Hillel Director Keeps His Job After Being Banned From Birthright For Inappropriate Comments
Two summers ago, a female Purdue University sophomore stopped in at her campus Hillel house for a meeting. The building was empty, save for the student, a friend, and the man they had come to see, 53-year-old Hillel director Phillip Schlossberg.
When she started at Purdue the year before, the student had been eager to be part of Jewish life at the West Lafayette, Indiana university, where Jews make up just a tiny fraction of the 30,000-person student body. During her freshman year, Schlossberg had encouraged her to come and hang out at the Hillel, a squat building near the center of campus.
When she and her friend arrived at the empty building that summer day, Schlossberg showed them a list of Jews set to begin school at Purdue the following semester. As they went through the list together, the student scanning to see if she recognized any names, Schlossberg started commenting on the young women whose names appeared.
“He said things like, ‘Oh I bet she’s really hot,’ or like, ‘This sounds like the name of somebody who’s either really ugly or like a hooker,’” the student said.
The student’s friend told the Forward that he did not specifically recall the incident, though he does remember talking about incoming freshman.
The female student, who asked not to be named, said that it was “beyond uncomfortable.” She went home and showered. “I just felt dirty,” she said. Eventually, she called Hillel’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to report what Schlossberg had said.
Nearly two years later, the student has not been back to the Purdue Hillel. Schlossberg is still running the place. But in the intervening time, Schlossberg has been banned from leading Birthright Israel trips, something he’d done regularly for nearly two decades, after participants on a spring 2017 trip complained that he had made inappropriate comments. Now, amid a nationwide conversation about sexual harassment, the student is wondering why Schlossberg kept his job.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to allow him to be working at Purdue’s Hillel since it’s obviously clear that he shouldn’t be around students, something that Hillel recognized in banning him from leading future Birthright trips,” she wrote in an email to Hillel late last year.
In response to questions about the comments he made at the Hillel and on Birthright, Schlossberg said in a statement to the Forward: “I am very sorry if any comments I have made to students made them feel uncomfortable. I have apologized directly to these students and will be more careful in my use of language in the future.”
In a joint statement about both incidents, Hillel’s headquarters and the board of the local Hillel at Purdue said that Schlossberg had made apologies. “This issue was addressed fully at the time it was raised, appropriate action was taken, and Mr. Schlossberg has issued an apology to students and publicly,” the organizations said.
‘A Goofy Guy’
Schlossberg has worked in Jewish education his entire professional life. Among Jewish students at Purdue, of which Hillel claims there are roughly 500, he is known for a suggestive sense of humor that some say is unusual in a Jewish educator.
“Everyone who knows him knows he’s a goofy guy,” said one Purdue student active at the Hillel. “My other leaders in the Jewish community haven’t had, I guess, the kind of goofy, maybe a little bit more suggestive and inappropriate humor that he has,” the student said. “That, for myself and others, can be a little bit startling.”
That student said that she had never been uncomfortable around him. “Some of my girlfriends are kind of like, eh, he has a weird sense of humor,” the student said.
For other students, his demeanor puts them at ease. “He’s that father figure,” said one freshman active at the Purdue Hillel. “Your dad away from home.”
But two young women told the Forward that his comments had driven them away from the Purdue Hillel.
“He makes a lot of inappropriate jokes,” said one female student. “There was a while I did not want to go in his office by myself. I would take someone with me.”
Schlossberg has worked for Hillel since 1996, and boasts that he has staffed two dozen Birthright trips, including the first ever Birthright trip Hillel operated. Before coming to the Purdue Hillel in 2004, he worked for eight years at the Hillel at the University of Georgia. He maintains a personal website full of pictures of himself smiling for the camera.
‘Discuss Any Issues Or Concerns With Him Directly’
Early in the fall semester of 2016, the student to whom Schlossberg had made comments about freshman women’s names confided in a staff member of another Jewish organization. That staff member suggested that she report the incident to Hillel International.
Campus Hillel staffers like Schlossberg generally work for local not-for-profits, not Hillel’s Washington headquarters. Schlossberg is an employee of the Hillel Foundation at Purdue, an organization whose board includes Andrew Borans, the top executive at AEPi, the national Jewish fraternity. Still, local campus Hillel organizations like the one at Purdue have close ties to the national body.
At first, the student said, the Hillel International staff member she spoke with, Hillel director of strategic human resources Amy Martasin, was kind and sensitive. Then months passed without any follow-up. Eventually, the student got back in touch with Martasin in December of 2016. In emails reviewed by the Forward, Martasin told the student said that she would speak with Schlossberg. A month later, Martasin wrote again to say that Schlossberg had said that students with concerns were welcome to speak with him directly.
“I did not tell him it was you who brought concerns to my attention, but he did say students are always welcome to discuss any issues or concerns with him directly,” Martasin wrote.
The student was upset by the response.
“She really emphasized that, which frustrated me beyond belief because the entire issue is that I’m not comfortable around him,” the student said. “I don’t feel safe and I don’t think they understood that or they cared.”
In their statement, Hillel international and the board of the local Hillel at Purdue said their responses to the incidents at Hillel and Birthright were “consistent with Hillel’s proactive approach to ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for all students. Hillel International is a leader in providing resources and training for Hillel professionals to ensure all students and community members are treated with dignity and respect. We encourage any students with concerns to connect with their local Hillel leadership or Hillel International, as appropriate.”
Martasin referred a request for comment to a Hillel spokesman, who referred back to Hillel’s statement.
The student said that she had not been back to Hillel since. “I kind of try to tell other women to be careful, but also Hillel is the only place on campus really where Jewish life exists, so it’s a fine line between tainting people’s Jewish experience and trying to keep my peers safe,” she said.
‘Shocked He’s Still at Purdue’
Nine months after her interaction with Martasin, the student heard a strange rumor. Word at Purdue was that Schlossberg had said something inappropriate on a Hillel-sponsored Birthright trip, and that he had subsequently been banned from Birthright. The student emailed Martasin to check out the rumor.
“Thank you for reaching out,” Martasin wrote. “I appreciate your concern and will look into this matter further.”
The student didn’t hear from her again. The rumor about Schlossberg being banned from Birthright, however, was true.
Partway through one of Hillel International’s Birthright Israel trips in the spring of 2017, participants got in touch with Hillel to report a problem: Schlossberg, the trip leader, was being inappropriate.
“He was overall inappropriate in almost any way possible,” said one person who was on the trip, who asked not to be named.
At the beginning of the trip, participants came up with a design for a t-shirt to be distributed at the trip’s end, as is Birthright custom. The initial design for the trip’s shirt was a picture of Schlossberg. By the end of the trip, the group decided not to get a shirt at all, the person said, because they didn’t want to have that reminder of Schlossberg.
According to the person who was on the trip, Schlossberg at one point told the entire group to be on their best behavior when a group of Israelis were preparing to join the bus “because these Israelis are sexy and hot and everyone wants to get a good hookup.” Later, once the Israelis had arrived, he said, in front of them: “Didn’t I tell you they were sexy?”
The person also said that Schlossberg used homophobic language, such as: “Don’t be gay about it,” and, “What are you, gay?”
Another person on the bus said that Schlossberg had made a joke about finding a Jewish wife on the trip. “He did not understand where he was and if that would be appropriate,” the person said. The person said that based on his behavior, “it was shocking” to know that Schlossberg worked as a Hillel director.
“I’m shocked he’s still at Purdue,” the first person who was on that trip told the Forward.
Schlossberg did not respond to an inquiry about the specific descriptions of his behavior on the Birthright trip. A Hillel spokesperson said that he disputed some of the details of the allegations, but would not identify which details.
A person with direct knowledge of the situation confirmed to the Forward that Schlossberg had been banned from leading future Birthright trips. Neither Hillel, Schlossberg, or Birthright responded to direct questions about the ban.
“We were contacted by students during the trip and addressed the issue both on the trip and afterwards, as we do whenever a student or other member of our community raises such concerns,” Hillel said in a statement. “Based on this, Hillel International and Birthright Israel took the actions that best protected both our students and professionals.”
For the student who first complained to Hillel, the experience has cast doubt on the organization’s claims to be an advocate against sexual harassment. She said that she didn’t feel like her concerns had been taken seriously.
“They have no accountability,” she said. “It shows that they don’t actually stand for this. It takes a lot more than words to stand up to something like this.”