Swarthmore Hillel Gets Boost From Controversy Over Israel Critics

Openness to Debate on Jewish State Lures New Members

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By Hody Nemes

Published December 23, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
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The board’s resolution and Fingerhut’s response were widely reported in the Jewish press and drew loud declarations of praise and condemnation from across the Jewish world.

A petition supporting Swarthmore Hillel has earned more than 1,100 signatures in the last week. But criticism has been fierce. On December 16, John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, said Swarthmore Hillel “will deserve to be spat upon” if it hosts anti-Israel speakers.

Lost in the debate over Swarthmore Hillel’s future is any sense of its existing programming, which, it turns out, is quite minimal. Out of the 1,534 students at Swarthmore 275 are Jewish. There is neither a Hillel building nor a kosher meal plan, and services are only offered on Friday nights and some holidays.

The campus’ modest beit midrash (Jewish library) is run by the university, not Hillel, and Hillel shares prayer space in the interfaith center with other campus religious groups. “It’s not a particularly active campus organization,” said Raphael Ellenson, a Jewish sophomore and member of the Swarthmore chapter of J Street’s campus arm, J Street U.

The core of religiously active students is small, with only about 10 to 15 students attending Shabbat services each week, according to Kipnis-King, who describes herself as a “post-denominational, halachically engaged” Jew. “We don’t have kosher dining facilities, which limits our ability to attract observant students,” she said. A student-run kosher kitchen — also housed at the interfaith center — is used only on Friday nights and Passover.

More notably, Hillel has avoided hosting programs on Israel at all in the past few years.


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