Debating Hillel

Sam Green, a Jewish student at Swarthmore College, recently took to the New Voices Web site to argue that there are serious questions about whether an international organization like Hillel can possibly succeed in serving the Jewish needs of students living in such a diverse collection of campuses:

Because so many different types of Judaism are present of college campuses, from secular Zionist to Reconstructionist to Modern Orthodox, individual campus Hillels often end up a messy mixture of traditions. Others are dominated by one stream of Judaism to the exclusion of others. Only on a campus with a large enough Jewish student population will there be enough funding and  students to support many autonomous Jewish groups which meet the needs of a large variety of students. 

The root of the inconsistent nature of the Hillel experience is that the Hillel Foundation strives to be the type of inter-denominational, pluralistic institution that is just as confusing as it sounds. The mission statement of Hillel, from its website, that “student leaders, professionals and lay leaders are dedicated to creating a pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive environment for Jewish college students," sounds great on paper, but in practice it’s near impossible to achieve. 

Imagine a non-denominational, pluralistic synagogue — which rabbinical school would the rabbi have graduated from? How kosher would the dining facilities be? Which versions of prayers would be used in the services? These questions, along with many others, are the types of issues that could be divisive in Hillels around the country, because on many campuses Hillel is like a synagogue, JCC, Greek organization, and religious school all in one. 

This is what we try to embody every week at the Swarthmore College Hillel and it doesn’t work. The service ends up resembling whatever that week’s leader grew up with, which often doesn’t satisfy or feel comfortable to many of the students in attendance. …

With such size disparity between campuses, different streams of Judaism each trying to establish a base and competition from other institutions, Hillel needs to decide whether it is possible to provide a space for every Jewish student, no matter who they are or where they come from.

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We offered Hillel a chance to reply … and received this response from Marisa Johnson, a senior at Northwestern University:

As I first read Sam Green’s article, “The Hillel Monopoly,” I was reminded of sentiments once profoundly familiar to me.  When I began my freshman year at Northwestern University, I, too, was disappointed with the Hillel offerings on my campus and spent some of the loneliest holidays of my life without a place to go that felt even remotely like home. Northwestern has a thriving Hillel and a large Jewish community, yet I shared Sam’s belief that Hillel only works for a small sector of students and cannot effectively address the needs of every Jewish student. 

Undoubtedly, there are many students who feel the same way. There is no worse feeling than expecting something big from that beacon of Jewish campus life and not receiving it. The reality is that when most Jewish students arrive on campus, Hillel will not be a perfect fit for them. But I’ve discovered that Hillel is not synonymous with turnkey Jewish experiences. It views the imperfect fit as an opportunity, as do a growing number of Jewish students across the country.

I would describe myself as a secular Jew. I have always felt connected to my religion via the cultural traditions I practiced with my family for eighteen years before stepping foot on Northwestern’s campus, but I was not drawn to Jewish youth groups in high school. And my first impression of Northwestern Hillel was that it was a glorified youth group — great for other students, but not my cup of tea.

As a freshman, leaders from multiple Jewish organizations on campus took me out to coffee and talked to me about getting involved.  It was a Hillel professional who convinced me to take a chance on a program called the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI), which Hillel operates on 17 campuses nationwide, employing 161 students, along with the Peer-Network Engagement Internship (PNEI) on 31 campuses that employs 110 students.  Student interns are given a stipend and modest funding with which to engage other uninvolved Jewish students, pursue their own initiatives, and create their own meaningful Jewish experiences on campus.

Participating in CEI was my first glimpse at Hillel’s true mission. Three years later, my perspective has shifted entirely. I have since learned that there is much more to Hillel than meets the eye at a student group event or holiday meal. 

As an organization, Hillel knows that it cannot possibly think of and carry out ideas that will engage every Jewish student on every campus.  That is not its goal.  Rather, Hillel vows to encourage Jewish life on campus with students as partners in the venture, not merely recipients.  In that sense, I contend that Hillel’s mission statement as quoted by Sam in his article, that “student leaders, professionals and lay leaders are dedicated to creating a pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive environment for Jewish college students,” is in fact very realistic.

The one thing students should learn about Hillel is that it is the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in more than one sense of the word — not the be-all and end-all of Jewish activity, but a basis and a support system for students to create Jewish life.  

Budget constraints obviously prevent Hillel from operating its entrepreneurial programs, CEI and PNEI, on every college campus.  But the philosophy of student entrepreneurship is at the heart of Hillel’s new approach to Jewish campus life, for which these programs are successful experiments, and is applied to all facets of the organization’s work.  

And while Hillel may not always have dollars, it is a conduit to those who do, like Birthright Israel Next, which offers Birthright alumni funding of up to $25 per person to host a Shabbat dinner once per month.  Likewise, organizations such as Chabad should be understood as Hillel’s partners, not competitors. As a CEI intern, one of my initiatives included a challah-baking lesson with the wife of Northwestern’s Meor rabbi.

If you seek a more personally satisfying ritual experience, different kinds of meals, or other creative outlets, speak with a Hillel professional on campus or at the Schusterman International Center. Nothing is set in stone — if you have an idea for some aspect of Jewish life that is missing on your campus, Hillel encourages you to dream it up and create it yourself.

And so we have at Northwestern.  Last year, one student was disheartened that the Holocaust Awareness group on campus had dissolved. Inspired by the story of her grandmother, a survivor, she turned to Hillel for support and reignited Students Helping to Organize Awareness of the Holocaust (SHOAH) — creating something meaningful for herself and many other Jewish students on campus. In 2006, a group of journalism students sought to carve out a niche for themselves and other journalists within the context of Jewish campus life.  With Hillel’s support, they launched schmooze magazine, created their own Jewish experience, and gained significant entrepreneurial skills.  Much like Jewish life itself on Northwestern’s campus, schmooze continues to evolve,  now nationally distributed at Hillels across America and can be read online at www.schmoozemag.com.  As Sam is a fellow writer, I hope this example illustrates just what is possible when an endeavor — and Hillel — is pursued. 

Since my CEI internship ended sophomore year, I have had numerous Hillel experiences. Today, I am a member of Northwestern’s Hillel Leadership Council, a newly revamped student executive board comprised of 11 leaders who represent of Jewish life, not just within the confines of our Hillel, but in the broader campus environment. The ideas of plurality, approachability, and engagement are concepts we deal with every day as a board, and they test our ability to find creative ways to attract diverse Jewish students.  

Chocolate seders, ice cream socials, and Shabbat services may create for some Jewish students the kinds of experiences they want.  But that is not Hillel’s approach as an international organization. While I do enjoy the occasional Shabbat meal at Hillel, the organization has given me — and others — so much more than challah and grape juice.  Hillel has spurred me to create my own Jewish life on campus and become a leader in the process.

I thank Sam for bringing this conversation to the forefront. There is no question that between Hillel and individual Jewish students on campuses nationwide, we have our work cut out for us.  It’s a constant work-in-progress — furthered by students, like Sam, who articulate a desire for substantive Jewish experiences and enable us to empower one another in pursuing them.

Jewish life on campus is what you make of it.  I cannot say this enough. Hillel welcomes Jewish students from all backgrounds and perspectives who have ideas about Jewish campus life, but its mission is only achieved when students participate as partners and leaders in creating meaningful Jewish experiences on campus.  Whether that means spending your time in the Hillel building itself or participating in your own alternative slice of Jewish campus life is not of ultimate importance to Hillel — for the organization’s goal of promoting strong Jewish leadership among our generation has been fulfilled.

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