You’s never find 85 percent of all American Jews in any one place on one day — not even in synagogue or temple on Yom Kippur. However, on any given day of the school year, 85 percent of Jewish 18-21-year-olds are on college campuses.
These numbers present a singular opportunity replicated nowhere else in Jewish life, says Avraham Infeld, founder of Melitz, a non-profit that fosters Jewish identity among young people. How to keep these tens of thousands Jewish students inside the big tent of Jewish civilization is the daunting challenge facing Hillel.
No one knows precisely how many Jewish college students there are in the United States. One guesstimate gives a figure of 400,000, and something like 60 percent of American Jewish adults have graduated college compared to roughly 30 percent for the general population. Demographers say that 4 million Americans identify as Jews by religion, and 5.3 to 7 million affiliate as Jewish either by religion or some other criteria.
For the Millennial generation, Judaism is clearly a lifestyle choice. About 58 percent of US Jews already have non-Jewish partners, a figure that some community watchers consider miraculously low given how welcome and comfortable Jews in America feel. Hillel ‒ with a presence at some 550 campuses across America ‒ seeks to influence whether university students will choose to make Judaism part of their future lives.
To address this level of demographic hemorrhaging, it’s plainly not enough to offer already observant college students kosher food and a venue for davening. Such traditional accoutrements don’t factor into the lives of most Jewish young people on campus. Hillel’s task, rather, is to find a way to connect with the unaffiliated by offering them a channel to “do things ‘Jewishly’ with other Jews,” says Infeld. They need to discover that while the Jewish religion with its spirituality and rituals can be stirring, it is just one of several gateways to Jewish civilization, which also encompasses peoplehood, Israel and culture.
But Hillel is not operating in a vacuum.
There is the good-natured competition from Chabad-Lubavitch, the largely messianic Hasidic movement that primarily targets its campus outreach at those from non-Orthodox homes. Hillel, in contrast, is not pushing any one parochial religious stream and, uniquely, it is intrinsically Zionist.
More underhand competition comes from the archly named Open Hillel, which is knavishly assailing Hillel’s core principle of connecting Jewish college students with Israel by presenting itself as an “alternative” to Hillel’s pro-Zionist orientation in the guise of “constructive disagreement” and “pluralism.” Some of Open Hillel’s luminaries are old-time critics of Israel such as Gerald Serotta, a former Hillel staffer who helped found the New Jewish Agenda back in 1980. It also has the support of Peter Beinart, the disarmingly simplistic campaigner against Israeli policies.
Although Open Hillel has made inroads at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, New York, Swarthmore in Pennsylvania and on other campuses, pro-Israel campus observers are divided as to whether it is a spent force or an ongoing nuisance capable of diverting Hillel energies. These observers add that, despite an onslaught of BDS supporters and campaigners trying to demonize Israel, there is not one Hillel that does not comply with the organization’s core principles.
Many of the students drawn to Open Hillel likely believe that it is simply interested in fostering “pluralism” and are probably unaware of its shadowy connections with Jews for Justice for Palestinians ‒ which describes itself as selectively pro-BDS ‒ and with Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the better- oiled pro-Palestinian groups in the US.
Open Hillel also has an overlapping support base drawn from J Street campus activists.
J Street sees its primary mandate as pressuring Israel into pulling back to, more or less, the 1949 Armistice Lines to pave the way for an irenic Palestinian Arab state.
This utopian scenario could appear credible to Millennials who get their views and news from social media that is regurgitated from sources generally unsympathetic to the Israeli narrative.
Delegitimizing Hillel by portraying it as constricting legitimate criticism of Israeli policies is a prime goal of both J Street and anti-Zionist campaigners. But Hillel leaders say they have no problem welcoming students who are critical of Israeli policies.
“If you can say it in the Knesset you should be able to say it at Hillel,” a former Hillel official tells The Jerusalem Report. From a purely practical perspective, Hillel knows that it has to be open to Jews of different bents. The picture, though, seems to becoming increasingly murky. While the previous generation of Israel critics sought to redefine what it meant to be “pro-Israel,” not a few of Hillel’s current critics are seeking to garble what it means to be Jewish. Going beyond criticism of this or that particular policy of an Israeli government, their objective is not just to make anti-Israelism “kosher” but to define it as an affirmative Jewish value.
In November, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry announced a $22 million Mosaic United grant to strengthen Jewish identity on campus. The money is to be divided among Hillel and two Orthodox groups, Chabad and Olami.
Open Hillel latched onto the fact that the ministry is overseen by Naftali Bennett of the national-religious Bayit Yehudi.
It charged that his political views and his stance on same-sex marriage were discordant with Hillel’s mission. “Hillel cannot serve students of all backgrounds if it takes millions of dollars from an initiative that disrespects students’ families,” the group said in its statement.
IN FACT, Bennett’s position is more nuanced than that. He says he supports civil rights for gay couples though not marriage.
He argues that Orthodox Jewish law ought not to be a divisive tool “to mark people and communities.” He further maintains that “you cannot call an entire community derogatory names and hide behind Jewish law” and that, prohibitions notwithstanding, “we do not remove from our midst everyone who fails to uphold a commandment in the Torah. That is not our way.”
Open Hillel’s criticism of the grant is disingenuous, says Bob Horenstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. “The reason given to reject the grant ‒ that Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party has political views at odds with Hillel’s mission ‒ speaks to the hypocrisy of Open Hillel, which supports giving a voice to the anti-Israel, pro-BDS group Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP). If any group has views or positions at odds with Hillel’s mission, it is JVP.”
To be sure, Hillel does have a mission.
The group’s story began in 1923, the year Calvin Coolidge assumed the US presidency following Warren Harding’s death and the year the British Mandate for Palestine formally came into effect. The impetus for Hillel, paradoxically, came from a Christian English professor named Edward Chauncey Baldwin who was teaching a literature course on the English poet John Milton (1608-1674), whose imagery was heavily influenced by the Hebrew Bible.
It struck Baldwin that his Jewish students didn’t know enough about their own heritage.
He raised the matter with a fellow academic, Simon Litman, and with Chicago businessman Isaac Kuhn, who had already been engaged in helping the students. Baldwin posited that since there were Christian groups on campus ministering to Catholic and Methodists, why not also a Jewish “ministry?” With Kuhn’s financial support and seed money from the Chicago Board of Rabbis, there was sufficient funding to hire Rabbi Benjamin Frankel (1897-1927), beginning in the 1923 fall semester, to head the “ministry” at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. It was Frankel who named the mission after the Second Temple period sage Hillel. Though he was an ordained Reform rabbi, his religious model for Hillel was that it be pluralistic.
And so, for the first time, Jews on campus had a place to call their own where they could socialize, pray and have access to kosher food. Frankel is remembered as an empathetic and charismatic figure who sought to bring the students closer to Judaism.
It was Frankel who, in 1925, persuaded Adolph Kraus of the B’nai B’rith fraternal organization to take on financial responsibility for Hillel, thus making possible the establishment of a second Hillel branch at the University of Wisconsin. In making his pitch to B’nai B’rith, Frankel said that the typical Jewish undergraduate was only “passively Jewish” and “not sure of his Jewish learning.” Confronted by anti-Semitism, “he ducks his head in the sand like an ostrich and thinks he has solved the problem.” Frankel continued, “When a student affiliates with Hillel, he, in effect, declares, ‘I am a Jew,’ and this declaration, when he makes a name for himself on the campus, receives the respect of the campus for all Jewish students.” Tragically, Frankel contracted endocarditis (an infection of the inner lining of the heart) during a trip to Mandatory Palestine and died from heart disease at age 30.
B’nai B’rith tapped Frankel’s friend Abram Sachar, a historian at the University of Illinois, to take the helm of B’nai B’rith Hillel.
In the two decades that followed, Sachar worked tirelessly to establish Hillel branches across America. In 1947, Sachar left Hillel and the following year he was appointed the first president of Brandeis University.
For the next 80 years or so, B’nai B’rith Hillel hired only rabbis to direct its campus branches. Like B’nai B’rith itself, Hillel continued to embrace a big tent approach to Judaism. There didn’t need to be a whole lot of navel-gazing about what it meant to be Jewish. So many Jewish students were the children and grandchildren of immigrants and carried with them an organic Jewish identity. And, thanks to B’nai B’rith, whose fraternal lodges raised the money, by the 1960s Hillel had a presence at hundreds of campuses in the United States and overseas. Jewish federations also began to sponsor local Hillel branches.
THE 1960s saw dramatic sociocultural and political change in America and in the Jewish community, where young people were caught up in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Jewish professionals were less and less inclined to spend their leisure time at fraternal lodges. This gradual societal transformation ultimately necessitated budget cuts at B’nai B’rith which, in turn, limited what Hillel could accomplish.
Hillel was still getting money from B’nai B’rith and the federations, but it was never enough and neither funder felt like a genuine stakeholder. By 1983, Hillel rabbis were picketing B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington demanding salary hikes. However, the parent group simply didn’t have the resources. By the mid-1990s, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Youth was established as a freestanding Hillel institution.
It joined two other B’nai B’rith-founded agencies, the Anti-Defamation League and the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which also had recently spun off to make their own financial way.
By now, communal leaders were growing ever more concerned about the Jewish demographic picture and most of them understood that Hillel was on the frontlines of the Jewish continuity struggle. A turning point in Hillel’s fortunes came in 1988, when B’nai B’rith president Seymour Reich tapped a 37-year-old attorney named Richard Joel to take over Hillel.
A modern Orthodox layman, Joel was an out-of-the-box choice. In the course of his 14-year tenure, Joel reformed and restructured Hillel, creating an organization positioned to thrive in the 21st century. When he was done, Hillel was independent; its operations more professional and effective.
Policy-wise, campus Hillel directors no longer had to be ordained rabbis and student membership fees were discontinued.
Joel instilled confidence in donors and created a steady stream of philanthropic, federation and foundation funding. There was also, around 1990, important backing from the Council of Jewish Federations, an umbrella organization that, besides trying to create a coherent communal approach toward Hillel, also provided its own cash infusion.
A variety of openhanded donors also stepped in to save the day ‒ including big names such as Lynn Schusterman, Edgar Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Moreover, Joel created new ongoing mechanisms for fundraising to broaden future sources of support.
His achievements at Hillel helped lead to Joel’s 2003 appointment as president of Yeshiva University.
Today, from its headquarters in Washington, DC, Hillel president Eric Fingerhut ‒ a former Democratic congressman from Ohio ‒ oversees a budget of more than $60 million, and branches at every major North American university with substantial Jewish student populations and overseas in 17 countries including Israel, the former Soviet Union, Britain, Australia, France and South America.
A 2016 survey found that 80 percent of Jewish students in the US and former Soviet Union participated in at least one Hillel activity a year. While only 18% of Jewish college students took part in four, five or more events a year, the greater the involvement the more lasting the impact. Put another way, the benefit of six or more engagements with Hillel is about the same as a Birthright trip to Israel.
“We know that the more interactions students have with Hillel programs, professionals and peer leaders, the more they grow as Jews,” Matthew Berger, a spokesperson for Hillel International, tells The Report.
Local Federations provide about 25 percent of Hillel’s ongoing funding.
But, in December 2016, Hillel’s capacity to reach more Jewish students was dramatically bolstered thanks to a $38m. grant from the Marcus Foundation, which was established by Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus and his wife, Billi. Other gifts have also poured in ‒ from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Maimonides Fund, for example.
THE MARCUS Foundation money is described as the largest single gift in Hillel’s history. Much of it will go to organization- building, not specific programs. So, for example, Hillel Talent Grants will be earmarked for recruiting, training and retaining ‒ in other words offering raises to ‒ 500 staffers a year. Other money will go for IT infrastructure, presumably including social media.
Hillel has made finding, training and keeping talent its top priority as it seeks to strengthen Hillels across the country and around the world, says Berger.
Infeld who, besides his role at Melitz, served as international president of Hillel from 2003-2006, says the heavy investment in professional development is justified because it takes a very special kind of expertise to be a Hillel director: the person has to be a fundraiser, manager, inspiring role model, educator, supervisor and “Jewishly” fluent.
Hillel directors also need to be sensitive to contending Jewish political currents.
Besides taking criticism from groups on the Left such as Open Hillel, the movement also faced opposition from the Jewish Right after Fingerhut promised to “watch out for our Muslim brothers and sisters on campus” ‒ an allusion to concerns that President Donald Trump’s policies would infringe on Muslim civil liberties. Daniel Greenfield of the conservative Freedom Center wrote in Frontpage magazine that such a threat was “imaginary” and that Hillel had been partnering with left-leaning apologists for Islamic extremism.
Denouncing Hillel as a “tragedy and a disgrace,” Greenfield took the University of Texas Austin’s Hillel chapter to task for cancelling a talk by a hawkish speaker from Israel even as Brandeis Hillel welcomed a dovish speaker for a Shabbat program.
Berger says that Fingerhut’s offer to Muslim students emanates from “Hillel’s commitment to standing with student communities who feel marginalized on campus” and “our deeply held belief that campuses should be safe environments for all students to live and learn with confidence.” After Trump issued his executive order on refugees, Hillel announced that it was working with university administrators to “protect” all students who might be affected.
Hillel’s efforts to bring students closer to Israel, as the core of Jewish peoplehood and civilization, have been complicated by the dismissive policies of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward the non-Orthodox streams.
Trying to distinguish “brand Israel” from the “Netanyahu packaging” can leave Hillel in a quandary. “How does Israel remain the national home of the entire Jewish people when its official theology ‒ Orthodoxy ‒ goes against the natural inclination of the majority of Diaspora Jews,” a professional Israel-based Diaspora observer lamented.
“The onus is on Israel, not on American Jewish students.”
For example, at their joint February 15, 2017 news conference – just a couple of days before Trump eerily silenced an Orthodox reporter for seeking his reaction to the spike in anti-Semitic events in the US since the election – Netanyahu absolved the president and “his people” of even a hint of bias. Likewise, Netanyahu’s January 28, 2017 tweet supporting White House plans to build a wall on the Mexican border was seen as out of step with the sentiments of huge swaths of the US Jewish community.
Regardless of such self-inflicted wounds by the Netanyahu government, Berger makes the point that connecting students with Israel goes beyond politics and is most effective when Hillel can help students understand Israel’s many facets. For example, in order “to help students understand the true face of Israeli diversity,” Hillel hosts dozens of Jewish Agency Israel Fellows (shlihim) around the United States.
All the while, though, Hillel and the Israel Fellows must contend with campus anti-Israelism. From San Francisco State University and the University of Minnesota to Columbia University and Cornell University, Jewish students who care about Israel sometimes feel besieged.
Last year, Hillel vigorously protested an anti-Zionist, student-led, one-credit course at the University of California, Berkeley, that was tendentiously named “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry.” In May, anti- Israel demonstrators disrupted an Israeli film being screened at Hillel on the University of California, Irvine campus. The onslaught can feel relentless: Israel Apartheid Week, interminable BDS resolutions and malicious articles in student media ‒ accompanied by stunts like mock “apartheid walls” and “checkpoints.”
The line between loathing the Jewish state and despising Jewish people can sometimes get blurred. At Brown University last March, BDS campaigners petitioned against a lecture on transgender rights by activist Janet Mock because the talk was sponsored by Hillel. In 2015, the ADL reported 90 anti-Semitic incidents at US colleges and universities ‒ nearly double the 2014 number.
Hillel officials say the organization strives to create a safe space on campus for Jewish students and doesn’t shy away from confronting anti-Semitism.
It is in this sometimes nasty environment that Hillel’s mission to strengthen Jewish identity and foster connections with Israel plays out. Some 65 years after its founding, Hillel’s challenge today is to nurture Jewishly rich campus communities that will inspire their graduates to choose to be part of Jewish civilization for the rest of their lives.
The stakes have never been higher.