Op-Ed: Hillel is an open forum

By Julie Wiener

College student outreach leaders came to the Hillel Institute at Washington University in St. Louis to learn the ins and outs of engaging their less engaged peers, August 2012. (Jonathan Pollack)

College student outreach leaders came to the Hillel Institute at Washington University in St. Louis to learn the ins and outs of engaging their less engaged peers, August 2012. (Jonathan Pollack)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Once again the love affair between the Jewish people and higher education is back in full bloom. The start of a new school year, and the Jewish New Year, marked the beginning of robust programming for Jewish college students across the globe.


As students dig into their studies, the events in Israel and Gaza this past summer are a hot topic on many campuses. In response, Hillel International, the largest Jewish student organization in the world — its growing network now serves some 550 campuses in North and South America, Europe, Central Asia, Australia and Israel — is drawing on its expertise in promoting deep and thoughtful discussion. Hillel is sponsoring a broad range of programs to help students understand the issues and how they will affect Israel and its neighbors in the future.

Hillel professionals have heard presentations from both the Israeli ambassador to the United States and the leader of the opposition in the Knesset. Hillel student leaders have organized interfaith gatherings and intercultural dialogues. Hillel educators have offered seminars and discussions for students to learn about contemporary Israeli society and culture, to reflect on their own relationships with Israel and to develop skills as dialogue facilitators.

Hillel students have also modeled what respectful discourse looks like: At Cooper Union Hillel in New York City, students countered an effort to boycott a speech by the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and encouraged Jewish students to attend and listen respectfully, which they did. And, of course, the tens of thousands of students who attended High Holiday services at Hillel joined Jews all over the world in praying for a year of peace for all people.

What all these activities have in common is they welcome and include students of all backgrounds, all political positions and who have an exceptionally wide array of relationships with their Jewish identities and with Israel. They do so within an environment that is intellectually rigorous, respectful of difference and committed to honest conversation. Hillel is among the most religiously, intellectually, culturally and politically pluralistic organizations in the Jewish world — a testament to both the diversity of Jewish experience and of the college campuses we serve.

Inclusivity and broad-mindedness are part of our core values. All students are always welcome at Hillel. And these values guide all of our work. That work includes listening to all student voices including those of the activists behind the “Open Hillel” campaign and other campus groups.

At the same time, Hillel is deeply dedicated to Israel. From the tens of thousands we’ve led on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, to the nearly 100 Israelis who serve as Israel Fellows on our campuses, to the many efforts of our professionals to engage and educate students, Israel is a vital part of our mission.

For some, those simultaneous commitments to openness and pluralism on the one hand and to passionate support of Israel on the other may seem contradictory. For Hillel, there is no contradiction. Our Standards for Partnership, which were developed in close consultation with local Hillels, are designed to ensure that our efforts uphold these commitments to openness and pluralism and to Israel. Hillel will not partner with organizations that espouse anti-Semitism, apply a double standard to Israel, spout racism or promote Islamophobia. Such viewpoints do not represent the values of Hillel International nor the overwhelming number of Jewish students and professionals everywhere.

Hillel’s programming decisions are made by thousands of local student leaders, professionals and lay leaders who are dedicated to engaging the largest number of students in Jewish life on their campuses. In doing so, these leaders are guided by their knowledge of the local environment and by Hillel’s vision of encouraging students to build an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.

This weekend, a small group of activists who created the “Open Hillel” campaign are meeting at Harvard University. The campaign calls on Hillel to eliminate its Standards of Partnership in order to provide a platform for organizations that promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and other anti-Israel activities.

Several weeks ago, I met with some leaders of this campaign and listened to their concerns. They assured me that they consider themselves a part of Hillel and intend to continue their advocacy within Hillel International. In our meeting, I told the students present what they have already heard from their local Hillel directors: that every student is welcome at Hillel regardless of his or her personal views on Israel or any other topic in Jewish life.

At the same time, Hillel International stands by its Standards of Partnership. More importantly, Hillel International will always back the dedicated student leaders, professionals and lay leaders who are supporting vibrant Jewish life on campus. We work every day to help students find their connection to the Jewish people and live the Jewish values that make this a better world for all people. As we grow, Hillel will continue to hold firm to the values that define the Jewish community worldwide – peoplehood, nationhood and faith in the future.

Eric Fingerhut is the president and chief executive officer of Hillel International.