Why one organization can’t cater to every Jewish student
Every Jewish student can fit into one mold. Such seems to be the credo of Hillel, the “Foundation for Jewish Campus Life,” an organization with branches at over 500 colleges and the go-to brand for a Jewish university experience.
But not every campus is the same and within each school is a diversity of Jewish students. As an involved Jew at Swarthmore College, a school whose small Jewish community provides a challenge to leading a Jewish life, I do not fall into the same category as an unaffiliated Jew at the University of Illinois or an Orthodox Jew at the University of Pennsylvania, both large schools with many Jews.
It has a national network, donors and a professional staff, but Hillel faces a number of basic challenges to its core mission, putting into question whether it can provide the Jewish experience that each student is looking for.
The Problem with Pluralism
Because so many different types of Judaism are present of college campuses, from secular Zionist to Reconstructionist to Modern Orthodox, individual campus Hillels often end up a messy mixture of traditions. Others are dominated by one stream of Judaism to the exclusion of others. Only on a campus with a large enough Jewish student population will there be enough funding and students to support many autonomous Jewish groups which meet the needs of a large variety of students.
The root of the inconsistent nature of the Hillel experience is that the Hillel Foundation strives to be the type of inter-denominational, pluralistic institution that is just as confusing as it sounds. The mission statement of Hillel, from its website, that “student leaders, professionals and lay leaders are dedicated to creating a pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive environment for Jewish college students,” sounds great on paper, but in practice it’s near impossible to achieve.
Imagine a non-denominational, pluralistic synagogue—which rabbinical school would the rabbi have graduated from? How kosher would the dining facilities be? Which versions of prayers would be used in the services? These questions, along with many others, are the types of issues that could be divisive in Hillels around the country, because on many campuses Hillel is like a synagogue, JCC, Greek organization, and religious school all in one.
This is what we try to embody every week at the Swarthmore College Hillel and it doesn’t work. The service ends up resembling whatever that week’s leader grew up with, which often doesn’t satisfy or feel comfortable to many of the students in attendance.
A bigger Hillel may have several different Shabbat services, which helps to mitigate the great differences in tradition that are present on college campuses but also creates the possibility of one group dominating Jewish life, leaving some students feeling unwelcome. Part of being pluralistic is having respect for each other’s space.
Hillel at Swat and Penn: David vs. Goliath
But at Swarthmore, our problems are different. I was somewhat dismayed to find when I first got to Swarthmore that my school does not have a true Hillel, instead using the Hillel brand to indicate a platform for Jewish student groups. Hillel, as far as I knew, was a place where Jewish kids could gather on Friday nights or holidays for decent food, company and some of the rituals they were used to from their homes and synagogues.
An anti-religious sentiment pervades Swarthmore, which is somewhere between 20 and 30 percent Jewish, and the perceived exclusivity of the Hillel turns some off from staying active while trying to seek their Jewish identities.
If our Hillel is representative of mainstream Judaism while at college, it makes sense that it may be driving Jews away during these years of identity solidification. At my school, it’s common for Jewish day-school-educated kids to show up at a few programs, be dismayed at their small size and rarely show their face in organized Jewish campus life again.
Compare this to the University of Pennsylvania, home to large secular and Modern Orthodox Jewish populations and the mammoth three-story, state-of the-art Steinhardt Hall. Steinhardt Hall has multiple sanctuaries for different minyans, several study rooms and a kosher dining commons that serves “the best meat on campus”, according to Shep, a sophomore at UPenn, who often brings his non-Jewish friends with him to eat at Steinhardt Hall.
I visited Steinhardt Hall last spring, and found it hard to believe that this was part of the same institution as our Hillel, which has no home besides a kosher kitchen and a few spaces shared with other campus groups. I felt that Steinhardt Hall is the way Hillel should be.
A similar story comes from an even larger school, the University of Illinois. Sammy Marks, president of the Illinois Hillel, loves his campus Jewish experience and has found ways to work around the challenges inherent in striving for pluralistic acceptance while encountering great diversity of practice.
Marks says he grew up with strong involvement in the liberal Jewish community through Jewish camping and looked to Hillel to provide a “Jewish home away from home” when he got to Illinois. He notes that the master fundraising, programming, and educational abilities of the large professional staff of his Hillel have made it an institution that runs smoothly and can meet the varying needs of the approximately 3,000 Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews at his school, 300 of whom he estimates are active in the Hillel.
While Sammy and Shep are privileged to enjoy excellent Hillel educational and religious programming, from social action projects to well-known speakers and large weekly minyans, those opportunities come because their schools have enough Jews to populate Jewish student groups and enough wealthy alums to fund Jewish activity.
Not all are so lucky, and the fact that some Hillels have the critical mass of Jews to facilitate a diverse Jewish experience does not solve the problems of smaller schools. Nor does it make Hillel’s overall mission clearer or easier to achieve.
The Chabad Factor
So what do we do? Jewish life at Swat is so small that our Hillel often partners with Chabad on Campus to put on events, and few Jewish students are aware that our Chabad shliach isn’t financially connected to Hillel.
Chabad on Campus is emerging as a contender to Hillel for the throne atop Jewish campus life, in part due to its staff—the Chabad rabbi and his family—who are willing to move to the most remote college towns and give everything they have to their mission to bring Judaism to college students.
I’m as likely to make the forty-five minute schlep by bus out to Bryn Mawr, the nearest Chabad, on Friday evenings to eat great food, enjoy stimulating conversation, and sing fun Jewish songs as I am to walk down the block from my dorm to Hillel for awkward conversations about class over lukewarm, middling vegetarian fare prepared by an often coerced “volunteer.”
Recognizing, in turn, that its social element was not enough for many, Hillel has tried to move toward greater involvement in the religious aspects of Jewish life as well, but some Jewish students say that they feel unwelcome at Hillel, whether because the Hillel regulars are unfriendly or the Judaic content is unfamiliar. I know the feeling.
Hillel could learn much from Chabad, whose staff are kind and welcoming and strive to make all comfortable in what can be an intimidating Jewish environment. My campus’s Chabad rabbi even offered to help me plan Shabbat dinners for Hillel as long as I promise to say kiddush beforehand.
That’s a hard offer to refuse, and it makes me wonder whether Hillel—or any one
organization—can be an umbrella for college Judaism. With such size disparity between campuses, different streams of Judaism each trying to establish a base and competition from other institutions, Hillel needs to decide whether it is possible to provide a space for every Jewish student, no matter who they are or where they come from.