Paradigms for Religious Success on Campus Part II: The Countercultural Jew

Continued from part I, IA

There are students on campus who thrive religiously by setting themselves up as the counterpoint to the prevailing campus culture (or subculture, such as Hillel). Make no mistake – being countercultural as a way of participating in a given culture, though under duress or protest, real or feigned.

The relationship between these students and the campus is akin to the relationship between Statler & Waldorf (modeled, incidentally, after two of Jim Henson’s UMD professors) and The Muppet Show. The pair remains somewhat aloof from the show, ridicule the show, and ostensibly hate the show – but keep coming back, week after week, and are, ironically, actually part of the show.

The countercultural student can express his or her protest in any number of ways. She can refuse to call the university by its proper name, opting instead to call is ‘the makom tumah’ or ‘Gehenem’. He will insist on being the ‘frummest common denominator’ by demanding a higher mechitza, or chalav yisrael, or that no women make Kiddush at Hillel – even if existing practices are halachically permissible or acceptable, even if not desirable. It can even be a preference for a quickie davening as opposed to Carlebach-style. Dress is another important factor, but is an area of overlap with ‘the Advertiser’ and will be discussed there. The most common vehicle of expression is complaint, or rant. Anything which makes the campus not like Bnei Brak, or Baltimore, or Gush, as the case may be, will be duly noted.

A countercultural approach can work very well for some, but it often turns others off. In a pluralistic framework like Hillel is/purports to be, these folks cannot integrate easily. Sometimes, that will keep them away from Hillel. Sometimes, they will attempt to change or mold Hillel (or comment on the mode of dress of Hillel staff members). In either case, they are not contributing to positive Jewish campus experience. They would contend that they are not there to do kiruv; they are having a hard enough time maintaining their own level of frumkeit to worry about anyone else’s.

Being countercultural need not be a pervasive personality trait. A student can be a full participant in the campus culture, positive and negative aspects, but when it comes to those aspects of life in which they choose to include religion, they exhibit countercultural tendencies. For example, you may have a group of guys who are doing varying degrees of who-knows-what during the week, but get together to learn once a week. During that time, they are not just trying to find time to learn. They are trying to recreate the environment of a Yeshiva. They don’t want women in the Beit Midrash. They want a guy with a hat saying the shiur. Alternatively, it can be a facebook club like ‘I’d rather be in Yeshiva’, ‘I’m shomer negiah’, or even ‘I want to make Aliyah’.

Indeed, countercultures can become very ‘clubby’, which is a double-edged sword. It’s great if you’re a member; otherwise, you feel excluded. Access to the club isn’t necessarily difficult, but will often require playing by the club’s countercultural rules. These rules can be pretty childish at times – an obsession with meat as a reaction against the vegetarianism popular on most campuses, a misogynist streak as a response to feminism – or they can be more mature. There’s no doubt, though, that the club itself is important to its members and provides them with comfortable numbers as they continue to express their dissatisfaction with the campus culture.

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