Today I saw a clump of folks on Broadway wearing t shirts that said “Columbia University Class of 2014.” I watched them, trying not to be creepy, wondering reflexively if any of them were Jewish. This is the first time in eight years that I won’t be spending a very hot, potentially rainy August morning behind a table welcoming incoming Jewish students and their parents to a college campus. Among other things, it has forced me to rethink my entire concept of what an autumn could look like.

It’s these folks that the Jewish community’s so concerned with-what will happen to their identity? How will college affect it? Will they hate Israel? Will they even interface with their Judaism? Who will they become? It can make being a Jewish professional and/or a Jewish student leader an existential crisis laden experience. I’m not proposing that we stop fussing over these questions, but in my dog-eared book of Jewish Things to Worry About, at the top of the list is the fate of progressive Jewish students in Hillel.

Keeping and growing progressive Jewish college students isn’t all about Israel, and yet, it is. The way Hillel approaches campus debate on Israel, conducts the conversation and makes room for it within its buildings, its offices and its meetings, is sending a message about who is welcome within it in general. There’s an enormous difference between creating a JStreet U chapter in your Hillel for the sake of diversity and having no staff member present who models progressive values and will make sure the student leaders of said group feel not only heard, but respected as Jews who care about Jewish community. You can say you welcome everyone, but if your staff consists solely of straight, right wing, upper middle class people, you don’t.

A memo to like minded Jewish folks in the class of 2014, wherever you may be: Don’t wait for permission or approval to make change. This business of Judaism is yours for the taking.

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9 Responses to “Orientation”

  1. How many campus Hillels have you experienced? While there is some top-down leadership, at the better run Hillels I’ve seen, the programming and policies reflect the interests and opinions of the students. That, of course, means a certain points of view won’t exist if students don’t step forward and it always means Jews will argue with each other. I’ve been at one Hillel where there was a diverse range of argument (with people from the far left and right being pushed away from Hillel for various reasons) and another Hillel that was so poorly organized that I’m not sure they were capable of forming an opinion on Israel.

    Of the people I’ve known who worked a Hillel, I can’t think of a single one who could be described as right-wing (obviously there is a sampling bias of people I’ve met)

    Dan · August 31st, 2010 at 11:00 am
  2. JStreetU-what a joke.

    Nothing at Cornell, Rutgers, MIT, Penn, Stanford, GWU, Georgetown, USC, Northeastern, Northwestern, Berkeley (oh sorry I meant U California at Berkeley, not ‘Berkeley City College’).

    And Yeshiva? I wouldn’t worry, its not a big Jewish University.

    But if you go to Reed College or University of Redlands (?) you’re in luck!

    Dave Boxthorn · August 31st, 2010 at 7:57 pm
  3. I can’t believe I’m about to say this… but… DB’s got a point…

    Justin · August 31st, 2010 at 9:10 pm
  4. I was a student organizer for UPZ, the predecessor of JStreet U, at the University of Maryland, College Park, and I’ve kept in touch with the current organizers. In all of my interactions with Hillel, I found the Hillel staff to be genuinely supportive of me and of UPZ.

    I know that, despite my experience, many progressive Jewish students feel uncomfortable at Hillel, and I’m sure that in some places the Hillel staff is partially responsible. But in the case of College Park, I am convinced the Hillel staff tries actively to include and respect progressive Jews.

    Ben · August 31st, 2010 at 9:20 pm
  5. Hillel made its message pretty clear back in the day with their “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel” campaign.

    If you were someone who wasn’t so sure about where to stand on Israel, the message was pretty clear: Hillel probably isn’t a home for you.

    Balaam's Donkey · September 2nd, 2010 at 8:45 am
  6. You can say you welcome everyone, but if your staff consists solely of straight, right wing, upper middle class people, you don’t.

    So now are Jewish organizations that underpay their staff going to start justifying it in the name of promoting diversity, to make sure not all the staff is “upper middle class”?

    BZ · September 2nd, 2010 at 6:51 pm
  7. [...] As both peace talks and college begin, liberal Jewish students have a lot to be excited for. And they should never stop working ofr what they believe in, even if they feel at times like they’re in the minority in the Jewish community, says a former Columbia Hillel staff member. [Jewschool] [...]

    The Reading List: Stand tall, leftist Jewish students! « New Voices · September 3rd, 2010 at 2:36 am
  8. When I was a student, the director of the Hillel was an Israeli with perfectly mainstream views. She was very welcoming, and wanted all Jewish students to feel at home there. The rabbi was great too.
    The student leaders however, were generally those who came programmed from home to support the narrow band of approved causes and programs.
    The problem isn’t institutional Hillel, bad as they are, it’s that they accurately reflect what’s true about the mainstream, well funded, eager beaver institution minded Jewish students who are most attracted to them.

    Jew Guevara · September 5th, 2010 at 1:55 pm
  9. [...] We linked to this on Fridaty but it bears repeating: A former Hillel staff member at Columbia talks to new students about approaching Jewish life on campus in the right way. [Jewschool] [...]

    Sunday Brunch: Welcome to Freshman Orientation! « New Voices · September 5th, 2010 at 3:53 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik