The decline of America’s independent Jewish student movement has entered its terminal stages. What was once a politically diverse coalition of student-run publications and activist groups has now been reduced to a few scattered vestiges, and the overarching ideal by which the student-run organizations were bound — the notion that the Jewish student has the right and the duty to act as antagonist to the Jewish establishment — is disappearing with them.
Student groups are inherently impermanent. Their birth and death is part of a natural cycle, renewed every four or five years with the turnover of the student population. And yet when an 83-year-old student organization like the World Union of Jewish Students announces that it has fired its entire staff, moved out of its offices and sold its office furniture — as happened this past June — it is clear that larger forces are at work.
The troubles at the Jewish student union represent a final stage in a 13-year process by which Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has essentially become the sole worldwide provider of Jewish campus programming.
In 1994 the Jewish community turned its back on the student-initiated model in favor of the professionally administered one advocated by Hillel. Independent student activists, who relied on funding from the Jewish federations, were forced to incorporate themselves into the Hillel framework.
Of the scores of independent Jewish student organizations in the United States at the movement’s peak during the 1970s, today only the Jewish Student Press Service survives as a student-run organization. The result has been a generation of Jewish students limited in both imagination and opportunity, a generation for whom Hillel is the only option. Without strong independent student voices, the vital tradition of the antagonistic Jewish student has gone missing from contemporary Jewish dialogue.
It wasn’t always like this. In 1969, the course of American Jewish organizational life was irrevocably altered when a group of hundreds of students affiliated with the independent student movement descended upon the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.
At the time, the federations were vehicles of assimilation that primarily funded hospitals and social services. To the Jewish students of the 1960s, veterans of the New Left whose identities had been shaped by the Six-Day War and the Black Panthers, such an attitude was hopelessly out of touch. They wanted to reshape the federations to fit their needs, and advocated increased spending on Jewish education and Jewish culture as part of an effort to build Jewish identity.
Delegates to the General Assembly were cornered and lectured. There was talk of sit-ins and protests. In order to regain control of the proceedings, the organizers made concessions, and the students were offered a chance to put forth a speaker. They chose Rabbi Hillel Levine, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University and a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“We don’t want commissions to ‘explore the problems of youth,’” Levine railed. “We do want to convert alienation into participation, acrimony into joy — the joy of being the possessors of a great legacy — a legacy which has meaning for today.”
The protests were a success, and the Council of Jewish Federations formed a funding body to help address the students’ concerns.
In the years that followed, the North American Jewish Students Network, an affiliate of the World Union of Jewish Students that had been founded a few months before the General Assembly as a means of organizing for the protests, continued to be at the forefront of issues that the mainstream organizations could not approach. Between 1970 and 1976, the network hosted a groundbreaking conference on alternatives in Jewish education, oversaw the launch of the Jewish Feminist Organization and founded the Jewish Student Press Service.
These organizations served as a training ground for a generation of American Jewish leaders. The independent student movement produced, among other prominent alumni, John Ruskay and Rabbi Michael Paley, respectively the CEO and a scholar in residence at the UJA-Federation of New York; Shifra Bronznick, the founding president of Advancing Women Professionals; Peter Geffen, the founder of the Heschel School in New York; and J.J. Goldberg, the editorial director of this newspaper.
But just as these luminaries reached the height of their careers at mainstream communal organizations, a death sentence was levied against the student movement that brought them to prominence. That sentence was handed down following the publication of the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, which famously found that 52% of American Jews married since 1986 had intermarried.
With communal concerns about continuity at an all-time high, Richard Joel, selected in 1988 to revive the moribund Hillel system, was able to convince the Council of Jewish Federations to name his organization as “the central federation agency through which campus services are provided.” In short order, he was able to turn a financially troubled smattering of local houses into the institutional behemoth that it is today.
It would be foolish to argue that Hillel has not been enormously successful. Still, without denying the value of the often-innovative work of Hillel’s campus professionals, Hillel’s international leadership needs to be told the organization cannot be everything to everyone.
At home and abroad, the damage to the old guard of Jewish student-run groups is for the most part already done. Today our task is to show those Jewish student activists who do not identify with Hillel that there is a strong historical precedent that legitimizes their discontent, and that there is a long-established role for them within the Jewish community.
Hillel must step aside, and the institutional world must begin to treat Jewish students like the adults that they are. A generation of student-led initiatives fell victim to Hillel’s paternalism. Let’s not make that mistake again.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is the editor of New Voices, the publication of the Jewish Student Press Service.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.