The Conspiracy

To Hillel or Not to Hillel?

Going to a Catholic, Jesuit college does leave Jewish student life with a bit to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here. Being in any kind of faith-based community, even if it’s not my own, creates a warm environment and an interesting forum to expand one’s religious horizons. Still, though, it’s important to have a sort of home base of like-minded people within your own faith to go to for things like holidays, cultural experiences, religious observances and plain old-fashioned good times.

My school has a small but enthusiastic Jewish students group, but lacks the presence on campus to provide a really strong Jewish experience to students. Luckily, I go to school in New York City, never far away from a new and interesting Jewish adventure. I’ve spent a lot of my time at NYU’s Hillel, The Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, getting involved in their activities, publications and Shabbat experiences. Not because I don’t have pride in my own school’s Jewish presence, but because we have never seemed quite able to provide things on such a grand scale as NYU.

That is, until today, when I heard the first mention of our own Hillel. Apparently, we’ve had one. For quite a while. And it has lay dormant due to lack of student interest, apparently. So now, as an executive board member of my school’s Jewish student group, my peers and I have been approached about renewing our ties with Hillel. Would students be interested? we were asked. My immediate reaction was “OF COURSE!” but I know the response will vary by student.

To me, Jewish life is Jewish life and all Jewish life is good. To others, some things are just “too Jewish” – or not Jewish enough. I’ve spent time at Reform and Conservative synagogues, in Shabbat services led by modern Orthodox rabbis, in conversation with strictly cultural Jews and in classes with traditionally observant Jews. I’ve learned to take everything with a grain of proverbial Jewish salt, understanding where each movement is coming from and learning what each Jewish perspective has to offer. Others, however, are sometimes scared of Jewish movements that are not their own, afraid perhaps of being sucked in.

I don’t see this being a problem with Hillel, or with Hillel being a presence on our campus. I am not concerned that Jewish activities will suddenly become “too religious” or, on the contrary, that rituals will begin to be taken more lightly. Rather, I think a strong Jewish presence on campus will provide increased awareness and understanding, among Jews and non-Jews alike.

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According to its Web site, Hillel “provides opportunities for Jewish students at more than 500 colleges and universities to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers, campus Foundations and Hillel student organizations.” What could be better, really?

Opponents may have concerns that a strongly-affiliated Catholic institution should not be housing an organization that so strongly supports another religion, but I don’t really see that as a concern here. The Jesuits

are wonderful, open-minded people willing to support the growth and education of others, even if it’s not within the Catholic Church. Plus, I would think that religiously-affiliated institutions would be more willing to provide opportunities across the religious spectrum for observant students of any persuasion. But perhaps this is wishful thinking.

The bottom line is that I am unsure. I’ve never seen Hillel as a question posing potential roadblocks before. So tell me, what has your Hillel experience been like at your college?

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2 Older Responses to “To Hillel or Not to Hillel?”

  1. Donald Maldari, S.J.
    September 26, 2009 at 8:56 am #

    I, a Jesuit, am delighted that this student recognizes that the purpose of an institution of higher education inspired by the Society of Jesus is the cultivation of the human person. S/he is right: “religion” identifies a culture’s efforts at promoting the good; a religiously-affiliated institution should rejoice whenever cultures are actively present, whether its own “religious” culture or different ones, and should do everything it can to promote them and to learn from them.

  2. Erin
    September 30, 2009 at 1:14 am #

    As a student who was involved in Hillel and as a current Hillel professional, I would strongly encourage you to get involved with your Hillel on campus. Your Hillel experience will be what you make of it. That being said, if you get involved, take a lead and create programs, initiatives, and other opportunities around issues of importance or relevance to you and your peers – Hillel can be a great asset and you can create your own kind of Jewish campus life that is interesting to you. Shabbat dinners are not for everyone, neither are Israel programs – therefore, you can help mold and create what is interesting and relevant to you and shape your experience with Hillel on your campus. Hillel can be a means to help direct your Jewish interests or non-Jewish interests. It can help you find a connection between your interests and Judaism. Hillel does not need to be the center or “hub” of activity (as in a Hillel building), but rather Hillel staff can help conncet you to other opportunities outside Hillel that would enhance and contribute to your Jewish campus life. Give Hillel a try, you have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain.

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