will remain part of the Jewish community long after they leave college and establish households of their own."

--J. H.

 


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