How Hillel Breaks Down Barriers On Campus

In college, it was considered by the broad range of students who attended our campus Hillel entirely normal and comfortable to share a Jewish communal space amongst Jews of every level of observance and religious orientation – secular and religious, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, searching and settled Jews, affiliated and unaffiliated, Jews whatever their background.

We took this for granted and it contributed to a vital Jewish life on campus.

Many of us, probably most, perceived ourselves as members of a large and diverse Jewish community, more than as members exclusively of a particular stream of Jewish religious belief and practice.

There were smaller Jewish religious and cultural communities within the overarching one to which we belonged, but our address for Jewish life was a shared one and that intrinsically contributed to a sense of common Jewish identity, mutual responsibility and shared destiny.

The diversity inherent in Hillel also created a shift in the college years in our identity and our patterns of Jewish socialization and interaction. If prior to college we primarily affiliated with synagogues, schools, camps, and youth movements associated with one particular denomination, in college our Jewish lives were far more integrated and defined by interactive and dynamic diversity.

There were many areas of common practice at Hillel; chesed (good deeds such as volunteering), tzedakah (charity), education, and celebrations such as Shabbat and Yom Tov dinners that brought the entire Jewish community together (along with many non-Jewish friends) as well as visiting speakers and cultural performers that attracted interest and attendance from across the religious spectrum of the community and outside the Jewish community as well.

The pluralism embedded in the DNA of Hillel campus centers for Jewish life is unusual in the Jewish community and exceptional in the healthiest and best possible way. It is vigorous, natural and unself-conscious; its genuineness makes it almost unremarkable because it is simply how Jewish life is structured on college campuses and has been for decades.

It feels organic and it is organic.

The Hillel model of Jewish life is in many ways an ideal one which should be replicated outside of college campuses and serve as a model for Jewish communal life - not just for college students but across the lifespan.

It exemplifies the values and spirit of Klal Yisrael and it nurtures and sustains these values while respecting particularity and difference and simultaneously enabling inclusion and unity.

This balance is unique and rarely achieved in non-college campus based Jewish communal settings.

Recently, I had the tremendous good fortune of becoming a member of the Oxford Jewish Community’s synagogue in Oxford, England (OJC) which in many ways reflects the pluralism of an American college campus Hillel.

Pluralism is a pillar of the OJC and it is foundational to what makes the community thrive and enables its diversity to contribute to many expressions of Jewish life.

At the Oxford Jewish Community, Orthodox, Conservative/Masorti, and Reform/Liberal services are held under one roof and all form part of one overarching, united Jewish community.

But the community is larger than the sum of its parts, exponentially so.

The opportunities for dialogue and respectful debate across these boundaries of difference are myriad, but there are also settled routines of respect and mutual accommodation. Shabbat and Yom Tov are always observed in accordance with Orthodox practice on shul grounds, as is kashrut. Compromises are necessary by all members of the community but differences are reconciled to enable a shared space and community where all can participate and be welcomed, whatever their Jewish religious practices and convictions.

The OJC is unique because it is lay-led and its membership is distinctive for its extraordinary warmth and hospitality. Pluralism is one factor in this, I believe a primary factor.

There are other factors as well, the community is large enough to sustain very active programs but not too large to reduce a sense of intimacy and heimishness. There is a high level of commitment by its members to programming and communal support services, and the individuals and families who form its membership are distinctly open and welcoming. They graciously receive a steady stream of visitors of weeks, months, and even years at a time – many of whom are visiting scholars and researchers at the university.

The OJC is a culturally vibrant community with substantial artistic and creative programs. Concern for social justice and tzedakah animates the community and extends well beyond the community itself to embrace British society and global moral obligations to the disadvantaged and vulnerable.

From programs of support for refugees in Britain - to Israel advocacy and fundraising for social service organizations in Israel - to interfaith programs with the local Christian, Muslim, Bahai, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, conscience and conscientiousness of spirit and communal practice define the OJC.

The pluralism that defines OJC’s character and membership contributes substantively to mutual respect and openness which facilitate the generosity and hachnasat orchim which made my experience there so exceptional.

This pluralism engenders and sustains humility, tolerance, and a lived practice of Buber’s I-Thou principles and relationships grounded in mutual respect and caring that enable darchei shalom.

Congregational religious Jewish life in America will not easily be restructured along the type of pluralistic lines so prevalent across college campuses at Hillels and at the OJC.

Nor does it have to be.

But undoubtedly, if there was an intentional effort to create such communities American Jews would benefit from an increase in mutual understanding, communication, and communal vitality.

Part of what makes OJC so energizing is, like at Hillel centers, the kinds of conversations and encounters that can only take place in a community with such diverse membership. Many are spontaneous and unpredictable, and these are amongst the greatest pleasures of membership in the OJC.

For pluralism to be deep and push the boundaries of meaning it must include the Orthodox who are willing and interested.

Open Orthodoxy is perhaps uniquely suited for creating and participating in multidenominational and trans-denominational pluralistic Jewish communities, but within modern Orthodoxy more broadly there are many individuals and communities as well who don’t necessarily identify with Open Orthodoxy but who would be interested in embracing pluralism that respects their Orthodoxy while enabling greater interdenominational interaction and Jewish communal life.

At college Hillels, Orthodox Jews from a wide spectrum within Orthodoxy are generally able to find a place for themselves in dining halls that serve strictly kosher food, in their own religious services, and in the contributions they make to Jewish communal and cultural life and their participation in them that cross beyond the boundaries of their religious practice and identities.

Pluralism is not utopia. It can be difficult and it can also be prosaic. The OJC is currently negotiating a way for the Liberal/Reform services to be timed to end at the same time as the Orthodox ones so that everyone can have Kiddush together without one community waiting for another.

This is a small matter but it is also a significant one; the fact that these diverse communities pray and celebrate Shabbat and chagim in their distinctive ways and then come together as a community for Kiddush and social interaction is more consequential than it may seem. It ensures social cohesion and integration across the different communities of religious practice.

From the prosaic emerges the transcendent.

And a good Kiddush is at the heart of any shul’s soul.

The pluralism of Hillel is a radically underapplied principle and practice that should extend far beyond the college years for those who want to build Jewish communities that simultaneously savor and transcend difference.

Hundreds of thousands of American Jews who participated in Jewish life at college Hillels know the secret to creating Jewish communities that are diverse, unified, and dynamic in no small part as a result of the deep pluralism inherent in their membership, structure, functioning, values and spirit.

The secret is something most of us have experienced and it is an open one which we can and should embrace beyond college, with real investment, and in partnership across boundaries of faith, observance, and belief.

Let us make the pluralistic model of Hillels and the Oxford Jewish Congregation available to Jews across the spectrum of their lives in Jewish communities across America, building multidenominational centers for Jewish life.

It will enrich and sustain our lives as individuals, as communities, and as part of a Klal Yisrael that is vital, in dialogue, in debate, in learning, in celebration, and in shared pursuit of a living and dynamic Judaism in which there is a place for everyone at the table in their – in our - difference and particularity, shared heritage, values, aspirations and common, many branched future.

Noam Schimmel is a human rights researcher and advocate. He is a graduate of Yale University.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

How Hillel Breaks Down Barriers On Campus

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