Meet the Jewish students who are taking on the Jewish establishment

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr
Henry Rosen, Vassar freshman and member of the Jewish Union there
Henry Rosen, Vassar freshman and member of the Jewish Union there

In the last few days I have talked to several young Jews who are part of the historic Open Hillel movement that is determined to break down the doors on the official Jewish conversation about Israel and allow young people to think for themselves. For me the movement is as glorious as other impulses toward social justice from young Jews, including their participation in the 1960s Freedom Rides. But these students are modest.

“Is it a revolution?” I asked Naomi Dann of Vassar. “I wouldn’t call it that yet,” she said. “It’s a call for change.”

Vassar is one of two schools that have now declared themselves Open Hillel’s; they reject Hillel International’s “Israel guidelines” on participation in campus chapters that exclude those who seek to “delegitimize” Israel or who have endorsed boycott of Israel.

Vassar’s Jewish Union voted to go open last week, and released a statement saying that the International’s rules did not represent the “diversity” of young Jews’ views.

Before Vassar, Swarthmore struck in December, and was more emphatic:

“All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.”

Hillel International is paying close attention to the movement, and there are signs that it is trying to make peace with it.

So what is this movement?

Open Hillel began at Harvard a year and a half ago, when the Hillel chapter there was barred from hosting an event featuring “Jewish voices against Occupation,” because a co-sponsor was the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which crosses the firmly-Zionist redlines that Hillel International had adopted in 2010. Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a Harvard student and member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, was shocked by the censorship: the Jews who were going to speak had worked against house demolitions in the West Bank. She resolved to organize against it, inside the Jewish community.

Sandalow-Ash made that resolution because of her own strong Jewish identity. “It’s not like I had a choice about whether I get to be Jewish or not. I went to Jewish day school, and being Jewish is an essential part of who I am.”

The Hillel censorship was so blatant (some chapters were barring the liberal Zionist group J Street from participating) that Sandalow-Ash knew she could win other students to the cause, including non-Jews who participate in Hillel activities. The Hillel policy was sure to shock “people who are not indoctrinated to believe that someone who doesn’t agree with you is a threat to your organization, your community, and your sense of self.”

A small group of organizers began reaching out to Hillel’s around the country. The movement has so far yielded success at smaller institutions because they are less dependent on organizational funding. Vassar, for instance, gets all its funding, including the salary of its one staffer, from the college and the Jewish Union’s own endowment. “There is no direct financial risk from our decision, as far as we know,” says Naomi Dann.

By contrast, the Hillel chapters at Berkeley and Harvard are highly dependent on the Jewish establishment, and moves  to open the chapters have been caught up in bureaucratic wrangling.

“Why has it taken so long? Honestly because of money,” Sandalow-Ash explained to me. “There is financial pressure from multiple levels of the Jewish establishment…. Harvard’s not Swarthmore… We have a large board of trustees. We are funded by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston.”

This surely explains why Berkeley alumni have called on the professional leaders of the Berkeley Hillel, including a rabbi and board chair, to open up that chapter.

The blows by Vassar and Swarthmore have now set up a battle between Hillel International’s professional leadership and students. And there are signs that Hillel International is trying to reposition itself.

When Swarthmore declared itself an Open Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, the head of Hillel International, threatened to disaffiliate the group in a slam-the-door letter saying the Swarthmore “position is not acceptable” and Hillel International was “unwavering” in its support for Israel: “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”

A few weeks later, his letter to Vassar had much nicer manners.

“Dear Naomi,

I have read the release from the Vassar Jewish Union carefully, and I appreciate you following up with an offer to discuss this issue….

I have asked my colleagues at Hillel International to set up a time to meet with you and the Jewish student community on campus.   We look forward to continuing this dialogue so that together we can assure that the needs of all Jewish students at Vassar are met.”

Who are these students?

They’re young Jews who are dedicated to free thinking. When I visited Vassar, Henry Rosen, a freshman, above, told me that the Jewish Union had given him a place to explore his Judaism and his Jewishness, and that he considers himself an anti-Zionist; he does not see a need for a Jewish state. Naomi Dann told me that some of the students who voted to open up the Hillel are Zionists, and some are Israelis. She herself is a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. She recently published an article, opposing the Vassar president’s opposition to the boycott movement and expressing sympathy for the BDS program.

Meantime, Dann helps to lead Shabbat dinners. By email she told me that the Jewish community was hospitable to her values:

I originally joined the VJU first semester of my freshman year because there was an opening for the position of social justice chair and that was what I was interested in doing. I never expected to be involved (especially not to this extent) in Jewish life in college, but found myself in a welcoming Jewish community that became a home to me at Vassar in a number of ways. Jewishness is important to me because of the strong bonds of community that this identity has allowed me to develop. My connection to Judaism is rooted in the experience of community, I consider myself to be a secular, atheist Jew. (I’m definitely on the most secular and left side of the VJU though, not representative of the community as a whole at all).

Dann and Rosen and Sam Basch, a third member of VJU I met, said they were thrilled by their declaration and that it had come about via a thorough democratic process of deliberation in which the overwhelming majority had supported it.

Some students expressed concerns about what their parents would say, but Basch, Rosen and Dann all had their parents behind them.

“My parents have just praised me for taking a stand and doing something,” Basch said. She said her support for the statement came out of a dedication to “inclusivity and against censorship, to creating a pluralistic community… and providing a space for a variety of issues to be discussed.”

Other actions are sure to follow. None of the students I interviewed would say what school is going next, or what speaker the Open Hillels will invite to campus. And though I got hints that a chapter or chapters has voted against going open, Sandalow-Ash declined to answer my question about that.

In weeks to come, expect other small liberal arts colleges to follow Vassar and Swarthmore. And Sandalow-Ash said organizers will carry this battle for openness to other Jewish spaces. To Moishe houses. To the Ramaz School in New York.

She said young Jews’ views of Israel were affected by the failures of Oslo and images of the occupation. And meantime the official Jewish community is enforcing a “right wing” orthodoxy that would never be maintained in other political discussions.

Is this a revolution? I asked her. “I don’t know. That’s a weird question. I think Open Hillel expresses sentiments that have been growing gradually but also strongly among American Jewish students and the American Jewish community generally. We want everyone in the tent.”

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

This post IMO shows what is wrong with the Mondo sensibility. Despite its admirable attention to the “Israel lobby” and cognate issues, like Jewish wealth and influence throughout US political culture, Mondo persuades itself (and tries to persuade us) that “the community” is the key arena of struggle. IMO this is quite wrong, “the community” is and will always be dominated by its wealthy Zionist machers and shakers, and the “struggle within the community” is… Read more »

Apart from the brave, direct taking on of Hillel, I have seen, too, in some recent visits to campuses, that kids involved in Hillel (even its officers sometimes), have developed a great work-around. The very same students have created or joined campus chapters of J-Street and they use that framework for inviting speakers and for organizing programming that Hillel won’t allow. Never mind any issues one might have with J-Street, or any wish that students… Read more »

Recall M J Rosenberg’s encounter last fall with the college student on the bus, who dismissed MJ’s idea that he was obligated to be active on Israel/Palestine “as a Jew”. The student insisted that he was an American whose religion happened to be Judaism, that he had no obligation toward or connection to Israel, and told MJ “you’re still a Zionist.” MJ was totally flummoxed, but the student was exactly right. His words could have… Read more »

“She resolved to organize against it, inside the Jewish community… Ash knew she could win other students to the cause, including non-Jews who participate in Hillel activities.”

So exciting that these Jewish students are finally trying to push the decades long closed doors when it comes to openly discussing, allowing different views to be presented with in the Hillel system on campuses. My only objection is that Phil once again is trying to make it appear that these young students are out on the front lines of this issue as some of the Jews who were involved with Freedom Ride’s. This is… Read more »