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May 08, 2008 - Image 5

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2008-05-08

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Editor's Letter

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Hillel's Daunting Challenge

C

ampus Hillels, once the place to go for Jewish stu-
dents seeking to do Jewish, are appealing more than
ever to Jews and their non-Jewish friends in hopes
of staying relevant against the multicultural tides of this gen-
eration.
Can Hillels inspire Jewish life while offering programs with
wider appeal? That question drives a
simmering national debate.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish
Campus Life — the Washington-
based national governing organization
— hasn't shifted its central focus away
from Jewish students, says
its leadership.
I'm not so sure.
But their argument is
worth examining.
A Jewish Telegraphic
Agency (JTA) story pub-
lished in the iN on April 3 sets the scene: "In 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 contributions to
university — not only Jewish — life'
There's a fine line when it comes to seemingly
changing core values. The Reform movement wel-
comes non-Jews seeking to be Jewish or seeking
to participate in Jewish experiences. Hillel's new
policy seems broader.

At Issue

The Strategy
Sandler and Firestone argue that their strategic plan aims to
double the number of Jewish students involved in Jewish life
and who have meaningful Jewish experiences. "Our vision:'
they maintain, "remains to inspire every Jewish student to
make an enduring commitment to Jewish life:'
Fair enough.
But is a more universal approach going to fulfill the vision?
Time will tell. Hillels that invite non-Jews for social purposes
could become a non-Jewish atmosphere quickly.
Skeptics question the wisdom of Hillels sponsoring inter-
faith events, coexistence activities with Muslims and humani-
tarian trips to the U.S. Gulf Coast. If these initiatives
teach Jewish ideals and effect positive change, I don't
see a downside. Hillels that tie Jews to their roots
and inspire others to Jewishly held causes under a
tent of universalism aren't inherently flailing at tradi-
tion. Building bridges is a keystone of tikkun olam
— repair of the world.
You don't have to be Jewish to take away positives
from the University of Michigan Hillel's Conference
on the Holocaust or Michigan State University's
Jewish Student Union/Hillel-hosted Israel Fest.
Important lessons abound at each event.
Regarding non-Jews serving on local Hillel boards,
I defer to the local Hillels, which have the most accu-
rate pulse of the impact of such an open-door policy.

Pressing On
Hillel has paid particular attention to the millennials,
the generation born after 1980. JTA defines their dis-
position as globally minded, skeptical of institutional
authority and unwilling to have their identities nar-
rowly defined.
The secular context in which Jewish students on campus
live is the real challenge to them marrying other Jews, not
Hillel or any other Jewish organization opening its doors to
non-Jews. But Hillels should make it their business to rein-
force why in-marriage, or conversion as an alternative, is
essential to our survival as a people.
For the first time, research shows that more than half of
the Jewish students on American campuses have one Jewish
parent. So a majority of these students already are interacting
with parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins and other rela-
tives who may not be Jewish.
Hillels of the 21st century may well be ceding Torah-
observant students, once their backbone, to more religiously
oriented centers like Chabad Houses and the Oak Park-based
Jewish Awareness AMerica (JAAM), a huge success of Rabbi
Avraham Jacobovitz.
Plenty of demographic trends exist to guide Hillel. The bus
it has designed has seats for almost everyone. Hillel likely
can be inviting for most Jews, their friends and the general
campus population. How campuses handle this recalibrated
"inclusive doctrine" will decide its ultimate worth. ❑

Hil lel

Chairman Julian Sandler and President Wayne Firestone say
Hillel's reason for being hasn't wavered: to foster the Jewish
identity of Jewish students and strengthen the global Jewish
community "Hillel's mission," they say, "is to enrich the lives
of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they
may enrich the Jewish people and the world."
But before 2006, JTA points out, Hillel's intent was to
increase the number of Jews "doing Jewish with other Jews"
as opposed to pursuing enrichment. That's a not-so-subtle
distinct change.
Hillel directors around the country say involved Jewish
students are a primary focus. But campus diversity dictates
embracing the majority of Jewish students who view the orga-
nization with indifference or as irrelevant. These Jews want to
do Jewish with their friends whether they are Jewish or not.
"The challenge for us," Rabbi Joshua Feigelson of
Northwestern University told JTA, "is, `How do you cre-
ate expressions of Jewish life that students will deem to
be authentic at the same time as they are not exclusive or
tribal?'
That's no easy task.
I like Miriam Starkman's take. She's executive director of
Hillel of Metro Detroit, which represents five campuses, the
largest and most diverse being Wayne State University, in
the heart of Detroit. HMD has bolstered its ability to counter
anti-Zionists in its midst through Students for Israel, certainly
a more vital advocacy group because of its non-Jewish sup-
port. That's especially notable this week with Yom HaAtzmaut,
Israeli Independence Day, falling on May 10.

0 : Will Hillel's new policy improve Jewish

IX campus life?
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Is secularism eroding the traditions of
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May 8 • 2008

A5

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