Open Hillel Presents: The Open Hillel Sandwich

Check out the latest from Open Hillel- this video reminding us there is indeed more than one way to be Jewish, and more than one way to talk about Israel/Palestine.

Standing before God (On Hillel and Open Hillel)

x-posted to Justice in the City

In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.

This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.

This piece of wisdom came to mind as I was thinking of the brouhaha stirred up by the Open Hillel movement’s challenge to the Israel guidelines set by Hillel International, and Eric Fingerhut’s strong reaction to Open Hillel . More »

Open Hillel vs Hillel the Defender, Episode One Million: David Harris-Gershon Goes to Santa Barbara

Just in case you’re keeping a scrap book of everything being said about the whole Open Hillel controversy, or you’re just interested in the broader issues about American Jews’ relationship to Israel and the place of dissent in the organized community, check out this smart piece in Tikkun by David Harris-Gershon.  (Of course, if you’re like me, you may shake your head wondering how we got to a place where a writer as talented and thoughtful as David actually has to spend so much time on Planet Obvious.  It’s embarrassing.)

Avid Jewschoolians may recall my October review of Harris-Gershon’s book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?  A Memoir, which narrates the events surrounding his wife’s injury in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, healing, grief, and emotional breakdown leading to an obsessive pursuit of the apparently remorseful attacker and culminating with meeting his family.  Not surprisingly, this book has led Harris-Gershon, a journalist with The Daily Kos and Tikkun, on a speaking circuit in Jewish communities.  Recently, Santa Barbara Hillel invited him to speak, then discovered that Harris-Gershon, a two-state advocate, had written sympathetically about economic boycott as legitimate, non-violent protest, and consequently threatened to revoke his invitation and bar his entry into the Hillel building unless he made a public statement clarifying his positions on BDS.  This is probably too much build-up already; just read what he has to say about the episode here.

About Hillel’s Israel Guidelines

After Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to break from Hillel’s rules regarding conversation about Israel, I sent a letter to Hillel’s President and CEO, Eric Fingerhut by clicking send on a message as part of Open Hillel’s campaign to open Hillel. The response was swift, cordial, perhaps prepackaged , and it suggested I take a look at Hillel’s Israel Guidelines page.

So I did and I came across this wonderfully written paragraph:

Political Pluralism

Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensible partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.

It sounds as though they want to create some sort of inclusive, pluralistic space for students to discuss matters of interest and concern surrounding Israel. Great.

But the next section entitled “Standards of Partnership” seems to disagree with the previous section:

Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

First of all they won’t let anyone talk who will “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Which seems reasonable at first, right? But of course this means that a speaker such as Israel’s Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett cannot be hosted by Hillel or Hillel’s partners as Minister Bennett does not support Israeli democracy. As well, the continuation of the occupation is quite possibly the policy that puts Israel’s security and borders at the most risk, so this list of banned speakers now must include a plethora of current and past Israeli government officials, ministers, members of Knesset, and a swath of authors, professors and other public voices that support continuation of the occupation.

And of course, anyone who would try to “Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” need not apply.  I (honestly) wonder if Hillel’s version of ‘demonizing’ is meant to give Hillel staff space to put a stop to portrayals of Israel as the root of all evil in the world, or if it just a handy “d” word, so bereft of meaning that it can be applied to any, even much needed, negative talk about Israel. And I wonder if there is such a threat of delegitimization that it needs to be one of the “d’s”  on this list. A recent report posits that its not such a big deal in the world today. Either way, I suppose this means that Alan Dershowitz can’t speak at Hillel events anymore since he has gone on record with the truly golden double standard that Israel should disregard international law.

The list continues with the denial of space to anyone who would “Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” Shouldn’t Hillel stick to censoring people based on the content of their speeches and the aims of their tactics? Has Hillel thought about what it means to ban people for supporting a set of tactics? I mean, some of these are tactics that are supported by the North American Jewish establishment when aimed at others. So it’s not the tactics themselves that bother Hillel, otherwise JFNA CEO, Jerry Silverman would be on the list of banned speakers. It seems that Hillel has set up one standard for discussing sanctions on Israel and another for discussing sanctions on Iran. Perhaps someone should coin a term for when you have one standard for one thing and another for another. I wonder, does this rule include those who support a boycott of Israel’s policies? If so, then Hillel can kiss Peter Beinart goodbye.  Does this include Israeli academics? Wouldn’t that be ironic given the hullabaloo over the ASA boycott decision.

The last point bans partnering with those that “Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” I guess they mean people who shout at speakers and stuff like that, but I can’t help but think of the pattern of disruption that  Hillel itself has displayed when dealing with hosting productive dialogue on Israel, the occupation, BDS and other issues that quite obviously are “matters of interest and/or concern” for a great many of us.

If Hillel is serious about these rules they should be sure not invite speakers like Naftali Bennett, Binyamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz and others that hurt Israel with their anti-democratic, pro-occupation, double standards. My guess is that these types of speakers will keep getting invites though. So why not open the space up to other types of speakers who are also not so guided by Hillel’s lines?

A civil atmosphere from an educational community space demands open dialogue. These guidelines are imprecise and leave room for abuse. This list makes it easy to exclude and to label. It ensures that Hillel will be closed off to many who come looking for open ideas, a tradition of debate, and an emphasis on justice, peace and the finest of Jewish thought in the discourse on Israel.

 

A. Daniel Roth, 2006 Winner of Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Sydney Mendick Memorial Award for Building Pluralism and Diversity, is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. He was born and raised in Toronto and lived in a commune of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in New York City. Daniel is a member of the All That’s Left collective and a learner/organizer with This is Not an Ulpan. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter  @adanielroth.

 

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

Open Hillel is a student-led campaign to change Hillel’s policies to better reflect our community’s values of pluralism and inclusivity. The statement below is a response to “Working Together to Expand Support for Israel on Campus,” written byHillel’s President and CEO Eric Fingerhut AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director. The article announces a new partnership between Hillel and AIPAC.

 

Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership

Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel-Palestine, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.

AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts,” the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law – not to mention, of course, that it tacitly supports the rest of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, all of which are illegal under international law. In contrast, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.

In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. Though SJP takes controversial positions, it raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.

We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel/Palestine-related advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.

AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.

 

Open Hillel Update

Yesterday, the Open Hillel campaign, a student led initiative to change policies around permitted conversations on Israel on campus, presented their petition ( 801 signatures strong as of this writing) and letter to the  Hillel International Board in Washington, D.C.

The grassroots initiative was started by members of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Hillel-affiliated group, when PJA was prevented from co-sponsoring an event with the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Hillel. Open Hillel urges  Hillel International to revise, reconsider, and ultimately remove its Standards for Partnership, which read: “Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, has chapters and affiliates on university campuses across the US and abroad. Hillel International currently publishes “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” which declare, “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

The Open Hillel campaign asks that Hillel  ”remove all political litmus tests for co-sponsorships, affiliated groups, and invited speakers.”

More from the letter (written and signed by Jewish student leaders from universities across the country):

“Pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and no Jewish individual or group should be excluded from the community simply because of political views. The prohibition against anyone who “delegitimizes” or “applies a double standard” to Israel is used to silence students who are critical of Israeli policies or express views with which the Hillel leadership disagrees. These policies deny all students the opportunity to learn about a range of views and form well-supported and defensible opinions about Israel. We all lose out when important perspectives within our community are stifled.”

The campaign is currently awaiting a response from Hillel International and will continue to expand if Hillel International is resistant to the requests of the petition and letter,


Emily Unger: “Rather than quietly drift away from Hillel, we decided to stay and improve the organization from within.”

This is an interview with Emily Unger, a Harvard  senior majoring in biology, and the former chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, the  student group organizing a  protest against Hillel’s ban on partnerships with groups back boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Jewschool: Give us some background about your experience with this issue at Harvard.

Emily Unger: I’ve been involved in the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) since the beginning of my first year at college, and this entire time, we’ve prided ourselves on working together with both Harvard Students for Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and co-sponsoring events with both groups.  Last semester, we planned to co-sponsor an event with PSC called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation”, which brought two speakers, an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, to talk about their experiences doing non-violent activism against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories (protesting home demolitions in the West Bank, etc.) and how this related to their Jewish identity.  We wanted to hold the event in the Hillel building, since it was a Jewish event and we thought it would appeal to Jewish students.

More »

There is Probably Something in the Food, or, a Discussion about Birthright and Propaganda

Sandy Fox is a graduate student in History and Israel Studies at NYU, studying the history of Israeli education and youth culture. Her work includes research on the history and politics of Israeli and Palestinian Sesame Street programs. Sandy is a Brooklyn resident and a camp counselor for life.

This is our Gchat conversation about staffing Birthright.

Me: So, Sandy Fox, you and I have both staffed Birthright trips. What do you have to say about propaganda?

Sandy: Plenty of that, but much less than I expected?

Me:  There’s the “make aliyah” thing. Is that what you were thinking of?

Sandy: A lot more “Jewish peoplehood” propaganda rather than Israeli hasbara (advocacy) political propaganda. I didn’t feel that our guide was pushing a political agenda regarding Zionism or the occupation or any of that. If anything, he was an earthy crunchy  type, in the best way possible.

Me: That’s been my experience as well. Is that bad, do you think? Jewish peoplehood as propaganda?

Sandy: I don’t actually think that the whole Jewish peoplehood agenda – which also includes inviting people to explore their Jewish identity – is a bad thing. In fact, I found that most of my participants came on the trip looking for a connection to Judaism that they felt they lacked. We had a particularly emotional experience during Friday night tefillot overlooking the Kotel. I was the staff member in charge, and I basically got a bunch of participants to agree to help me lead. But it wasn’t going to be traditional tefillot in any way, because most of them had no knowledge of liturgy. What I asked of them was to bring something – a poem, a story, whatever they wanted – to share with the group, maybe a reflection on a Shabbat experience they’ve had, or something about the week, or if it was their first Shabbat ever, to talk about that. I think about 6 participants got up and talked, and it was incredibly powerful. They all told such personal stories of searching for connections to Judaism, trials and loss and it seemed like practically everyone cried.

I can’t call that propaganda. All I did was sit them in a circle and say, hey, talk to the group about whatever you want. It could have ended up being very superficial, but people wanted to share, and talk, and cry. Maybe something is in the food?

Me: It’s definitely in the food.

Sandy: The schnitzel is laced with cocaine?

Me: I think we’ve uncovered the secret.

Sandy: The other aspect of Taglit is that it’s not like we can make a blanket statement about it. There are all these buses and trip providers that operate differently. Even the dynamic of each staff is so varied. So I can say, hey Chanel, on my trip, everything was so cool and open, and people asked the tough questions and cried. But on other trips I’m quite sure there is serious propaganda,  in the hasbara sense of the word.

Me: Do you think your group was expecting hasbara?

More »

Whose Birthright? A Conversation with Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine

Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine

Recently, Tufts University Students for Justice in Palestine created, published and distributed a Zine called “Birthright? A Primer” for folks contemplating going on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. The primer includes testimonies from previous trip participants, as well as resources for exploring Israel/Palestine after the trip. Tufts SJP organizers Matthew Parsons, Anna Furman and Dani Moscovitch  spoke with Jewschool about the primer, how and why it happened, and what impact they hope it will have.

Jewschool: What was the impetus for creating the primer? What’s the goal?

Anna Furman: The goal of our zine is to equip students who have chosen to go on Birthright with a body of knowledge that they will not find otherwise.  I think the most important section of our zine  may be the section that encourages students to extend their trips and to go with various groups to the West Bank.  If I had a zine like this when I had gone on Birthright 3 years ago, I am pretty certain that my whole understanding of the region and my relation to it would have been very different.
More »

Help me hire some student journalists!

now-hiringgif

Who says there are no paying jobs left in journalism?

By day, I’m the editor of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and the director of the 40-years-young organization that publishes it, the Jewish Student Press Service. Since the JSPS was founded (New Voices itself is 20 years old), we’ve been a home for independent Jewish journalism–written and published entirely by college students.

We operate on the most shoestring of budgets, but occasionally, we get the exciting the chance to actually hire someone. In this case, I’m looking for 10 someones! If you know a student journalist who might be interested in this, let me know in the comments or by emailing me at david(at)newvoices.org.

Here’s my full pitch:

Jewish Student Journalists: We Want to Pay You!

New Voices Magazine, the national Jewish student magazine, is seeking student journalists to do paid reporting from their campuses this fall! More »

What does it mean, “Are Jewish presidents of colleges ready for Birthright alumni?”

Crossposted to New Voices

On Tuesday, Nov. 23 Hebrew College is hosting a conversation with four Boston-area Jewish presidents of colleges: Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann of Hebrew College, Leonard A. Schlesinger of Babson College, Jehuda Reinharz of Brandies University and Lawrence S. Bacow of Tufts University.

I’ve got universities on the brain lately as my own Drew has recently intensified our so-far lackluster work on our “Strategic Plan.” So this event caught my eye.

The HC website lists these questions as up for discussion at the event:

  • How will colleges and universities meet the challenges of the shifting paradigms in higher education?
  • What should their roles be in developing the next generation of Jewish leadership?
  • Students who have experienced Birthright Israel are ready for more engagement with Israel and with Jewish life; are we ready for them?
  • What aspects of higher education should the Jewish community support?

The first, second and fourth questions sound great. The third one is giving me some trouble.

First of all, it acknowledges a premise that I reject: that the Birthright is the source of engaged young Jews in America. It’s part of the clod of notions that spring forth from the idea that young Jews, especially college Jews, are not engaged with Jewish life, and that the only way to engage them is through Israel.

Second of all, and even more narrow-sighted, is this problem: Do any of these college presidents think that the only source of engaged Jewish students at their institutions is Birthright? If they’re focused on “are we ready for them [Birthright alumni]?” how is that going to affect their readiness for Jewish students engaged with Jewish life in some other way? And what does it even mean that they need to be ready?

These questions are not meant as rhetorical, by the way. I’m looking for y’all’s ideas on this. So if anyone goes to this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Trepidation

It’s like I’m staring down the barrel of something. Not a gun, that’s too dramatic, but something that you’d stare down in a moment of pure adrenaline and uncertainty and fear, if those things could ever go together.

I leave for Israel in four days. I can’t stop thinking about kashrut certificates on my El Al dinner plate, the awkwardly sized “Tzevet” name tag that I’ll be gifted with as a Birthright staffer, the impossibly long days, conversations that will feel dangerous and therefore desperately important. I want to be a better staffer this time, one with eyes wide open, amenable to the distractions that I know are really teachable moments.

I’m not the same Jew I was the last time I was in Israel, two years ago. I’m more skeptical that things in the region can change. I’m more cynical about Jewish communities and more radical in my politics. I’m less traditionally observant. I’m tired.

I hope I’m wrong in thinking that these brave folks about to travel with me are expecting a sanitized version of Israel- a place that is purely and simply anything. There are experiences like that, of course, moments where nothing else would be appropriate, and you have to let them exist. But I’m not too tired to be honest. I’m done existing in a space where people are too afraid to think, where we put the future of the Jewish community at risk in the name of being right (pun intended).

Something has survived, though, some part of me is clearly not done, or I couldn’t bring myself to take on this adventure that will be sleepless, frustrating, and ultimately an exercise in willing suspension of disbelief. Birthright works, according to research, as in, it connects young Jews to each other and to their identities, but what does that mean? Is connection the same thing as being able to criticize and push, as saying you believe we can do better? It takes much more than ten days to do that. If we’re lucky, it might take less than a lifetime.

The Firestone Plan’s Flaws

In his May 6, 2010 Op-ed “Fighting the new divestment effort on campus,” Hillel CEO Wayne Firestone puts forth a plan that continues to ignore any sort of reality that might allow local student groups to beat back the ever growing Israel divestment movements.

The Firestone Plan outlines three steps to address the divestment movement. First student groups should address their needs locally, without outside help which is interesting coming from the CEO of Hillel International.  Then students should build coalitions (again without outside help) by bringing student government officials to AIPAC events and other such “get to know Israel” programs.  And finally, student groups should remain on the branding message that Israel is a high-tech leader that shares Western values.  As a former student senator and Jewish activist at the University of California, Davis, I can tell you without any shadow of a doubt that the Firestone Plan is fatally flawed. More »

Israel Apartheid Week

Every now and again, I’m forwarded an opinion piece because, obviously, as a Canadian Jew, I’ll find it interesting and want to sing its praises here on Jewschool. This is seldom the case. Today’s gem came via an email from the Canadian Jewish Congress. They sent out an op-ed written for the Ottawa Citizen by Leonard Stern.

I’m tempted to argue with the whole piece, line by line, but instead, I’m just going to draw out a few problems.

Beginning Monday, university campuses play host to an annual event known as Israeli Apartheid Week, where Israel is assigned the role of Jew among the nations — singled-out, cursed and harassed.

Some Jewish students at Carleton and the University of Ottawa will discreetly choose to stay home, to avoid having to answer for the Jewish state. The whiff of something medieval hangs over this March ritual.

This isn’t about Jews, say the organizers. It’s about Zionists. Problem is, the activist groups behind Israeli Apartheid Week are doing everything to erase the distinction. One of those organizations, the Ottawa Public Interest Research Group, refused in 2008 to promote a lecture on African development because Jewish students happened to be organizing it. The event had zero connection to Israel but OPIRG said it wouldn’t partner with the Jewish students’ union due to the latter’s “relationship to apartheid Israel.”

That’s an ominous introduction to the article. Too bad I need to argue it down. So long as the Canadian Jewish community (like the vocal majority of many countries’ Jewish communities) maintains that Israel and zionism are an integral part of Jewish identity, and are inherently linked, I can’t blame student groups and other organizations for drawing a similar conclusion. So long as Hillels across Canada (and across the US) house Israel advocacy and zionist groups, and many have histories of bashing Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian groups, I see no reason why those groups shouldn’t be able to “retaliate” with Israel Apartheid Week. More »

J Street Local’s Bumpy Philadelphia Road

Now that Brit Tzedek has merged with J Street, we’re witnessing the rapid growth of  “J Street Locals” proliferating throughout more than 20 regions across the country. (I’m happy to be attending the launch of J Street Chicago at Emanuel Congregation this Thursday night and even happier to hear that a healthy turnout is expected.)

I’m dismayed, though, to learn that J Street Philadelphia‘s debut is receiving more than its share of ridiculous attacks from certain corners of the Philly Jewish community. I’ve just read that even Penn Hillel has come under fire for renting out its facility to this “anti-Israel” group.

According to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent:

A flap over Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s decision to lease its space to J Street — for the official launch of its Philadelphia branch — is just one local manifestation of a debate that has roiled much of the national Jewish establishment since the advocacy organization was founded nearly two years ago…

Gary Erlbaum, who sits on the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel advocacy committee and is also a board member of the Jewish Publishing Group, has been outspoken in his opposition to J Street, and is upset about Hillel’s decision to host the group’s Feb. 4 event.

“What makes them pro-Israel? If the Palestinians had a lobby, it would be called J Street,” said Erlbaum. “The Hillel building is an inappropriate spot for a group that’s anti-Israel.”

Oh, for God’s sake. A group committed to supporting the two-state solution through a diplomatic means, while safeguarding Israel security and its future as a Jewish and democratic state, is somehow “anti-Israel?”

You know, sometimes when I’m feeling really, really optimistic, I dream about what it might feel like if the American Jewish community actually could tolerate the kind of vigorous and freewheeling debate that they enjoy in the actual Jewish state itself. (Now wouldn’t that be “pro-Israel?”)

My Flip Camera May Not, In Fact, Be God

Okay, I promise this is my final post about Everything Is God: A Jewish Spiritual Woodstock, the event held Sunday night at Harvard Hillel. Jewschool doesn’t often cosponsor real, live events up here in Beantown, so you’ll forgive me for being a little more excited than usual at getting to represent us out there “In Real Life” as the kids say.

Let me start by saying that as excited as I was to fly the Jewschool flag, I was somewhat suspicious of the event itself. I tend to sneer at the kind of spirituality that comes with chanting and meditating and crystals and beads and what-have-you, and that’s sort of what I expected to be bombarded with here. After all, I know that Jay Michaelson is prone to running off to Tibet for a month of silent contemplation, and Seth Castleman has built his career on bringing the Dharma and the Torah together. I know that Danya holds a torch for the kind of traditional Jewish spirituality that I both crave and mock, although from reading her memoir I know that she’s adopted the lotus position herself on more than one occasion.

So let me be the first to say that the event was not that at all. Sure, Danya and Jay disagreed on whether aromatherapy bath crystals can really be considered spiritual tools, but the discussion was much more focused on the interplay between “religion” (i.e. the structures & strictures, rituals and communities of organized faith) and “spirituality” (what Danya calls the moments of feeling groovy). (Incidentally, if you were hoping for more of an exploration of how your boogers embody God, Jay is holding a series of conference calls for folks to come together in exploration of the non-dual Judaism he espouses in his book.)

The three speakers introduced themselves and their approaches but then quickly moved on to the Q&A portion of the evening. They did two rounds of four questions each. I tried to capture the entire Q&A session with my Flip Camera, but the darn thing crashed after Seth & Danya answered the first four questions and Jay had answered the first three. But the footage I did manage to get captures enough of the feeling of the event and many of the interesting points. I’ll lead with Jay’s answer to a question about the place of Judaism in his spirituality. (This is from the first round of questions, so I don’t have Danya & Seth’s answers to the same question.)

Behind the cut are more videos addressing the role of music in each person’s spirituality, the place of Israel in their spirituality, and approaches to balancing structured religion with a desire to “pick and choose” and get rid of bits of religion that don’t sit well with us.
More »

Jewish Continuity, Queered

Learning how to integrate my identity as a gay man and my involvement in the Jewish community was one of the most important accomplishments of my college career. Luckily, queer Jewish college students don’t have to do this alone. The National Union of Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, and Questioning Students (or NUJLS for short) is a tremendous resource for queer Jews on campuses and the people who love them.

NUJLS’s annual conference is coming up April 3rd to 5th at UPenn. Click here to register!

Think you have some wisdom to share with the NUJLS crowd? They’re still accepting applications from presenters for the conference. I presented at one of the conferences a few years ago and can tell you that it was a great experience in which I not only learned a ton, but also met some fantastic people who continue to do great things in the world (and who continue to be my friends).

Harvard Hillel director excoriates Mort Klein

You might not call this direct support of Breaking the Silence, but you can call it standing up against right-wing blowhards like Mort Klein. This I can definitely respect. Rabbi Bernie was distraught by the “lack of context” to the exhibit but nonetheless stood by his students’ decision to bring the exhibit into a Jewish space. He, like many others, disagree with the soldiers on many points. But thank the Lord this doesn’t mean he’s like some of the people who’ve come to exhibit simply to tell the soldiers that they should be shot as traitors. Or even attack them (and Hillel International at large) for being anti-Israel, as Mort did in a press release.

The highlights here, the full open letter below the fold.

On the ZOA:

I do not know the mission of the ZOA. If, however, your mission does include working with young Jews, you have done a grievous disservice to the ZOA. If it is not part of your mission, you should not intrude clumsily and aggressively into the Harvard campus, and undermine the good work of young Jews…

…Truth from a skyscraper in New York City looks different than on the ground of a campus in Cambridge. Every campus and every Hillel has its own unique culture.

On the student body:

Many students feel inconvenienced by the presence of the exhibit in the building. Many more criticize the presentation of the exhibit itself. Some feel that it humanizes the soldiers and they come away with a more positive feeling about Israel. I myself did not anticipate this response. It is more widespread than I would have thought.

On what Mort’s press release did:

…As a result of your actions, our students are receiving hate emails [from ZOA members]. In light of what you have said and have not said, this is a totally predictable response. If you intended to injure and hurt young Jews, your recent actions and words are a success. If your goal is to inflame and to defame Harvard Hillel, you should justly feel a sense of pride – mission accomplished.

Whether you’re into Breaking the Silence or otherwise, you can also tell Mort to fuck off here.

More »