Communal Coexistence on Campus

By Avraham Infeld

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Did you hear the latest campus calamity? Interdenominational dating. That’s right, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and even unaffiliated Jews are dating one another without regard to their denomination!

This dangerous trend was brought to the public’s attention by a pair of well-meaning graduate students concerned about the assimilation of Orthodox students in secular universities. Hillel, it turns out, is actually facilitating contact among these students. As Captain Louis Renault exclaimed about gambling in the movie “Casablanca,” “I’m shocked! Shocked! Pass the winnings.”

Just to prove that no single stream of Judaism has a monopoly on angst, a prominent atheist on Hillel’s board recently turned to me and said, “All those students at the leadership conference, they know all the Hebrew songs. I want to see the students who don’t know the songs.” In other words, Hillel activists are too Jewish for his taste.

As interim president of Hillel, I find myself the steward of this unique, pluralistic institution in Jewish life. I find that the goodwill that has been extended to me has been extraordinary. Everyone wants me to succeed because they want Hillel to succeed. Just as the proud parent sends his child off to college with dreams of fame and glory, so the Jewish community has embraced Hillel and bids it well.

And just as every parent has distinct ideas of what his child should study and how he should spend his free time, so the Jewish community has its own ideas for Hillel. There are those who want more intensive Jewish content and those who want Hillel to be a social magnet. For some, Hillel is too Zionist; for others, Hillel is too soft on Israel.

Hillel’s uniqueness and its strength are to create Jewish campus communities that appeal to a wide spectrum of college students — those with piercings and those with peyot. During their college years, for a golden moment in time, Jewish students lower their ideological and denominational barriers to experience one another as generic Jews, individuals whose historic journeys began together at Sinai and whose paths have crossed on campus.

Hillel works hard to break down these barriers. Hillel’s engagement program reaches out to students who have little Jewish background and who might not step foot in a Hillel building — in other words, the students who don’t know Hebrew songs.

Hillel offers everything from sushi in the Sukkah, to social justice-oriented spring breaks, to arts programming. At the same time, Hillel provides opportunities for Jewish activists to explore Jewish texts in depth and to develop their skills as Jewish leaders. In multiple ways, Hillel is adding value to the lives of Jewish college students.

The Jewish community can learn from its college students. How many Jewish groups are hobbled by factionalism, even within the same groups? The cliques are familiar: the observant versus the less observant, the synagogue regulars versus the occasional attendees, those with money versus those without. Make your own list.

At the same time, many of us are proud to espouse our commitment to Jewish pluralism and Klal Yisrael. Realistically, how do we put this into practice in our institutions? Does everyone have a seat at the decision-making table? Do we invest resources to reach out actively to every Jew in our community to truly make him or her feel welcome? Do we provide a range of programs and services for a wide spectrum of our community? Hillels do. In this case, the children are leading the parents.

The campus is meant to be a special, almost idyllic place. Hillel strives to model a pluralistic campus community that can be continued beyond the college years. In the process, Hillel may be accused of being all things to all people. So be it. We are single-minded in only one thing: not being single-minded.

Avraham Infeld is interim president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

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