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By Sarah More McCann
Religion News Service

Washington – The sukkah tent outside George Washington University’s Hillel was crowded as Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jewish students gathered to celebrate Sukkot, a holiday commemorating the 40 years Jews spent wandering in the desert.
It was enough to make a Jewish grandmother proud, as the students attempted to continue a tradition that many of them celebrated with their families back home.
Except for the sushi.
It was “Sushi in the Sukkah” for some 20 GW students, who learned how to create salmon rolls while observing Sukkot. “I don’t think my parents gathered like this,” said Emily Schwartz, 20, a Reform Jew from Michigan.
And that, experts say, is exactly the point as campus groups embrace non-traditional tweaks on tradition to encourage new ways of practicing an ancient faith — ways that resonate with independent-minded college students.
GW students weren’t alone in fine-tuning the holiday to reflect youth culture. Nearby, Georgetown University students puffed away at “hookah in the sukkah.” On campuses nationwide, there was “pizza in the hut,” and at the University of Illinois, an “Iron Chef cook-off.”
Jill Herskovits, 21, president of the Georgetown Jewish Association, said while events like smoking a Middle Eastern water pipe for Sukkot are “a little rebellious,” they envelop students in a strong Jewish environment that reflects the values learned at home.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, worries that Jews today feel less connected to their religious communities.
“It’s just a different world. The days of the rabbi standing at the door welcoming the community are over,” he said.
For several years, Herzfeld has given away thousands of pizza slices at a temporary sukkah set up in downtown Washington. He said free food helps draw in people who otherwise might not celebrate the holiday. But once in the tent, the effects of bonding with fellow Jews — if even for just a few minutes — may last much longer than the hour it takes the pizza to disappear.
“There is so much power and strength that comes to the tradition of our ancestors,” Herzfeld said.
Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg, assistant director of the George Washington University Hillel, said many Jewish students arrive on campus eager to practice their faith. Others present more of a challenge.
“There are very large numbers of students (who), without active engagement and a lot of promotion, will remain on the margins,” he said.
“Some don’t immediately see the value in Jewish culture or religion, or don’t see the immediate purpose of being more involved in those events.”
Jeff Rubin, spokesman for the national office of Hillel, said fears that younger Jews were too secularized erupted in the 1990s, when the results of a landmark study on Jewish life revealed about half of Jews were marrying non-Jews. There was, he said, “trepidation in the community.”
In response, Hillel chose to work on engaging the majority of the 400,000 Jews on campuses worldwide, rather than focus exclusively on a minority who arrived already firmly entrenched in their religion.
“Back then, holding observances was for the observant,” Rubin said. “We’ve blown that notion apart.”
Michael Garber, a GW student from Massachusetts, said he’s spent time in Jordan, and the exposure to individuals with different religious backgrounds enhanced his faith.
“I was able to discuss my point of view with others who felt differently and I wasn’t used to that,” said Garber, 20. “Talking to people with different opinions strengthened how I understood why I believed.”
“Sushi in the Sukkah” may represent a modern interpretation of Sukkot, but Shaul Kelner, assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, said it might not be that different from the behavior of older American Jews.
“Every generation creates its Jewishness in a generationally specific way,” Kelner said, “and reformulates practices appropriate to them.”
Young people often lead the way in adopting new practices, said Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
“Changes are fastest among the young people. They are the most exposed, they are the most flexible and adaptable,” he said.
College groups face a challenge when trying to offer programming that is both enticing and recognizable, he said.
“Hillel (wants to) keep kids in contact with a familiar environment so they don’t stray. But at the same time, since it’s a college environment, it can’t be what they had at home. Judaism on campus can’t be what you had in the suburbs,” he said.
Harry Naftalowitz, 17, an Orthodox Jew from New York, came to “Sushi in the Sukkah” while checking out GW as a potential college choice.
“My parents didn’t have something like this, and it’s very important,” he said, munching on a salmon roll. “I want to get in touch with my roots.”

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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