The Real Scandal of Open Hillel

Go ahead, Mr. Fingerhut, push the button. | CC via Wikipedia Commons

In the fall of 2011, Yeshiva University demanded that The Beacon, a student-run publication, remove a ‘scandalous’ story about premarital sex from its website. The student editors fought back, but the administrators threatened them with sanctions if they did not comply with the Orthodox university’s perceptions of modesty. Ultimately, the editors decided to sever ties with YU rather than restrict student voices. These students recognized that premarital sex, even in the Orthodox community, was a fact of life. And, in their view, the real scandal in this case was not that the Beacon had published the piece in question, but that the university hoped to censor its own students and exclude them from the community if they expressed views or made choices contrary to the community’s mainstream ideology.

In December 2012, an old family friend, Aryeh Younger, told me this story over the phone. I was a sophomore at Harvard and chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance; he was a junior at YU and the editor-in-chief of the now-independent Beacon. Our fathers had studied together at the Gush Yeshiva in a West Bank settlement in the 1980’s, and they had kept in touch ever since despite their increasingly divergent religious and political beliefs. When Aryeh called me, the Progressive Jewish Alliance had just been barred from co-sponsoring an event with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee in Hillel. In response, we founded the Open Hillel campaign to eliminate Hillel International’s exclusionary Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities and promote pluralism and open dialogue in Jewish campus communities. When Aryeh told me he was interested in Open Hillel, I was surprised; I would hardly have expected a kid from a right-wing Zionist family to object to Hillel’s Israel policies. But Aryeh said that he saw great similarities between Hillel’s Standards and Yeshiva University’s directives; both served to restrict discussion on issues of great importance and to expel members of the Jewish community. I gladly welcomed Aryeh to the team.

For two years, Jewish college students built the Open Hillel movement this way—conversation by conversation, radiating out from a small group at Harvard to spread across the country. Jewish students at large state schools and small liberal arts colleges, from all sorts of backgrounds and with a wide range of political views, have been drawn to the campaign. Some among us (myself included) are active in our Hillels; yet we are dismayed that Hillel’s policies have pushed away our friends, favored the interests of donors over those of students, and restricted discussion on vital and complex issues. Others among us have already been branded with a scarlet letter and pushed out of organized Jewish life; they see in this campaign a chance to reclaim their seat at the Jewish communal table.

At a moment when comprehensive, reputable studies show that young Jews are detaching from Judaism and Jewish communal institutions, the students who are advocating for change on campuses around the country have shown that we care. We care about the situation in Israel and Palestine enough to want—indeed, to demand—rigorous, nuanced, multifaceted discussion and debate, rather than prepackaged and oversimplified narratives. And we care about the American Jewish community possibly even more. We care enough that we are deeply saddened to see our American Jewish institutions fail to engage young Jews; neglect to provide a space for Jews of different opinions and beliefs to come together and talk to one another; and shut too many people out. We care enough to spend too many hours each week for months or years on end fighting for the future of the American Jewish community.

Yet as we have gained power and momentum in recent months, Hillel International’s leaders have not only refused to recognize that the students involved in Open Hillel are deeply committed to Hillel and to American Jewry; they have attempted to portray us as traitors. In his speech to the Hillel Global Assembly, Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut compared the students and young alumni involved in Open Hillel to Korach, the Biblical rebel who whom God punishes by death for daring to challenge Moshe. Fingerhut claimed that like Korach, Open Hillel hides our “true motives…to have another platform for anti-Israel agitation.” Behind Fingerhut’s blatant lie is a troubling truth: that it is far easier to insult those who challenge authority, to paint us as ‘scandalous,’ than it is to take our critiques seriously.

As was the case at Yeshiva University, the real scandal here is not that students want to talk about controversial issues in the Jewish community. The real scandal is that Hillel silences these conversations and asks students to leave our political and intellectual selves behind when we enter Jewish spaces. When Eric Fingerhut meets with right-wing Israeli Knesset members but declines invitations to the Open Hillel conference and the J Street U Town Hall; when the Hillel Global Assembly excludes students but features sessions on topics such as how to “aducate” for Israel in Hillel; and when Hillel encourages its students to “report” protests of Israeli policies as anti-Semitism, it becomes clear that Hillel places its commitment to its (and its donors’) narrow vision of what it means to support Israel ahead of its commitment to serving Jewish college students.

Thus, the real scandal is that Hillel’s leaders refuse to view the exclusion of Jewish students from the Jewish community on campus (and the pain that this exclusion causes) as a serious concern. The real scandal is that Hillel paints its own students as malicious adversaries, rather than young people searching for a Jewish community where we can wrestle with difficult questions, engage honestly and openly with our peers, and feel welcome despite our differences. The real scandal is that Jewish students are knocking on the door, but Hillel will not open it.


Rachel Sandalow-Ash is a student at Harvard University and a co-Founder of Open Hillel.  

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