Thursday, April 03, 2008

The End of Hillel?

JTA reports that "[I]n a move that Hillel leaders say has been forced upon them by this generation's altered social landscape, the organization is throwing open its doors to everyone, designing programs that appeal to Jews and non-Jews and hyping its contribution to university -- not only Jewish – life" (link). The implications of this are significant, in that many people consider Hillels a good place for Jewish boys and girls to meet, and a place for intensifying religious commitment. With the watering down of what little religious content was left and the addition of non-Jewish boys and girls to the potential dating pool, many are seeing this as a significantly negative development. This issue is being discussed on an e-mail list on which I lurk, and I received permission to post these lightly edited comments of Doug Aronin that I think are worth considering:
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We need a little perspective here. I find the new trends at Hillel to be disturbing. And to be honest, contrary to my expectation, after I found and read the full JTA article rather than just the excerpt, I found the situation more disturbing rather than less.

But one thing that both the excerpt and the full JTA article make clear is that the change in orientation is one that Hillel professionals on many campuses feel is being forced upon them by the realities of campus life. If you want to attract Jewish students who are not already actively Jewish, you're going to need to offer something that they find attractive. In the pre-Richard Joel era, Hillels generally were satisfied with just serving the Jewish needs of those who were already actively Jewish. Would we be better off going back in that direction?

Not everything mentioned in the article is necessarily bad. Given the political atmosphere on many campuses today, for example, I find it
difficult to fault those who try to encourage dialogue between Jewish and Muslim students. And if some Jews can only relate to their Jewish identity through universalistic social action programming -- and the recent growth of the American Jewish World Service suggests that there are those for whom this is the case -- then refusing to meet them where they are may be counterproductive.

And let's remember, please, that Hillels have to operate within the rules of their respective campuses. During the years that my son (who graduated last June) was active in Stony Brook Hillel (he served as its president in his sophomore and senior years, and as vice president in his junior year), I learned something about the tricky dynamics of navigating campus rules. No student club at Stony Brook that receives funding from the university (as Hillel does) can exclude any student from joining or holding office. I suspect that is true on other campuses as well, which may be one of the reasons that we see the phenomenon of non-Jews holding Hillel office. And of course, even if Hillel limited itself to those who consider themselves Jewish, it would still include some whom we as halakhic Jews do not consider Jewish. (A question worth pondering, by the way, is why some non-Jewish students -- that is those who don't consider themselves Jewish -- want to be active in Hillel.)

There are many places on campus where Jewish students can meet non-Jews, so the notion that Hillel's increasing openness to non-Jews is increasing intermarriage is hard to take seriously. For better or for worse (and I think it's some of each), purely ethnic Judaism -- the kind that eschews intermarriage but has little or no positive religious content -- is pretty much gone, and unless the society around us changes radically, I don't think it's coming back.

All that having been said, let's remember that most Hillels do serve the Jewish needs of the activist core. They are involved in providing kosher food, religious services and Jewish learning opportunities. They also manage to engage Jewishly some students who were at best apathetic before arriving on campus -- not as many as they should, perhaps, and certainly not as many as we'd like, but more than we might expect. And on some campuses, they manage to bring together the various shades of the activist core in ways that the adult Jewish community could learn from, but probably won't.

Hillel's far from perfect, and its leadership should certainly not be above criticism. But if you really "can't think of a single reason" why any of us should "bother to support Hillel," then I don't think you're trying very hard.

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