Machshavot: Parashat Shelach

June 16, 2017 Andrew Shaw
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With all the current crises both economic, political, social etc, people are looking for leadership. Who will stand out from the crowd and take us forward? Let us hope our leaders step forward and lead us through what promises to be a tumultuous few months and years ahead.
However, I want to look at the leadership idea from a different angle.

This week I was sent a summary of a fascinating study on ‘Study of Jewish Campus Life by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University 2006’. In it, they state that 41% of Jewish students become less observant on campus while only 22% increase observance. However, those students that take on Jewish leadership roles on campus are 75% more likely to show an increase in Jewish observance than those that just attend programs.
That is a remarkable statistic, but not surprising. I can personally attest to that concept during my time at Leeds University as once you become a leader you feel the responsibility of dugma ishit – personal example in terms of your own observance and practice. It is no coincidence that many of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate were religious student leaders on their campuses.

The greatest challenge to our young people going through university is to resist the powerful peer pressures that pull them away from Judaism. The current western liberalism prevalent on our campuses is in many ways antithetical to a Torah way of life – it is definitely an immense challenge.

We and they could learn from Yehoshua and Caleb who stood up against peer pressure and delivered a positive impression of the ability to enter the land of Israel. The question is how did they do it? It is not easy to go against over 80% of the group. We know that Yehoshua was blessed by Moshe but how did Calev manage?
The Gemara in Sotah sheds some light: ‘They went up via the Negev and HE came to Hevron.’ (13:22) It should read: ‘And THEY came up to Hevron!’ Rava taught: This tells us that Calev separated himself from the council of the Spies and went to pray upon the graves of our forefathers. He prayed: My fathers! Seek mercy on my behalf that I be saved from the conspiring plans of the Spies. As for Yehoshua, Moshe had already beseeched God on his behalf, as it states: ‘Moshe named Hoshea bin Nun Yehoshua’ (13:6) – May God save you from the evil council of the Spies. This explains the phrase ‘And my servant Calev had a different spirit about him.’ (Sota 34b)

Calev went to daven, to connect himself deeply with our Avot and the mission of the Jewish people. Today that visit to Chevron to prepare himself to be strong against the spies can be compared to a year or two in yeshiva or sem. These experiences give our students the tools and ideals to survive and thrive on Campus. Without that preparation and inspiration, Campus life can be overwhelming for the religious Jewish student and certainly your average Jewish student.

However, we also need to add in the Brandeis study and encourage our students to take on leadership roles, to invite students for Shabbat meals, to organize Oneg Shabbatot and to run Jewish educational programmes. In essence, to stand out against the crowd and be a role model for Modern Orthodox Judaism.
Mizrachi UK is investing in this very idea, giving our students the tools to become leaders on campus. This investment in time and money has two positive outcomes. Firstly programmes are created to inspire and enrich Jewish life on campus and second the one doing the leadership, as per the study, remains inspired and motivated and his or her observance and beliefs are maintained and hopefully increased.

In a rapidly changing world, we need to learn the lessons of Yehoshua and Caleb. Step up, speak out, stay strong in the face of challenges to your faith and boldly go on living the life that we are Divinely commanded to do. In 2017 that is a challenge indeed.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Shaw


Mizrachi UK