Belonging Is Fundamental: Revolutionary Leadership on Campus

While I was a student at RRC, I recall my teacher, Dr. Joel Hecker, describing the Jewish community as an armada of boats. The crux of the metaphor, as I recall, was that the Reconstructionist movement is like a tugboat, and the rest of the Jewish community, a series of bigger boats with various precious cargoes and specialized abilities that need the tugboat to get them going. Tiny boat, huge motor, designed to get people where they need to be, even when they don’t have the capacity to do it on their own: That’s the Reconstructionist movement. Perhaps even more so, that’s the Reconstructionist rabbinate — revolutionary leadership guiding the evolution of Jewish life.

It’s perhaps no surprise then, that when we look back at a Jewish world that has been shaped by Reconstructionist rabbis for more than half a century, that world has moved and changed, and what it means to be out there tugging us into the future has changed, too. I’m no historian, so I’ll leave it to those experts to detail the ways in which the work of today’s rabbinate compares to that of our predecessors. What I can offer is an account of my experience today, in a rabbinate that I hope is a part of that fleet of tug boats powered by sufficient torah, tribal connections, intellectual curiosity and human compassion to help pull us all forward into an ever brighter future.

In Open Closed Open, in the final section of the poem, “My Parents’ Lodging Place,” Yehuda Amichai writes a moment where his father turns to him and shares:

”אני רוצה להוסיף שנים לעשרת הדברות:

הדבר האחד-עשר, “לא תשתנה” והדבר

השנים-עשר,”השתנה, תשתנה””

“I would like to add

two more to the Ten Commandments:

the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not change,”

and the Twelfth Commandment, “Thou shalt change. You must change.”

Throughout my rabbinate, these few poetic lines have encapsulated what it has meant for me to be a Reconstructionist rabbi. There is something in the way they hold both consistency and change in one breath that speaks more truly to my lived experience than the idea that the “past has a vote, but not a veto,” even though for me their impact is largely the same. I am both a vessel of the past’s rich lessons and a champion of a vibrant future, which will necessitate leaving behind ideas that will not pull us towards a healthier, more just and more joyful tomorrow. As a leader, I hold the space between “you shall not change” and “you must change” for every community and individual I am blessed to work with. I am called to help them navigate the way forward, emboldening them and empowering them with the spiritual, ethical and community-building tools honed by generations of our people, as they faced the enormous and mundane challenges of surviving, and God willing, thriving through life.

For the last 15 years, I have had the privilege to do this work as a Hillel professional, nurturing and growing Jewish community on campus, supporting thousands of college students to become the best versions of themselves. Since my start at Hillel, the students on campus have shifted from Millennials to Gen Zers, from young people who grew up predominantly with computers in their homes to young people who grew up with computers in their pockets. In that span of time, the world has changed and been challenged in significant ways. New technologies bringing both opportunity and challenge, social and political roller coasters bringing new rights and protections in one moment while eroding basic rights and protections the next, global pandemic, school shootings, climate crisis, and crisis in Israel and Palestine. All of these have been the backdrop to my campus rabbinate.

While many of these changes have been monumental, and all of these challenges great, to my mind there is no single challenge animating the contours of my work more significantly than the loneliness epidemic — or put differently, our deep crisis of belonging. In many ways, I see all of these other challenges and our (in)ability to respond to them, as bound up with this crisis of belonging and epidemic of loneliness.

In 2018, Great Britain installed its first “Minister of Loneliness,” charged with developing and implementing a loneliness reduction strategy for the United Kingdom. In April 2023 in an opinion piece for The New York Times, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy wrote, “At any moment, about one out of every two Americans is experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” Later that same year, he issued a public health advisory on the loneliness epidemic.

Eric Klinenberg, a noted professor of sociology at New York University who studies loneliness and solitude, bucks at the idea of calling all of this an “epidemic of loneliness,” but even in his 2018 critique of the term, notes that today “millions of people are suffering from social disconnection.”[1] Already prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our world’s fabric of belonging was fraying.

Klinenberg argues that the two main culprits for this disintegration of our relational social tissue are the increasing global embrace of a culture of individualism and the rapid development of digital communication technologies, which excel at making connections between people but largely fail to build substantive relationships between them.

Put another way, humans have made great strides in being able to accomplish many things on our own as individuals, unaided by relationships. We don’t need a friend with a car to get a ride; we can summon a stranger to drive us with our phone. We don’t need to ask someone we know with expertise when we have a question; we can simply ask Siri, Alexa or Google. Want to take piano lessons? There’s an app, or 10,000 YouTube videos, for that — no need to build a relationship with a teacher. This technology is incredibly empowering and in some ways increases equity of access to services and information. It can do enormous good in the world. It turns out though, that the combination of our zeal for individual accomplishment — supercharged by the technology of the digital age — also has real social costs, and those social costs have physiological impacts: According to the CDC, chronic social isolation and loneliness have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, depression, dementia, self-harm and early death.[2]

On campus, this crisis is amplified. While 17 percent of people over 65 worldwide say they feel lonely, 27 percent of the 19–29 cohort do, and a full 39 percent of college students polled recently said they experienced loneliness the previous day.[3] Parents are worried about their children’s levels of loneliness. In my experience, prior to Oct. 7, calls regarding loneliness were the No. 1 call of concern my office received from parents of current students. And they aren’t just calling Hillel. Our dean of students reports similarly that now more than ever before, parents are worried about how lonely their children seem. One student recently put it this way: “I know a lot of people, but I don’t think that any of them really know me in a deep way, and I don’t really know them that way either.” Much like Manhattan, campus feels like it buzzes with people night and day, and yet, sometimes it can feel like the loneliest place on earth.

The inverse of loneliness is belonging. I am not here talking about a transactional or thin sense of belonging as identification, but a transformational, deep, relational sense of belonging. Kim Samuels, author of On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation, describes this sort of belonging as

[not] just a connection to other people, but also to place, power, and purpose. The experience of belonging is about connectedness through community, as well as rootedness in a place, a feeling of ownership in shared outcomes, and a sense of mission with others.[4] [5]

In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,[6] belonging is foundational to human thriving, less important only than our basic physiological needs for shelter, food, clothing and physical safety. When Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan spoke about the centrality of belonging in Jewish life, he may have been speaking simply about identifying as a Jew. I would argue that if we replace that thin sense of identification with a more complex understanding of the basic psychological need for belonging, we can see the ways in which religious civilizations find enduring relevance today — by providing first for this foundational need for belonging and then also for pathways into other areas of deeper self-actualization.

Given the central role that belonging plays in human fulfillment (and physical health), it is perhaps not shocking that this epidemic of loneliness and crisis of belonging loom so large in my rabbinate today.

On today’s campus, the desire for and difficulty in finding a sense of belonging manifests concretely in how students shape their lives outside of the classroom, what students desire from Jewish life, and how Jewish professionals and Jewish student leaders alike approach building campus Jewish communities.

For nearly the last 20 years, Hillel (across campuses) has worked to shift the focus of Jewish campus life away from programming and back towards people. That shift towards a relational approach to Jewish community and leadership has proved instrumental in my own Hillel’s ability to meet the belonging needs of current students. At every student-leadership training we offer, our student leaders hear our Drexel Hillel mantra: “Programs don’t connect people, people connect people.” Our goal is to connect people to each other through both the shared stories of the Jewish people and sharing the stories of deepest import in their own lives. We aspire to create experiences that thicken connections between our students, bonding them in a shared sense of responsibility for one another. We embrace a pluralistic approach to Jewish life that posits that while having shared values and shared purposes often animate our community, real belonging is only achieved when we have a community where members can share their values and purposes with one another with open hearts, even when those values and purposes may differ in small or large ways.

In this model, the goal of Jewish leadership isn’t to preserve Judaism, or bring Jews (back) to Judaism. Rather, it is to help all of our Jewish communities see that Judaism contains within it an invaluable set of tools that can not only preserve, but help improve the lives of the Jewish people, and in turn, our ability to support the wider world in its flourishing.

Just as the leadership mindset and orientation towards the purpose of Judaism and Jewish community has shifted, the purpose of programming within our institution has also changed radically. Gone are the days of “Jews doing Jewish with other Jews.” Gone by and large are the days of large, frontal events — those activities aren’t meeting the psycho-social needs of students. They don’t need speakers to come to campus to lecture when they have access to Ted Talks and TikTok in their pockets, and they don’t need to watch a movie in a lecture hall when they can watch a movie on a train or in their bed.

What do Jewish college students in search of meaning and belonging need? They need friendships and mentors (trusted adults who aren’t their parents who care about their well-being), and they need space and time away from the toxicity of the Internet. They need spaces to boldly take public stances on issues that matter to them, and they also need spaces where they can learn to build caring relationships with people from across a variety of backgrounds and political beliefs. They need spaces where virtue-signaling, litmus tests and “with me or against me” attitudes are replaced by curiosity, generosity, humility and vulnerability. Spaces where they can both try on new ideas and postures and question the ideas of others without fear of being ostracized or socially abandoned. In short, they need spaces of deep interpersonal connection.

For each student, the particular mix of emotional acceptance and social self-representation[7] that will help them feel the greatest sense of belonging will differ, but at the core, the greatest spiritual need of all my students is to be known and to feel that they belong. Our Jewish traditions, teachings, rituals and modes of communal engagement are not only exactly the powerful tools necessary for building these strong foundations of belonging. They are the sort of tools that can help our community members reach from this foundation into profound self-actualization and world-changing action.

As a rabbi, this means that most of my time (when not attending to my role as executive director) is spent building deep relationships with my students and crafting Jewish experiences with them that meet their intellectual, spiritual and human needs. In the last six months (186 calendar days), my staff of 3.5 FTE student-facing Hillel professionals have had more than 200 individual meet-ups with students. By the end of the academic year, at least 20% of Jewish undergraduates will have had the opportunity to meet one-to-one with a Hillel staff person on our campus. The mark of a thriving community for us is how thickly relationships are woven in our community, how well we know each student, faculty member and alumna/us, by name and story.

Participation data in Hillel experiences further demonstrate that the experiences that help students fulfill and enhance a sense of belonging are the ones they are most likely to participate in: This year, nearly 50% of Jewish undergraduates will attend at least one Shabbat dinner organized through Drexel Hillel (a quarter of those students will attend ten or more Shabbat dinners), and 11% (more than 100 students) will participate in an immersive cohort-based Jewish learning experience (requiring students to sign on to a five- to 10-week commitment). By contrast, only about 5% of Jewish students will attend one single worship service this year (we have multiple Shabbat services each week and a daily Orthodox minyan), and those students are likely to also participate in multiple other experiences through Hillel.

Importantly, the fact that we collect and analyze our participant data on a regular basis helps us to continually respond to, and check our assumptions about, our students’ needs and shifting interests. Far from turning our students into anonymous quantifiable metrics, a thorough and thoughtful approach to data management allows us to better understand and serve our students as individuals.

One of the challenges both our students and young alumni report is that maintaining that thick sense of belonging over time (particularly after graduation) is hard. There are so many different options for Jewish life and engagement to choose from that figuring out which opportunities and communities are a best fit to match their needs, interests and personalities can be overwhelming. Faced with analysis paralysis — and the daunting task of showing up somewhere where you don’t know anyone — often they just give up on the project entirely. Maintaining good data about our students — about their participation in Jewish life on campus — allows our staff and student leaders to help bridge this gap by providing Jewish life concierge services for our students and alumni. When we know not only who our students are but where they are, how they have participated in Jewish life in the past and who they have participated with, we are better able to tailor recommendations for next opportunities and make introductions not just to institutions, but specific people. After all, relationships, not event participation, drive belonging.

It is not good for humans to be alone. From the very beginning of Genesis, the Jewish story is one that is animated by the foundational need for belonging. So perhaps then, it isn’t surprising that despite all of the drastic changes in technology, in who we see and serve as members of the Jewish community, in who leads and how, that finding belonging continues to be both an enduring challenge that humans continue to face, and the need that Jewish life, learning and community are best in position to help address for all those who consider themselves part of the Jewish story.

When we strip down all of the many other issues facing the Jewish community today — rising antisemitism, political and social polarization, equitable access to resources, climate crisis and so many more — many contain within them a significant element of a crisis of belonging. Hatred directed against Jews today is worrisome because of its potential threat of physical violence, but day to day, it is even more damaging because of the ways that it strips Jews of our sense of belonging in the wider world. Polarization is often a way to create a sense of belonging among some (you need an “us” for an “us vs. them” paradigm), even as it erodes a broader sense of community. When we probe at the lack of resource equity, we are inquiring about whether and how our society has the capacity to fulfill the human needs of all of its members, including the need to belong. And similarly, when we worry about climate, we are fundamentally worried about whether we will have a place to belong at all. I believe wholeheartedly that as a rabbi, the work I am uniquely positioned to do to is to lead and guide my community in the ways in which our tradition, it’s texts and rituals, can combat chronic loneliness and enhance belonging, so that each of my community members can in turn go out and change the world and it’s technological, political and environmental landscapes.

 

[1] Eric Klinenberg, Is Loneliness a Health Epidemic? The New York Times. 8 February 2018.

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/emotional-wellbeing/social-connectedness/loneliness.htm

[3] Johana Alonso, The New Plague on Campus: Loneliness Nov 8 2023

[4] Samuels, Kim. “The Power of Belonging”. Psychology Today, April 2023. Kim Samuel’s is also the author of On Belonging, and a research fellow at Oxford University.

[5] There is an enormous body of literature on belonging including works from the 1940s (like Maslow or Fromm) and much more recent, empirical research.

[6] A. H. Maslow, A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50/4 (1943), pp. 370–396.

[7] For current research on the interplay of differing theoretical models of belonging, see Revisiting the “The Breakfast Club”: Testing Different Theoretical Models of Belongingness and Acceptance (and Social Self-Representation

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