Debating Hillel: an enriching or “inconsistent” monopoly on Jewish campus life?

Hillel Sukkkah MakingThe national Jewish student magazine “New Voices” waded into controversy this week with the publication of an article entitled “The Hillel Monopoly: why one student organization can’t cater to every Jewish student.”

Let’s join the debate.

The article – written by a Jew at Swarthmore College (a small, liberal arts school) – decries the Jewish campus organization Hillel‘s “inconsistent” pluralistic mission and its apparent “credo” that “every Jewish student can fit into one mold.” The author writes,

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.

Because of the national organization’s pluralistic nature, Hillel’s religious services at Swarthmore are – according to the author – unsatisfactory and uncomfortable. He notes that he is more likely to go to the Orthodox Chabad House for Friday night services and dinner “to eat great food, enjoy stimulating conversation, and sing fun Jewish songs as I am to walk down the block from my dorm to Hillel for awkward conversations about class over lukewarm, middling vegetarian fare prepared by an often coerced ‘volunteer.'”

My experience with Hillel at a small, liberal arts college very similar to Swarthmore (Amherst College) was radically different than that of the author’s. Furthermore, I understand Hillel’s mission and “credo” to be quite different from that asserted by the author.

Jews love to read and analyze text to understand meaning. Let’s look at the source to understand what Hillel is trying to do. Hillel’s website states:

Hillel seeks to inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. . . Hillel’s mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. . . . Hillel pursues its mission by: Creating a pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive environment; Fostering student growth and the balance in being distinctively Jewish and universally human; Pursuing tzedek (social justice), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and Jewish learning; Supporting Israel and global Jewish peoplehood; A commitment to excellence, innovation, accountability and results.

Nowhere in this mission – or anywhere else on Hillel’s website – is the idea that Hillel is trying to fit all Jews into “one mold.” In fact, the mission and goals of Hillel are the exact opposite. The author’s complaints, while valid to him, and perhaps even to Swarthmore’s entire Jewish community, are merely one person’s experiences with an institution and should not reflect badly on the institution nor its ideology.

While the author criticizes the poor “volunteer”-made food at his Hillel, I remember fondly being that volunteer who united her Jewish friends to cook meals  for as many as 70 or 80 people every Shabbat. Our dinners were so non- “exclusive” that they became the campus hub on Friday nights for anyone looking for a good home-cooked meal. We sang the blessings, made kiddush, our rabbi (part-time with local Smith College) gave a speech or Dvar Torah, and then Jews and non-Jews, black, white and brown, Conservative, Reform, secular, and those looking-to-convert all sat down on chairs, couches and the floor to dine Jewishly. It was amazing.

While the author critiques Hillel’s monopoly on Jewish campus life, that monopoly gives Hillel the strength on campus to be a power-broker for Jewish students when they don’t have the ability to adequately address their own needs. When my friend at an Ivy League institution was told by her physics professor that despite her objections, he would hold a test during services on Rosh Hashanah, and that he couldn’t always make exceptions for “you people,” her campus Hillel director became her ally. The Hillel director called the President of the University, who spoke with the Professor and got him to change the time of the test, as well as his future behavior.

Hillel may have a monopoly on Jewish campus life, but I would argue that the organization is meaningful, life-enriching and essential to our Jewish community because it is pluralistic, open-minded and welcoming to Jews and non-Jews of all different levels of Jewish learning and religious practice.

What do you think? What were your experiences with Hillel on campus? Do you believe that there is a problem with Hillel’s mission, or its success in achieving that mission in practice? What are your reactions to the article in “New Voices?” We encourage you to join the discussion in the comments below.

(Thanks to Rafi Samuels-Schwartz for his photo of Sukkah making with the University of Minnesota’s Hillel)