The (Hillel) Kids Are Alright

Ohio U. Director Says Don't Believe the Anti-Israel Hype

Happy Faces: Hillel students from Ohio University.
Ohio University Hillel
Happy Faces: Hillel students from Ohio University.

By Danielle Leshaw

Published January 20, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
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The Jewish world seems worried about Hillel. “Are you okay?” people keep asking me.

Our phones at Ohio University Hillel are ringing with those calling to hear the “real” story, or to leave long-winded diatribes on our voicemail. Reporters ask if we’ll answer a few questions (no thanks).

Hillel has been in The New York Times, The New Republic and every Jewish news outlet on the planet: Everybody wants to know how we feel about Swarthmore’s Hillel chapter deciding to open itself up to anti-Zionists, against the policy of national Hillel.

Well, I’m here to let everybody know: We’re all just fine. Based on the media coverage, some might think that anti-Zionists are banging down our doors to co-sponsor events and pay for their speakers to visit campus. As if all the Jewish students all across the country were eager to have people come to Hillel to denounce the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

It doesn’t actually work that way. In fact, most campuses have natural boundaries where students find groups based on their interests and identities. Occasionally they come together for larger group experiences, but most of the time, everybody is in his or her own sandbox.

And when the students want to challenge those boundaries — well, that’s when the rabbis and directors that you’ve hired to guide them earn their pay, in thoughtful conversations and meaningful dialogue about what’s best for Israel.

In fact, many of us out in the “field” are doing really well negotiating these issues, campus by campus. Our budgets are healthy, and our students even healthier. The Sabbath happens, alongside all sorts of amazing things like life-saving bone marrow drives and Torah study and Alternative Break excursions to communities in need. Taglit-Birthright trips are returning with students now enamored of Israel. We march on with the planning of spring semester events and the task of figuring out how to engage the 400,000 American Jewish students on our college campuses.

But you wouldn’t know it based on all the media.

So how do we tell the other stories? The success stories? The stories where we convince assimilated Jewish students to fall in love with being Jewish? The stories where we counsel students after the death of a sibling? The stories where we have a victory with administrators who are finally going to let our students light Sabbath candles in their residence halls? These are the small stories — the small miracles, where every student matters, and joining them on their journey is the greatest gift we can give and receive.

That being said, it’s impossible to ignore the ripples of what happened at Swarthmore. The national policies of our movement clearly, at this point, need to be considered a work-in-progress rather than a fixed set of guidelines. Our students are back on campus and eager to explore this controversy. Many of us are ready to host conversations about Israel that otherwise wouldn’t happen. We’ve printed out Hillel’s Israel guidelines, and for the first time, we’re asking students what they think.

If a national policy is going to affect each and every local Hillel, no matter how large or small, then we all bear responsibility for reckoning with its implications. And one of those responsibilities is to find a way, within this evolving discussion, to make sure that the culture of each campus is honored and that the students have a say in what is, ultimately, a student-centered space.

Turning challenging moments like this into unique opportunities for growth and change is what good field staffers do best. And we’ll see what our students and board members have to say, based on this little bit of Oral Torah that the Swarthmore students drafted. They did, after all, create a remarkable document that reflects their generation’s deep yearning not only to open the conversation, but also to affect the ways in which the American Jewish community thinks and acts regarding Israel. We have to admire that. And even if their message is frightening, we must take their words and consider whether they should be part of the larger canon that we study and teach.

We can and will get this right, but you have to remember: We want what is best for our students, and we want what is best for Israel. Aligning those two ideas and the heartfelt emotions that go with them isn’t always easy, so do us a favor and cut us some slack while we work it out.

Danielle Leshaw is the executive director of Ohio University Hillel.

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