January 9, 2014

How political can Hillel be and still fulfill its mission?

Hillel’s warning that its Swarthmore College chapter must enforce a pro-Israel standard for speakers and events threatens to undermine its 90-year-old mission of cultivating Jewish life on campus.

Last year's Pew study on American Jews was just the latest snooze alarm on what has been obvious for decades. To highlight one perennial finding, we have failed to translate program spending into a sustainable sense of community among those Jews who would now be old enough to be full participants. Too many young adult Jews feel either negative or indifferent about their Jewish heritage and the community which seeks to represent and minister to them.

Hillel has long been the established vehicle for nurturing Jewish souls on campus, and - despite various newcomers, and a vibrant Chabad presence - so it remains. But the strength Hillel derives from its conformity with the priorities of the mainstream American Jewish community is also in danger of limiting and even undermining its core mission.
Israel advocacy is a proven tool to boost Jewish identity, Hillel's Israel on Campus Coalition has been competing and collaborating with AIPAC on campus. But in decades past, we alienated those who were critical or concerned about Israel's actions, and by alienating them from Hillel we probably undermined their Jewish affinity overall. A larger group of Jewish students was just oblivious to the whole pro-Israel tempest, and these unaffiliated Jews might have been reached by shifting funds back to traditional Jewish content and programming.

Between Israel advocacy and birthright-style "non-political" programs, the campus community has seen a substantive and symbolic emphasis on Israel as the premise and fulcrum for Jewish identity.

Out in Philadephia's liberal Main Line suburbs, where Swarthmore holds court, establishing a Hillel presence has been a long-running challenge, and not just because of dissonance over Israeli politics and policies. Israel has been as much a hindrance as a silver bullet for broader Jewish participation, and this is likely the case in other progressive enclaves across America. Are these really the young Jews we're prepared to alienate or miss entirely?

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