Before she visited Drake University, Lilianna Bernstein never had set foot in Des Moines, let alone imagined that she would one day settle down in the city.
But a job offer in 2006 to be a Drake admissions counselor led the Chicago-area native to put down roots in Iowa’s capital. And one of those roots was joining a synagogue.
“Once I decided to stay in Des Moines, it was a no-brainer that of course I was going to stay involved in the Jewish community,” Bernstein said.
Now, Des Moines’ Jewish community is hoping more Drake students will do the same.
The area’s Jewish federation recently bought and renovated a 1910 Craftsman-style house near Drake to become a gathering space for Hillel, the Jewish student organization found on campuses around the world. Bernstein is Drake’s Hillel adviser.
The goal is to make Drake so attractive to incoming Jewish students that they’ll stay in Des Moines after graduation and help fill in a widening age gap among participants in Jewish life in the city, community leaders say.
“If our kids want to run away and not be in Iowa, then let’s get someone else’s kids to live in Des Moines,” said Stuart Oxer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines.
Faced with an aging population and lack of engagement among young people, Jewish communities across the nation are ramping up efforts to recruit Jewish millennials.
A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that while more than nine in 10 American Jews ages 18 to 29 say they are proud to be Jewish, a third don’t identify with the religion. That set off alarms in Jewish institutions such as synagogues.
In small- and medium-size cities that may not have the Jewish infrastructure or the social and cultural draw of major metro areas, worry about the future is even greater.
“It’s a very real fear. And the smaller the community, the more significant it is,” said Matthew Boxer, a researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “It’s really difficult for them to do anything that’s going to attract young Jews.”
Nearly 80 percent of Jews live in the 20 largest metro areas, compared with 38 percent of Americans on the whole, said Ira Sheskin, a geographer at the University of Miami in Florida.
And while Des Moines has a lot going for it — this year Forbes magazine ranked it America’s best city for young professionals — many of the students attracted by a state-of-the-art Hillel house “aren’t going to find in Des Moines what they could find in a New York or a Chicago,” Sheskin said.
Still, investing in attracting college students with a house stocked with games, television, free laundry and food in addition to Jewish-themed activities could pay off in the long term, said Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the Washington-based American Jewish Committee.
“Who is likely to come to a university taking into account the quality of Hillel? Those attracted to more Jewish life,” he said. “Down the road, these are the people who are going to be involved.”