Pew possibilities Give kids a chance to own their Judaism


When I share with people that I am the Hillel director at George Mason University I am often asked, “There are Jews at Mason?” My response is yes, in fact there are 1,200 Jewish undergraduate students at Mason. The reaction of surprise and disbelief recedes after explaining more than half Jewish students at Mason are the children of intermarried and unaffiliated families.
According to Allen Cooperman from PEW “the survey suggests that a rising percentage of the children of intermarriages are Jewish in adulthood … among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59 percent are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.” (
We have more students identifying as Jewish on campus than ever before and how are they expressing their Judaism? According to the report “When we asked Jews about what is and is not essential to their own sense of Jewishness, 73 percent say remembering the Holocaust is essential… . Almost as many Jews, 69 percent, say leading an ethical and moral life is essential, and 56 percent cite working for social justice and equality” (
These statistics are reflective of what is happening on the ground at Mason. Last month more than 120 students, both Jewish and not Jewish, helped plan a dinner honoring 40 Holocaust survivors. Almost 300 people, including students, faculty, community members and survivors were in attendance. In one of the many emails I received from participants, Jillian Gogel, Class of 2015 said, “The dinner honoring survivors was truly a spectacular event and I am deeply touched by it. Could you connect me with my survivor? She is a wonderful lady and I would love to continue a correspondence with her for as long as possible.” Why was this event so successful?
The combination of our dinner, both remembering the Holocaust and connecting students with the elderly, an ethical good deed, touched upon the parts of Judaism that resonate the most strongly with so many of our students. That is amazing, but isn’t why the event was so successful. The success lies in the fact that the event was a student-led and student-run initiative.
Students had ownership of the program. Jill and the other students refer to the honored guests as “my survivor.” I didn’t step foot into the building of the event until an hour before the program began and students were running the show magnificently. They were empowered, and set up for success. For all of our Jewish students, regardless of upbringing, it is essential that they have the opportunity to own their Judaism.
Jill, like most of her Jewish peers at Mason, has one Jewish parent. My experience is that many of these students don’t have a foundation of formal Jewish knowledge. Most haven’t attended Jewish summer camp, day school, supplemental school or any other Jewish educational programs. Since they learn about the Holocaust from school and family, and leading a moral and ethical life can be taught by any parent, regardless of religion, these two values make sense to them. They feel ownership over them and want to take action to express them.
That is why Hillel is here on campus. To enable students to add Jewish context and meaning to their values and allow students to express them through Jewish action and learning. Teaching them about Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers, facilitates them in applying the learned principles into practice. Only by making Jewish content accessible, relevant, and meaningful can we inspire a new generation of students to understand what being Jewish means to them.
Ross Diamond is the executive director of George Mason University Hillel in Fairfax.

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