No place for room dividers in Hillel’s big tent

By Sue Fischlowitz

In reading the Jewish Light of April 9, I find news from St. Louis Hillel in several places in the paper: celebrating the opening of the new building; reporting on the recent program at which Oded Na’aman spoke; and an op-ed piece by executive director Jackie Ulin Levey.

The headline [“Event at Hillel sparks criticism, discussion about campus group’s policies”] caught my eye because it is so representative of situations at other Hillels across the country.

The question this raises for me is: Can we have “discussion” without “criticism?” And, further, is it possible in this country, at this time, in this Jewish community, to have truly respectful discussions about big issues of concern to many?

In examining the implications for discourse on Israel and other big issues on campuses, we can look carefully at a few basic concepts and terms used freely in Hillel communities: “Creating a Big Tent”;  “Asking Big Questions”; and “Engaging students” by starting with where they are in their Jewish journeys.

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When noting the guidelines of the Schusterman International Center [SIC], we come up against a fundamental inconsistency. We created a big tent to welcome students of all stripes. Within that big tent, we encourage students to ask big questions. But the SIC guidelines restrict the parameters within which the answers to the big questions may fall.

And the limitation on the boundaries of the discourse is in itself inconsistent with the purpose of The Academy writ large. In academic settings, by definition centers of inquiry, to erect a stop sign as to how far the discussion of big questions can go creates a logical, moral and ethical inconsistency and perhaps a fundamental flaw in the design and function of individual Hillels.

Such a stop sign denies the possibility that the size of Swarthmore or Vassar university’s big tent may be different from the size of another Hillel’s. Swarthmore or Vassar students may want their discourse to be broader than students on another campus.

Can Hillel as an organization allow each campus affiliated with the SIC to determine the size of its own big tent, to ask its own big questions, and to allow its discourse, driven by its students and where they are in their Jewish journeys, to flow unrestricted?

Stephen M. Cohen, quoted in a recent article in The Forward, by Hody Nemes, believes that Jewish institutions are now simply being forced to clarify boundaries that existed all along. “They’re drawing the same boundaries that they’ve always had and now they’re forced to articulate them. I think it’s good for Zionism to have the full range of Jewish opinion and those of our adversaries represented,” Cohen said.

Cohen “warns that the disputes will only get worse as demographic change brings in a new generation.” Cohen describes “a general shift among young people away from support for the policies of the Israeli government, albeit with support for Israel …”

“Meanwhile,” Nemes writes, “debate intensifies over guidelines that Hillel International, American Jewry’s campus outreach arm, requires of its campus affiliates concerning what kind of individuals and groups they may sponsor or partner with on Israel-related events.”

As a parent of adult children, all of whom engaged with Hillel in their own ways during their college years, I’d offer the thought that just as no two children in a family should be expected to be exactly alike, so, too, no two Hillel organizations and no two campuses should be expected to be just like the others. Further, their differences should be embraced.

Can the SIC live with individual differences on different campuses, which will model the concept of inclusion in a truly big tent and make that concept a reality?

Can the SIC allow students to ask their own big questions without limiting the range within which their answers may fall and, in so doing, make Hillel experiences and Jewish life on campus, in the broadest sense of the term, truly engaging for students where they are?

Can the staffs and supporters of Hillels around the United States and the world reframe their view of students and the function of Hillel, to treat students as independent, thinking, questioning adults and let the discourse on campus go where it may?

I’d suggest that a move in that direction will serve our students well, treating them more as growing young adults, with good minds, hearts and souls, learning to think for themselves within a safe and supportive campus community.