The 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)
As parents, we cared about whether our children would have a place to have Shabbat on campus. One of our daughters had a beautiful new Hillel, with services from Orthodox to Reconstructionist. Our other daughter had a small Hillel with a big heart. That Hillel welcomed students who wanted to take charge, make better meals, open Shabbat dinner and Succah parties to all students and create a community. If the Hillel at your school (or your kid’s school) doesn’t have everything you need yet, don’t curse the darkness, kindle a light.
I think the quality of the Hillel really depends on the chapter’s leadership. Central to the qualifications of directing a Hillel is the ability to fundraise. Judaic knowledge and practice is merely on the periphery. Amherst has an excellent Rabbi leading the institution. Not all Hillel’s are equally blessed.
I’ve never attended a school with a Hillel, so can’t compare.
However, my involvement with Chalutzim – the Jewish Student Organization at Grinnell College – was certainly an overwhelmingly positive experience. I write that knowing that if my college friends read this they might laugh. For four years they heard me complain, cry, celebrate, scream, debate . . . ask me in my 4th year how I felt about being Jewish in Grinnell, IA on our campus and I might have had little positive to say. I just wanted to get out.
But now, that was a long time ago. What I learned from a college with no exclusive organizations (no greek system, no group that could exclude others) is that as hard as it can be sometimes, it really is possible for a black-hat Hungarian Jewish guy to daven in a minyan with a Lesbian Reconstructionist would-be rabbi and a Conservative guy who always wanted the long(est possible it seemed) version of birkat hamazon – so we all learned it. It really is possible for Purim to be THE JEWISH HOLIDAY the entire campus knows the most about. It really is possible to sleep, and eat, and study in a sukkah in the middle of Iowa – even when there are snow flurries!
These days, there is rabbinical leadership at Grinnell, and I don’t know how that has changed things. I do feel fairly confident that for those of us at Grinnell in the 90s, our experience was not dependent on the professional leadership, but rather on each other. And, not just the Jewish students, by the way. Our allies in getting test dates changed were the folks involved with Christian Fellowship. At Grinnell, as much as anyone else, maybe more than most, they really got what it meant to be a religious minority.
Ironically, since being in Minnesota, I’ve learned what I’ve always called “a Grinnell Jew” some folks around here call “a Duluth Jew”. I know when I’m up there visiting, I’ve always felt right at home.
This is interesting to read for me.
I’ve just started a JSO at the UW-River Falls campus. It’s been an interesting journey in the few weeks it’s been alive, but the readiness for community is the biggest thing I’ve noticed. Starting out with the group, I was unsure we’d even find the minimum required students to start the group. However, after starting a webpage (ok… a Facebook page) I found I had many more interested and willing Jewish students then I had anticipated.
As the President I have to pull off Jewish holidays and Jewish activities in a town that has more churches then bars. While I like River Falls, the hardship has been to get the faculty to work alongside me. Knowing very little about the customs of our people, they are reluctant to get involved. Lucky for me, however I have found a wonderful advisor who is willing to fight these battles along side me.
My next battle will be to get the University to recognize Jewish holidays and their place in a Jewish student’s life.
I have thought about becoming affiliated with Hillel’s small and mighty, but fear losing the independence we have without the affiliation. I’m also afraid that through the affiliation our organization will be grouped along with the bigger Hillel of U of M instead of standing strong on its own and having a great deal of different needs then those on the bigger campus.
As a new president of a new group I want to give my group the ability to be proud of their Jewish heritage, being active and at the same time gaining the due respect from the University and their peers. I have only begun down this road, and there is a lot of ignorance to battle, but also quite a bit of understanding. Hillel is a great organization for already strong campus’ but I don’t know yet how much it could help a campus trying to thrive in small numbers.
If you have more info about these things please let me know.
If I may…as a “cultural” Jew with no religious upbringing, I loved the pluralistic experience at the U of M Hillel. It definitely broadened my Jewish identity and, most importantly, I had fun while learning a great deal about a variety of traditions. Of course, had I grown up observing Shabbat and going to Hebrew school, I might look back on Hillel as being somewhat watered-down, but I doubt it. There were always different services led by rabbis from Orthodox to Reconstructionist and everything in-between. The leadership at Hillel put a premium on discovery…not fitting people into a mold, but allowing students to cast their *own* molds and cast off pre-conceptions about what it means to be a Jew. As a result, I was exposed to somewhat obscure practices I never knew existed, like putting on Tefillin, building a Sukkah, etc. All in all, I can trace the Jewish identity and religious practice I retain today to my time at Hillel.