Hillel’s open tent helping to open minds


NEW YORK (JTA) — When the Jewish people seeks an exemplar for openness and hospitality, we often turn to our patriarch Abraham. In one fascinating chapter in Genesis we learn that just three days after his circumcision, an ailing Abraham rushes from his tent in the heat of the day to welcome three passing visitors who turn out to be divine messengers.

Our tradition amplifies Abraham’s righteousness by teaching that his tent was open on all sides so that he would not miss a single passer-by. Following in Abraham’s sandal steps, the rabbinic sage Hillel was famous for his patience and openness. When a potential convert asked him to describe the essence of the Torah, Hillel did not rebuff him but responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole law. All the rest is a commentary.”

These stories resonate with anyone who is fortunate enough to be involved with the sage’s namesake, Hillel, and to work with college students. Who knows what divine spark may lie within the scruffy kid in the baggy sweatpants? Who knows which words of wisdom will change a life? That’s why Hillel’s tents are always open.

Today’s Jewish college students are more diverse than ever. They come from a variety of ethnic, educational, political and ideological backgrounds. The children of two Jewish parents will study with the children of the intermarried. They have to be equally accepted and at ease in their Hillel activities.

Hillel has spent the last decade-and-a-half grappling with various approaches to welcoming uninvolved Jewish students and to providing resources to Jewish activists. Both Hillel’s Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps program and our current Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative emphasize peer engagement. When paired with deeper Jewish exploration through a more senior Jewish educator — helping to find Jewish answers to life’s big questions — this method provides a meaningful approach to Jewish identity-building.

Immersive experiences such as Taglit-Birthright Israel and service learning trips build social networks, expose young people to senior educators and teach, concretely, the importance of Israel and tikkun olam.

Hillel has enjoyed success with these approaches but, more important, it is constantly evaluating their effectiveness while seeking to improve or replace them.

Techniques that work in North America are equally applicable abroad. Young people share fashion, food and Facebook. Hillel students and professionals from North America, Latin America, Israel and the former Soviet Union are traveling between countries learning from and teaching one another. Their close personal bonds are creating a true sense of “klal yisrael,” global Jewish peoplehood.

Throwing open our communities to Jews of all nationalities and backgrounds is more easily said than done. Embracing Jews of divergent and sometimes conflicting ideologies challenges us to create environments in which differences are respected and civil discourse is promoted. Hillel’s Open Tent shouldn’t just be a metaphor but a living, breathing forum in which big ideas are discussed.

Nowhere is this more challenging, or more necessary, than when it comes to Israel. Israel inspires passion among Jews across the ideological spectrum. Today’s Jewish students are learning to express their differences about Israel openly and with respect, and to come together in her defense whenever necessary.

This is a generation that has had the opportunity to experience the soft side of Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel, and to advocate for her loudly in the face of anti-Israel groups and the threat from Iran. At such far-flung places as Binghamton University, Rio de Janeiro, Columbia University and York University in Toronto, Jewish students have stood up loudly and proudly, learning the time-honored Jewish skills of political advocacy and defense.

They also are learning that Jewish institutions do not subsist on ideas alone. The hundreds of Jewish students who recently attended the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America learned fund-raising and organizational skills that will serve them well whether they become Jewish communal professionals or lay leaders. We look forward to expanding the number of participants exponentially in the coming years.

On campus, Jewish students are taking responsibility for running their Hillel boards, their fraternities and sororities, and other student groups. It is no accident that many of the young people who are leading the revolution of Jewish social entrepreneurship got their start as Hillel activists. These young people will strengthen our community in years to come with their commitment to excellence, pluralism and engagement.

We don’t know what the future will bring but as the heirs of a 2,000-year-old tradition, we have a rich resource with which to prepare our young people for whatever challenges lie ahead, particularly in today’s globalized world. After all, we have always been a global people, possessing unique skills that have enabled us to transcend borders and cultures.

By immersing our next generation in the beauty of their heritage, they will not only be enriched, they will enrich the Jewish people and the world.

(Edgar M. Bronfman is the founding chairman of the Hillel International Board of Governors. Randall Kaplan serves as the board’s current chair.)

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