Jewish campus organizations offer students support after UCLA murder-suicide causes campus lockdown


In the wake of an apparent murder-suicide that claimed two lives on Wednesday at UCLA, the UCLA Jewish campus organization Hillel at UCLA is offering counseling to UCLA students in need of assistance.

“[We will] find out where students are at,” Hillel at UCLA Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lerner said in an interview at his office Wednesday. “I don’t want to put anything on them and say they must be traumatized, but there’s also the possibility this brings out real stuff, real trauma.”

Hillel, which serves approximately 1,500 students on campus, went into lockdown in response to the incident, as did all of the buildings on the sprawling West Los Angeles campus.

“Our job is to be there for them,” Lerner said of the students served by Hillel.

The shooting occurred at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Boelter Hall. The shooter and one victim died in the incident, according to the UCLA newsroom’s webpage.

Chabad of UCLA is also making itself available to students in need of support.

“Just please know that we are here for you and whatever emotional, mental, or spiritual needs you may have, whether it may be counseling, discussing the event, venting, praying or just being together and hearing the words of encouragement,” a statement at chabaducla.com reads.

IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous was participating in a meeting at Hillel at UCLA at the time of the incident. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, she denounced the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

“There’s really no place we’re safe from gun violence in this country,” Brous said.

Life at the UCLA campus appeared to return to normal by around 12:45 p.m. Students were walking on campus, discussing the day’s events and boarding buses at the intersection of Hilgard and Westholme avenues, across the street from the Hillel at UCLA campus and more.

Jen Pierre, graduate student, was among those walking on campus after the conclusion of the lockdown.

“We heard an active shooter was at the engineering building; we went into lockdown,” Pierre said. “I’m thankful I’m still alive,” Damien, a musicology student who asked to go by his first name only, told the Journal outside of the university’s law school building.

Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) was among local elected officials to respond to today’s tragedy.

“My thoughts and prayers – and those of my entire staff – are with those affected by today’s tragic events at UCLA,” Lieu said in a statement. “My office stands ready to assist in any way.”

A new vision for our emerging talent


Shortly after graduating college, I joined a cohort of like-minded, passionate new graduates to be emissaries and implementers of what was, at the time, a radical idea in Jewish life: getting outside of our buildings to create deeply connected relationships with those on the periphery of the Jewish community.  Whether tabling while dressed as potato latkes, or running Hookah in the Sukkah events, my fellow Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps (JCSC) colleagues and I joined Hillel to become living embodiments of this new way of working in the Jewish world.  The program masterfully created young influencers that grew into many of today’s Jewish leaders. The notion of relationship-based engagement has now become the way we do our work at Hillel and throughout the Jewish community.  What once was innovative has thankfully now become the standard practice for most Jewish organizations.

JCSC was a powerful program that creatively and effectively addressed a critical problem facing the Jewish community at the time. Today, we face hurdles of a different nature, and we need to think creatively about what we can do to overcome them. Now that we’ve become better at building deep relationships with these Jews where they’re at, we need to keep thinking creatively about how we build our communities in new ways that will be compelling and give people a reason to join us beyond these initial engagement relationships. Since the time of the JCSC fellowship, many emerging Jewish organizations have taken on efforts to bring innovation and design into our sector. Still, in some respects our communities still lag far behind the thinking and practices of the day. For example, too many Jewish organizations have not built the digital infrastructure and fostered the online communities they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Hillel International is making a bet through our new Springboard Fellowship. We think that we can again bring new ideas to our whole community, and use those new ideas in our special place on college campuses to attract and train the Talent pipeline our sector so desperately needs.  At the same time we can utilize the best practices in Jewish education to make them competent and committed Jewish communal professionals.

If we are to build sustainable and dynamic communities, we must educate and train highly qualified talent who are committed to our community and ready to serve.

Through the Springboard Fellowship we’re piloting this year, Hillel International hopes to eventually place hundreds of recent college graduates at local Hillels, training them as cohorts each year with rich Jewish knowledge and the latest, most highly-valued, widely applicable organizational skills. This year we’re beginning with a pilot program at 20 local Hillels, including Hillel 818 in Los Angeles, Beach Hillel in Long Beach and UC San Diego Hillel.

We believe these particular specialty areas will convince some of those ambitious new graduates who might have never considered a career in the Jewish communal world that they can bring and grow their skills with us.  And, we believe that training in these areas will help those already inclined to work in the Jewish community, or already working as part of our sector, to become even more successful in our organizations and elsewhere.

The next generation of young professionals in the Jewish world should receive the training and mentorship to become Jewishly knowledgeable innovators, advocates and strategists within our Jewish community. Their careers – as they move in and out of the Jewish professional world – will be stronger for it, and our communities will benefit from their talent and development.

The Jewish world must then come together and ensure that all of our organizations are excellent places to work – those that empower people at all levels, seek and implement new ideas, offer flexibility, and employ top-notch workplace practices to welcome this talent [and for that matter, to keep our existing top talent] and show them that we have opportunities to grow beyond these two years. All of our organizations will be well served if we pursue these goals together.

Hillel International is starting something new with the launch of the Springboard Fellowship, but it’s built on a foundation set by so many other organizations in the Jewish community. We need to think creatively together – no matter our differences in mission, ideology or denomination –about the skills we need and the training we offer. More importantly, this talent pipeline effort will only be truly successful if like-minded organizations expand the opportunities for our next generation of leaders.  We’re excited to work with many of you and together we pursue this noble goal.


Mimi Kravetz is Hillel International’s first Chief Talent Officer, prior to that she oversaw Marketing for People Operations at Google. To learn more about the Springboard Fellowship, visit www.hillel.org/springboard.

After top-down transformation, Hillel 818 shows signs of growth


When David Katz, the new executive director of Hillel 818 — the organization that serves Jewish students on three San Fernando Valley campuses — was being courted away last year from his position leading Hillel at the University of Pittsburgh, he wasn’t exactly given the most attractive hard sell. He recalls being told the following by Hillel International’s leadership:

“This Hillel has a quarter of the staff size that you’re used to, maybe a third of the budget that you’re used to and the potential to reach three times as many students as you’re used to.”

Nevertheless, Katz, 34, accepted the challenge, which also meant coming into a Hillel with a new board after an upheaval led by its primary funding source, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“This is a Hillel that has the potential to engage 6,000 students throughout all the different campuses that we serve,” Katz said during a recent interview at Hillel 818’s Northridge headquarters. He was referring to Cal State Northridge (CSUN), as well as two community colleges, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College, all of which are under Hillel 818’s umbrella. “We want to be able to prove that we can engage alumni, engage community members and eventually start building an endowment.”

Katz’s arrival in April followed a de facto takeover and reorganization in late 2014 by L.A. Federation, led by President and CEO Jay Sanderson, who told the Journal a year ago that Hillel 818’s leadership was mismanaged, unable to support itself financially, and not reaching enough Jewish students. “For many, many, many years, those students did not get adequate support,” Sanderson told the Journal in 2015. “There’s not one person who can tell you that that was an effectively run Hillel.”

Sanderson said in a recent interview that he thinks the organization is now on track. “Now there’s a strong board with a strong board chair [Howard Grobstein],” he said. “Eighty percent of the board is new people who are connected and committed to the campus.” Katz said there’s also a minimum board contribution for each member of $2,500 a year.

While Hillel 818 remains heavily dependent on Federation, Katz said it is on a path toward financial self-sustainability. Its annual budget has increased 54 percent, from $278,000 in 2014-15 to $430,000 in 2015-16, with just under half of this year’s funding from Federation — $214,000 —  whereas Federation previously funded two-thirds of Hillel 818’s budget.

It’s also reaching more students. Hillel’s goal at the start of the 2015-16 school year, Katz said, was to interact with 900 individual Jewish students during this academic year; it finished the first semester reaching 464 individuals. He estimates that last year, Hillel 818 reached only 300 individual students in the entire academic year.

In addition, Katz said, last year Hillel 818 offered only one Shabbat dinner per month. It now opens its door for Friday night dinner every two weeks, including a Kabbalat Shabbat service beforehand, attracting about 30 to 40 students each time. Another priority of Hillel 818 under Katz’s leadership has been to increase its students’ representation on Birthright trips to Israel. He said in the year before he came, in April 2015, Hillel 818 sent only three students on Birthright, a number that increased to 15 over winter break. He hopes to see 30 more go on the summer trips.

Another of Katz’s goals is to increase the percentage of non-Federation funding sources and to expand Hillel 818’s footprint beyond its CSUN core, increasing engagement at Pierce, where Hillel 818 already has some presence, and making an impact at L.A. Valley College, which he said Hillel 818 has barely touched for three years. One of Hillel 818’s three staffers will be on the Pierce campus once a week, and Katz said he and his team are “still figuring out how we best meet and serve the needs of L.A. Valley College.”

The Federation-led reorganization didn’t come without its share of controversy. It started in September 2014, when Sanderson told the then-standing board that it needed to dissolve itself or else Federation would cut off its funding, effectively crippling the organization. One month earlier, executive director Judy Alban had resigned after learning that her grant requests to Federation were being denied because Federation disapproved of her having been promoted from the interim director post just a few months earlier. So a new director had to be found as well.

Jody Myers, CSUN professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program and one of the few prior board members to remain after the transition, said she disapproved of Federation’s tactics at the time of the reorganization, and she believes Federation’s reduced funding under Alban and its dissolution of the board hurt Jewish students on campus who would have benefited from a vibrant Hillel in the 2014-15 year.

“Once they fired Judy … I was considering not being on the board, but my board members said, ‘No, you have to be there,’ ” Myers said.

She acknowledges improvements at Hillel 818 since Katz took over and that Federation has ramped up its funding, but for Myers, that still doesn’t justify the process. “Things are very positive. I’m very happy with how David is functioning,” she said. “The fact that he’s working out well now does not justify the manner in which it was done.”

Jonathan Goldenberg, a CSUN junior, Hillel intern and head of CSUN Students for Israel, believes the reorganization and leadership change last year directly improved the pro-Israel group’s effectiveness.

“I kind of got to experience the change in leadership that happened firsthand,” Goldenberg said. “I went from being on my own to having a full staff to help me and the board plan events.”

He said Katz “has really brought life back to a Hillel that used to seem as if it wouldn’t [have] any potential.

“I’ve seen an incredible improvement both just in how Hillel itself functions and also how David really works with the various student groups that are under Hillel’s banner,” Goldenberg said.

This is not to understate, however, the long road to self-sustainability that Hillel 818 is just beginning. One sign of its ongoing dependency on Federation is that the more than $200,000 Federation gave to Hillel 818 for the 2015-16 school year is not grant-based funding, but “core” funding that’s not attached to specific programs — a rarity for Federation.

“Hillel 818, right now, is not self-sustaining and we have to help it get there,” Sanderson said, explaining the exception. “We’re invested in making sure this Hillel is the focal point of Jewish life on these three campuses, and to do that we have to provide, during this transition period, core support to make that happen.”

Sanderson said there’s no “formal timeline” for when he expects Hillel 818 to be financially self-sustaining — which would involve a mix of fundraising from its board, alumni, grants and parents of current students. He said he expects the process could take about three years:

“They started from way below sea level. The board they had before was not helping them raise money. We’re very, very happy. Everything we wanted to happen is happening, and our expectations so far have been exceeded.” 

Peter Beinart, 54 other academics demand Hillel open up Israel dialogue


The Open Hillel student group has established a council of 55 academics who support its mission to open up dialogue about Israel at campus Hillels.

Open Hillel announced the launch of its Academic Council on Thursday, which includes high-profile Jewish academics like Peter Beinart, Judith Butler and Shaul Magid.

The academics were said to have endorsed a statements that reads in part: “Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership narrowly circumscribe discourse about Israel-Palestine and only serve to foster estrangement from the organized Jewish community.”

Open Hillel seeks to change the standards of partnership in Hillel International’s guidelines, which it says on its website “exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.”

The policy of Hillel, a global Jewish college campus group, is not to work with people or organizations that, among other things, deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state or support boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

“Jewish life on university campuses must reflect the openness to ideas which defines the academy,” Hasia Diner, the director of New York University’s Goldstein-­Goren Center for American Jewish History and one of the 55 academics, said in the news release about council. “Jewish life will be sapped of its vitality, and its broad appeal will narrow when Jewish students are told that their Jewish spaces cannot sustain the same kind of flurry of viewpoints that prevails on the campus at large.”

Four Hillel chapters — at Swarthmore College, Vassar College, Wesleyan University and Guilford College — have joined the Open Hillel movement since 2013.

In December 2013, Swarthmore declared its Hillel chapter “open,” saying it would not abide by Hillel International’s rules prohibiting partnering with or hosting groups or speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish or democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

The chapter disassociated from Hillel in March after the organization threatened legal action if the Pennsylvania school continued to use Hillel in its group name; the chapter is now known as Swarthmore Kehilah.

Hillel President Eric Fingerhut has said the organization is committed to inclusiveness, but will not give a platform to those who want to attack Israel.

“Hillel should and will always provide students with an open and pluralistic forum where they can explore issues and opinions related to their Jewish identity,” Fingerhut said in 2014 in response to Vassar’s decision to declare its Jewish Union an Open Hillel. “Hillel will not, however, give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist. This includes groups or individuals that support and advance the BDS movement, which represents a vicious attack on the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Seven revealing facts about Jews at American colleges


Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, released its annual fall college guide earlier this month — complete with rankings of “The Top Schools Jews Choose.” The figures are estimated by campus Hillels. Here are seven takeaways.

1. University of Florida has the most Jewish students of any North American college 

University of Florida, with its 6,500 Jewish (out of 33,720 total) undergraduates, edged out other heavily Jewish public colleges, like University of Maryland and University of Michigan. Two of the top three and four of the top 20 public colleges are in Florida. The private college with the most Jews is New York University, with 6,000 (out of 24,985 total).

2. Barnard is the most-Jewish college that it not officially Jewish

Barnard College in New York, a women’s liberal arts college affiliated with Columbia University, has a higher percentage of Jewish students than all but four colleges: Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary, American Jewish University and Brandeis University — all of which have Jewish missions. The first three colleges are 100 percent Jewish; Brandeis is about half Jewish.

Thirty-three percent of Barnard’s undergrads are Jewish (800 out of 2,400 undergrads) — more than the 31 percent at runners-up Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania (750 out of 2,440 undergrads), and Goucher College in Townson, Maryland (450 out of 1,471 undergrads).

3. Yale is the most-Jewish Ivy, but Cornell has the most total Jews

Yale University’s undergrad student body is 27 percent Jewish (1,500 Jewish undergrads out of 5,477 total). Percentage-wise, it narrowly beats out its Ivy League rival Harvard University, which is 25 percent Jewish (1,675 out of 6,694 undergrads). But Cornell University and Columbia University both have more Jews in total — 3,000 and 1,800, respectively.

4. Jews love the Big Ten Conference

Six of the top 10 most-Jewish public colleges are part of the Big Ten Conference, the oldest athletic conference in the United States, with schools spanning the Midwest and East Coast. Those six colleges, in descending rank by number of Jewish students, are: Rutgers University (6,400), University of Maryland (5,800), University of Michigan (4,500), Indiana University (4,200), University of Wisconsin, Madison (4,200) and Pennsylvania State University (4,000). The other Big Ten schools among the top 50 are Michigan State University (3,500), the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (3,000) and Ohio State University (2,500).

5. McGill isn’t the top Canadian destination for Jews

That honor goes to McMaster University, a school in Ontario with the official motto “All things cohere in Christ.” McMaster boasts 3,500 Jewish undergrads; University of Western Ontario and York University each have 3,000. McGill University ranks fourth among Canadian schools, with 2,500 Jews.

6. Fifty-five of the 60 most-Jewish colleges are on the American coasts

The five inland outliers are: Tulane University in New Orleans (2,250 Jews or 27 percent of its total), Washington University in St. Louis (1,750 Jews or 24 percent of its total), Kenyon College in Ohio (275 Jews or 17 percent of its total), the University of Chicago (800 Jews or 14 percent of its total) and Earlham College in Indiana (130 Jews or 11 percent of its total). None of the colleges in the top 60 are public.

7. University of Michigan offers 120 Jewish courses — twice as many as Brandeis

University of Michigan offers the third-most Jewish college courses in the country, behind only Yeshiva University (138 courses) and Jewish Theological Seminary of America (150) — which both have 100 percent Jewish student bodies. McGill University and Ohio State University are tied for fourth, with 100 Jewish courses each.

Hillel’s triple art exhibition is a celebration through creation


The start of the new school year inevitably means a series of artistic journeys for visitors to Hillel at UCLA. So it goes for the fall quarter, when Hillel’s annual Triple Art Exhibition takes visitors inside the mind and around the world.

At locations throughout Hillel’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts, guests experience the metaphysical landscapes of Judith Liebe, scenes of Eastern European life from the camera of Yale Strom and Ann Krasner’s depictions of visionary Jewish artists of Russian descent who changed the world. 

The Triple Art Exhibition is not a theme exhibition, but the common denominator among these very different artists is not difficult to pinpoint, according to Hillel’s artistic director Perla Karney.

“All three of them have gone on a Jewish journey as artists,” said Karney, who recruited them to display at Hillel. “They explore the Jewish identity, which is reflected in their art.”

“From the very beginning of the Jewish tradition, we recognize and record God affirming what’s good for us,” Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Hillel’s executive director, said at the exhibition opening. “Judaism embraces things like sexuality and food and art. What I see that is similar in all three of these exhibits tonight is that there’s an embrace of life.”

Gathering at Hillel for the exhibition’s opening, Strom, Liebe and Krasner gave presentations and discussed elements of their work. Liebe and Krasner are based in Los Angeles and Strom lives in San Diego, where he is an artist-in-residence in the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University. 

To assemble “Fragments,” Strom drew from his archive of photographs taken of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during the last 30 years. A klezmer musician, writer, playwright, filmmaker and photographer, Strom initially traveled throughout Eastern Europe in search of music. What he found were Jewish communities reminiscent of prewar shtetl life, prompting him to record what life had been like for Jewish communities and what it became after the Berlin Wall came down. The black-and-white images shot in the 1980s look like they captured community life of a far earlier time. 

“I wanted to meet survivors,” said Strom, whose works were previously displayed at the Anne Frank Center in Manhattan. “This was more than people just singing or playing me a tune. All the variances of life and culture somehow survived the Holocaust and Stalinist years. That really opened my eyes and imagination.” 

When he first went to the former Eastern bloc and visited small communities, Strom discovered he possessed a unique item that facilitated his research: his violin. Residents would notice the violin and, given that Strom  had shlepped it all the way from America, ask him to play a tune. And he obliged.

“So I’d start to play, and they’d sing or they’d get an instrument or call other people and start to tell stories,” Strom recalled, “and I would eventually put the violin down and start to take pictures.” 

Liebe, another well-traveled artist and the daughter of a filmmaker and an actress, grew up in Germany and studied in Munich and Paris. The striking images in her exhibition “Far Away” line the staircase of the Dortort Center. Carrying titles such as “Desire” and “Utopia,” the works celebrate the artist’s sense of security.

“Growing up in Germany, I have not experienced safety at all times,” Liebe said. “The world around us is in turmoil, and peace seems far away. It is my strong desire through my art to remind us of the magnitude of this world and the peacefulness that is contained within it.” 

In “Jewish Visionaries in the Arts,” Krasner’s bustling cityscapes, elongated stick-like bodies and brash colors celebrate the accomplishments of immigrant artists such as Marc Chagall, George Gershwin and Mark Rothko. Those artists were able to reach great heights for the same reasons that Krasner could — because they had talent and because their new homeland received them with open arms. 

Krasner’s 25 works include depictions of friends and family members as well as celebrated thinkers and artists. Many of the collage-like works include lengthy quotations from the subjects on their philosophies about life and art. 

“America was open to outsiders, and with its incredible growth of new competitive industries, Jewish immigrants were ready to jump in,” said Krasner, who came to California from Russia 27 years ago. “Their talent was more important than who they were at that time. All of this created amazing opportunities for Jewish immigrants to succeed.”

Krasner, who has degrees in mathematics and computer science, noted with some irony that she had never painted until her husband gave her a brush and canvas for her 30th birthday. Four months later, she was winning competitions and exhibiting around the world. 

Her work also examines immigrants pushing their children to achieve great heights. Krasner can relate. Her 15-year-old son, Benjamin, who performed at the opening, is an accomplished pianist who has already won several international competitions and studies at CSU Northridge. 

The Triple Art Exhibition is on display through the end of December at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave. For more information, visit uclahillel.org.

Terror is not evenhanded


There are certain things I read that upset me but also put me right to sleep. One of them is any official statement that is mind-numbingly safe and politically correct. 

I came across an example last week from the Hillel at UC Irvine, regarding the precarious situation in Israel. Now, you would think that a statement from a Jewish organization would express some outrage at the horror of being stabbed in the back just because you’re Jewish, or at least show some empathy for an Israeli population in fear of walking the streets. 

A simple, “nothing justifies these kind of violent attacks against Jews or the lies and incitement behind these attacks” would have sufficed.

Instead, all we got was sleep-inducing mush. 

“Jewish and Arab civilians in the region have been subject to a sharp escalation of killings and violent encounters,” the statement reads. And what’s the explanation for this violence? Well, what do you know, it’s the “extremist incitement on both sides of the conflict.”

[READ: RESPONSE–THE MOTIVES BEHIND THE STATEMENT]

Now there’s a magic phrase that is guaranteed to keep you out of trouble — “on both sides of the conflict.” I guess as long as you appear evenhanded, no one can accuse you of being biased. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of attacks have been initiated by Arabs against Jews.

Sometimes I wonder whether the primary goal of these mushy statements is simply to avoid offending anyone — especially gentiles. After all, since Jews are so often accused of being tribal, how wonderful it would be to show the world that, even when Jews are directly targeted, they can still be universal.

But I think there’s yet another reason for this obsession with evenhandedness: It makes us feel civilized. It reaffirms the pleasant narrative that all societies and cultures are basically the same and morally equivalent. There’s good and bad everywhere — the real fight is between the extremists on all sides.

We need this cozy narrative because it gives us hope. It helps us sleep better at night. 

The problem is that when we’re confronted by ugly facts that intrude on that narrative, we tend to get defensive and cling even more closely to it. 

We’re seeing this drama play out right now with the “knife war” against Israel. It’s clear that the vast preponderance of evil acts connected to this current wave of violence — attacks on civilians, incitement to terror, lies about Israel’s intentions, lies about Israel’s responses, teaching of Jew-hatred, glorifying of terrorists, burning of a Jewish holy site, etc. —is coming from the Arab side. This is fact, not propaganda.

Trying to turn these facts into an evenhanded narrative is not just insulting to one’s intelligence, it lets evil off the hook. When we’re evenhanded about violence that is not evenhanded, when we confuse acts of aggression with acts of self-defense, when we pretend that everyone is equally guilty and equally responsible, we suck the air out of accountability.

When the media harps on Israeli mistakes just to appear evenhanded, all it does is camouflage the simple fact that the Arab sector is clearly responsible for this latest wave of terror.

It’s a fact that Palestinian leaders lied about Israel taking over and defiling the Temple Mount and “executing” a young Arab attacker, and have consistently denied any Jewish connection to Jerusalem. These explosive lies have triggered vicious attacks against Jews. There’s nothing evenhanded about that. As if that weren't bad enough, by not holding Palestinian leaders accountable for this incitement, we continue a longtime pattern that has strangled any hope for peace.

You can’t plant seeds of peace on a field of lies. For decades, we have failed to confront the biggest lie of all: the Palestinian narrative that Jews are land thieves who have no connection to the Holy Land and have no right to their own state, regardless of where the borders are drawn.

Even a prominent commentator who consistently rails against Israel’s disputed occupation of the West Bank, Jeffrey Goldberg, recently acknowledged in The Atlantic magazine what he says may be “the actual root cause of the Middle East conflict: the unwillingness of many Muslim Palestinians to accept the notion that Jews are a people who are indigenous to the land Palestinians believe to be exclusively their own.”

This latest wave of violence is yet another expression of the Palestinian rejection of the Zionist idea. As David Horovitz explained in Times of Israel, this is not the latest uprising against the occupation, it’s the latest uprising against Israel: “In bloody, unmistakable capital letters, the perpetrators of this new round of evil mayhem proclaim to Israelis: We don’t want to live alongside you. We want to kill you and force you out of here.”

So, when we agonize over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the many obstacles to peace, let’s not overlook the fraudulent Palestinian narrative that Zionism itself is a fraud. If I want to make peace with you, what bigger obstacle is there than the fact that you don’t think I should exist? That I have no right to any of this land?

This narrative is not just anti-peace, it’s pro-violence. Palestinian leaders who use lies to foster hatred and resentment are directly responsible for the poisoned atmosphere and violence these lies have spawned. 

Ignoring this truth and trying to appear evenhanded doesn’t just put readers to sleep. It wakes up the killers.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

At J Street U event, Hillel president regrets hurt for backing out of J Street conference


Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel International, apologized to J Street U student leaders for any hurt he caused when he backed out as a speaker at the group’s conference in March.

Fingerhut was speaking Monday before 122 leaders during J Street U’s three-day summer leadership institute at a conference center in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

“There’s no question that the political dynamics are fraught, and I know we had that conversation,” Fingerhut said while gesturing to Benjy Cannon, the immediate past president of J Street U, the campus affiliate of the liberal pro-Israel lobbying group. “But there’s nobody responsible for any hurt that occurred in March except me.”

Fingerhut said he “took a step back” from the conference, which he reportedly pulled out of under donor pressure, when it became clear that his speaking during the J Street U conference could be viewed as an endorsement of the group’s policies.

“This is about engaging students,” Fingerhut said. “It’s not about endorsing an organization’s political agenda because Hillel doesn’t do that.”

Fingerhut talked mainly about inclusion in Hillel and the growing anti-Semitism frequently attached to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts on campus posing a serious threat, but the student activists tried to steer the conversation toward Israel’s occupation, the two-state solution with the Palestinians and their feeling of marginalization by the wider Jewish community.

Several students said the Jewish community’s unwillingness to address the occupation and Palestinian suffering made it difficult for pro-Israel students to combat BDS on campus.

Zoe Goldblum, a sophomore at Stanford University and the newly elected vice president for the Northwest region of J Street U, detailed to Fingerhut how the BDS campaign on her campus turned into a referendum on race, oppression and occupation. She described a meeting in which pro-divestment students, mostly people of color, sat on one side of the room wearing red wristbands and kaffiyehs, while on the other side, wearing blue and white T-shirts, were the mostly white pro-Israel students.

It set a dynamic, she said, of “you can either support divestment and support anti-oppression, anti-occupation, or you can be a pro-Israel student.” For students who oppose oppression and occupation while supporting Israel, she said, the choice was “wrenching.”

“Mr. Fingerhut, I am telling you this story because I and students like me honestly do not know what to do when we go back to school in a few weeks,” Goldblum said. “As the president of Hillel International, what do you think I should do?”

Fingerhut responded that Hillel is proactively building coalitions and mending frayed relationships with students of color and with social justice movements.

On the influence of donors and stakeholders in the Jewish community, Boston University’s Solomon Tarlin related that following his Hillel student board’s decision to include the group, major donors began haranguing the Hillel director. When Tarlin asked if others had similar experiences, more than a dozen hands were raised.

“How can we work together to counteract the outside forces that are restricting our ability to fight for Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state?” Tarlin asked.

Fingerhut responded, “The debate, with all due respect, is not between J Street and powers that be in the community, it’s amongst the Jewish people, amongst the Jewish community on campus, some of whom will agree with you, some of whom won’t.”

Hillel’s responsibility, he continued, is to make sure all pro-Israel student groups have a home at Hillel so students can decide for themselves what position to take.

J Street U students describe emotional, polarized Israel climate on campus


At noon Monday, several hundred students marched through the bright March sunshine from the J Street conference at the Washington Convention Center for a protest.

“This is not a march!” organizers pleaded as the orderly group moved south from the Carnegie Library to the headquarters of Hillel International.

With Hillel staffers mostly sequestered inside, student leaders of the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization stood on folding chairs, held a megaphone to their mouths and displayed a placard asking “Who is tying your hands?” Each student then dropped a pre-printed letter addressed to Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut into a large cardboard box and pasted yellow sticky notes scrawled with the words “You cancelled on …” with a student name filled in.

The protest was aimed at Fingerhut’s decision to withdraw from a speaking engagement at the conference, citing the presence of “problematic” speakers on the schedule. A Hillel spokesman initially cited the participation of longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, though the organization subsequently backtracked, saying the conference agenda overall was concerning.

“I think it’s ridiculous that Fingerhut clearly wanted to meet with us,” said Hannah Nayowith of Carleton College in Minnesota, “but conversation on Israel is so stultifying and controlled by a small number of wealthy people. Donors are valued above students.”

Hillel has said the decision to withdraw was made in consultation with the “full range” of Hillel stakeholders.

Sandwiched between an increasingly robust anti-Zionist movement and a Jewish communal establishment still wary of J Street, the 1,100 student activists at the conference have found themselves on the front lines of debate over Israeli policy. Many of the students, veterans of campus fights over divestment resolutions, say the climate has become deeply polarized.

“We are in an unfortunate moment where campus has become this battleground for polarized views on how to go about being engaged with this conflict,” said Rabbi Rachel Gartner, the Jewish chaplaincy director at Georgetown University here. “These students have become the soldiers for approaches to the conflict that come from national organizations. And they are falling in the field. They are burnt out, exhausted. They say to me, ‘I didn’t come to college for this. I came to college to learn.’ They are suffering from the stress of it, from how much they are carrying.”

At Oberlin College in Ohio, senior Noa Fleischacker said there are three groups that do work on Israel: Oberlin Zionists, J Street and Students for A Free Palestine. In 2013, SFP supported a student senate resolution calling on the school to divest from six companies that do business with Israel. Oberlin Zionists and the Oberlin J Street chapter opposed it.

“Divestment was incredibly polarizing for our campus,” Fleischacker said. “A lot of people who I didn’t realize cared came out of the woodwork and expressed either discomfort or excitement and support. Campus kind of exploded [during] the divestment campaign.”

In 2014, the student assembly at Wesleyan University in Connecticut debated a comparable divestment measure. Junior Maya Berkman said the measure was similarly divisive.

“Many students became involved pretty quickly and those [student assembly] sessions were widely attended; it became fairly emotional,” Berkman said. “Different student groups and also individuals had a difficult time figuring out where they wanted to fall on this issue. I felt like it pulled everyone apart rather than allowing people to feel safe engaging in the nuances of the issues.”

J Street officially opposes divestment, and several students at the conference were veterans of efforts to defeat such measures on their campuses. But even so, some schools have seen tension between J Street students and some of their peers to their right.

“I think it’s really tragic that we are in a position that people feel threatened to express their positions on Israel,” said Eli Philip, a Brandeis University senior who lodged a harassment complaint against a fellow Jewish student that he later withdrew. “That can’t be healthy for our community, for the Jewish community, for the pro-Israel community. What we do at J Street … is to empower folks to speak out and enable folks to express their opinion.”

For these students, Fingerhut’s decision to eschew an appearance at the conference is emblematic of the truncated nature of the Israel debate. A letter  delivered by the students to Hillel’s offices on Monday read in part, “Who is Hillel meant to serve? A small group of donors, or the thousands of students who are the future of our communities? Despite hearing that J Street U students are an important part of the Hillel community, we believe that actions speak louder than words.”

By Monday afternoon, Fingerhut’s office had agreed to a request by J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, for an on-the-record meeting between the J Street U national student board and members of Hillel’s board of directors.

“We are looking forward to seriously and publicly engaging with Hillel International on the issues we’ve raised over the last few weeks,” said Benjy Cannon, J Street U’s student board president, in response.

Sarah Turbow, J Street U’s director, noted that despite the decision by Fingerhut, Hillel was well represented at the conference. Some 30 Hillel chapters (out of 550) and 40 Hillel staffers from across the country attended, as did Hillel’s vice president for social entrepreneurship, Sheila Katz, who participated in a breakfast for Hillel members conference.

Turbow said the discrepancy between Hillel International’s position and reality on the ground is “a question of students versus stakeholders” and “a manifestation of dynamics that exist across the Jewish community.”

In a letter to students who had contacted him about the J Street conference, Fingerhut reiterated that J Street’s voice should be heard in the communal conversation.

“We also clearly have work to do in the Jewish community at large to be one people that respects, honors and celebrates its diversity rather than fearing it,” Fingerhut wrote. “This incident taught me just how deep the divide is. I don’t yet have all the answers to how we will bridge this divide, but as Hillel’s president, I am committed to working with you to find them and I have no doubt we will be successful.”

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block: BDS ‘isn’t going to be sustained on this campus’


Evidence of the concern within UCLA’s Jewish community stemming from recent events on campus could be seen on March 16 by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block’s visitors that day.

Just before an interview with the Jewish Journal that morning, Block met with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel at UCLA’s longtime and outgoing executive director. Then, not long after, the chancellor met with Judea Pearl, a renowned UCLA computer science professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, who is also an outspoken critic of the UCLA’s Center For Near Eastern Studies and an occasional ” target=”_blank”>November passage of a student government resolution to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as it pertains to Israel; and, in February, ” target=”_blank”>incident with the posters around campus [

Hillel again taking heat over limiting Israel debate


Hillel President Eric Fingerhut’s decision to withdraw from the upcoming J Street conference has again drawn Hillel into conflict over the boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel.

Some two years after the Open Hillel movement emerged to challenge Hillel International’s guidelines for Israel activities, which prohibit campus chapters from hosting speakers that support divestment from Israel or deny its right to exist, the organization is under fire again for toeing a line on Israel that some see as alienating to liberal Jewish students.

Fingerhut had initially planned to attend the conference, but later backed out, citing “concerns regarding my participation amongst other speakers who have made highly inflammatory statements against the Jewish state.”

J Street blasted the decision, with Sarah Turbow, the director of the liberal lobby’s campus arm, claiming the Hillel leader had chosen to please his donors instead of engaging thousands of students.

But even within Hillel, several current and former directors told JTA that Fingerhut’s decision is part of the organization’s general rightward drift on Israel and its growing deference to the demands of major supporters.

“I think that as the American Jewish community turns further and further to the right, Hillel has simply kept pace with it,” said Rabbi James Ponet, who became director of the Yale Hillel in 1981 and served as university chaplain prior to starting a sabbatical in 2014. “When I entered Hillel, its fundraising was quite minimal. It’s become a major fundraising organization.”

Ponet said that as a university-focused organization, Hillel’s mission should not be to police the boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel but to expose students to a wide variety of views. Refusing to speak to J Street, Ponet said, is not in keeping with that mission.

“Hillel in that sense, to my sadness, has abdicated or abandoned an understanding — if it ever had it — of higher education,” Ponet said.

The latest fracas began on March 9, when Fingerhut announced he would not appear at the J Street conference later in the month. Asked which speakers Fingerhut found problematic, Hillel’s chief administrative officer, David Eden, named Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator who had recently compared Israel to the Islamic State, or ISIS.

The explanation raised eyebrows in many quarters. While Erekat indeed has a history of making inflammatory statements, both Israel and the U.S. State Department have long dealt with him in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. And according to J Street, Erekat’s presence at the conference was made public three days before Fingerhut accepted an invitation to address members of J Street U there.

Hillel officials denied that Fingerhut knew about Erekat’s plans to attend, but the organization subsequently appeared to walk back its original explanation.

“I don’t want to pin it down on one specific issue,” a Hillel spokesman told JTA on March 12 when asked if Erekat’s presence was the impetus for Fingerhut’s withdrawal. Asked if the organization had bowed to donor pressure, the spokesman said the decision had been made in consultation with the “full range” of Hillel stakeholders and did not foreclose the possibility that Fingerhut might engage with J Street in the future.

“Eric sought counsel from across the full breadth of the political spectrum of Hillel leadership and there was broad, broad consensus that now was not the time,” the spokesman said.

Jeremy Brochin, who served as Hillel director at the University of Pennsylvania for 23 years before his retirement in 2010 and publicly criticized Fingerhut in a Facebook post last week, told JTA that he had spoken to several current and former Hillel directors who were uncomfortable with the decision.

“Our role is to engage students and to help students in their Jewish growth and on their Jewish journey,” Brochin said. “That conversation would be challenging in both ways — we would challenge students and they would challenge us.”

Several Hillel directors contacted by JTA declined to comment on the situation, but Fingerhut did receive praise from some quarters. Arinne Braverman, executive director of the Hillel at Northeastern University, said her campus is in the midst of debating a resolution to divest from Israel and Fingerhut’s stance set an inspiring example for her students. (On Monday, Northeastern student leaders rejected the divestment measure.)

“I’m very appreciative on behalf of Hillel that Eric took a stand,” Braverman said. “We stand for something. It’s important to be clear about our values.”

Other Hillel directors took a middle ground, expressing sympathy for the difficult position in which Fingerhut found himself.

“My feeling is that he was in a no-win situation,” said Andy Gitelson, the executive director of the University of Oregon Hillel, who participated in a series of conference calls with Fingerhut last week about the decision. “He was extremely troubled by this, and he was not thrilled about having to make this type of a decision.”

On the ground, Hillel directors say that Hillel and J Street U chapters are closer than the national dispute would imply. J Street U chapters are often affiliated with their campus Hillel, and a number of Hillel directors will be attending the J Street conference in Washington.

Even Swarthmore and Vassar, two schools that declared themselves Open Hillels and promised not to abide by Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, which prohibits chapters from hosting speakers that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, until this week had remained within the Hillel fold. On Monday night, however, Swarthmore Hillel’s student board voted to drop its affiliation with Hillel International and change its name, citing the parent organization’s restrictions on Israel issues.

Fingerhut has also met privately with Open Hillel leaders. In the statement announcing his withdrawal, Fingerhut emphasized that student members of J Street U are welcome “as members of the entire Hillel family.”

“While there may be a disconnect between the parent organizations of J Street and Hillel International in general,” Gitelson said, “the local level is where a lot of relationships are happening and partnerships are happening.”

Swarthmore Hillel votes to disaffiliate with Hillel Int’l


Swarthmore Hillel’s student board voted to drop its affiliation with Hillel International and change its name, citing Hillel International’s restrictions on Israel issues.

Following an extended debate, the 11-member board elected late Monday night in a 7-3 vote to drop the affiliation, effective immediately (one board member was absent).

In December 2013, the Hillel of Swarthmore College declared itself an Open Hillel, saying it would not abide by Hillel International’s rules prohibiting partnering with or hosting groups or speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish or democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

The move by the Swarthmore, Pa., school, located about 30 miles from Philadelphia, helped galvanize several other Hillel chapters to follow suit, including those at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Open Hillel activists pushed for changes to Hillel’s rules and gathered at Harvard University for a national conference last fall.

On Monday, Hillel International emailed a letter to Swarthmore deans threatening legal action if students at the college’s Hillel chapter hosted an upcoming program with speakers espousing anti-Israel or pro-BDS viewpoints. The letter prompted the Swarthmore Hillel’s immediate name change, the student board said.

“We’ve spent more than a year designing high quality, inclusive Israel-Palestine programming to fully represent and best fit the needs of Swarthmore’s Jewish community,” Sarah Revesz, the president of the student board, said in a statement.

“Hillel International has repeatedly responded with ultimatums and legal threats. This constraining pressure has driven us to a point where we can only continue to serve the diverse needs of our community under a different name than Hillel,” she said. “As we make this transition, we reaffirm our commitment to building a space where all can learn from different viewpoints, and hold fast to the values of openness, inclusivity, and pluralistic dialogue espoused by Hillel the Elder.”

The event at issue, scheduled for next week, is titled “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement.” It’s slated to feature Dorothy Zellner, Larry Rubin, Mark Levy and Ira Grupper — four Jewish veterans of the civil rights movement who are on a national speaking tour sponsored by Open Hillel called “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: In Conversation with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans.” The four also are supportive of BDS tactics. Zellner, for example, penned an article in Jewish Currents in 2012 titled“Why the BDS movement is effective and right.

Others scheduled to participate in the event are Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awwad, the executive director of Women of the Wall, Lesley Sachs, and the co-founder of Israeli Jewish-Arab education center Yad B’Yad, Lee Gordon.

“If the students or speakers intend for this program to be a discussion in which the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel or Pro BDS agenda,” Hillel International’s vice president and general counsel, Tracy Turoff, wrote Monday to Swarthmore officials, “this would cross the clear line for programs that violate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership and could be reason for Hillel International to seek to protect its guidelines, name and reputation.”

Hillel International declined to respond to JTA inquiries for comment for this story, but the organization’s president, Eric Fingerhut, has said Hillel is committed to inclusiveness, including of those critical of Israel, but not to giving a platform to those who want to attack Israel.

“Hillel should and will always provide students with an open and pluralistic forum where they can explore issues and opinions related to their Jewish identity,” Fingerhut said last year in a statement. “Hillel will not, however, give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist. This includes groups or individuals that support and advance the BDS movement, which represents a vicious attack on the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Swarthmore Hillel’s student board hosted a communitywide discussion Monday on its future within Hillel before holding its own extended debate and then voting. The Jewish campus group’s new name is yet to be determined.

“The only thing we could really think to do to is at least try to continue to work toward having a community where everybody feels like they have a place and to hold to our values of openness and inclusion,” Joshua Wolfsun, the board’s Israel-Palestine programming coordinator, told JTA. “We voted to drop the Hillel name because we didn’t have another choice and we were dealing with lots of restrictions and pressure.

“It was not a unanimous decision,” he added. “Folks expressed a lot of ambivalence.”

There are no real financial ramifications to disassociate with Hillel International, Wolfsun said, citing the student group’s own endowment and the funds it receives from the college.

Hillel, we are not your tools but your partners


When Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut announced his decision to withdraw a commitment to speak to over 1,000 students at the upcoming J Street National Conference, he expressed only one major regret.

In his statement last week, Fingerhut lamented that he would miss the opportunity to “thank those who have been active in the fight against BDS.” Indeed, he made clear that the reason he was interested in attending in the first place was “to thank those who have joined in the fight against BDS and anti-Semitism on college campuses, and to urge everyone to take up this crucial cause.”

Fingerhut is right in that hundreds of J Street U students have fought BDS campaigns on their campuses. This is because we believe in a pragmatic solution — two states for two peoples as the only way to guarantee self-determination and sovereignty for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The international BDS movement rejects the two-state solution and offers no workable solution of its own. It does not recognize Israel’s right to exist or the need for a two-state solution, nor does it differentiate between Israel within the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 borders, and the occupied West Bank. Indeed, it deliberately works to obscure and deny that there is such a difference.

Yes, J Street U opposes BDS. But fighting BDS is not the reason we exist.

We are a pro-Israel movement that believes to be truly pro-Israel one must work for a better, safer future that ensures Israel’s survival as a Jewish democracy. It further means opposing the ongoing occupation that continues to be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of that better future.

We did not invite Eric Fingerhut to our conference simply to speak about BDS. We invited him to discuss how Hillel International can partner with us to promote and advance a two-state solution.

Hillel’s official Israel guidelines state that “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” The two-state solution is clearly the only plausible way of supporting that vision of Israel, a vision that J Street U passionately believes in and works toward, with the support of campus Hillel staff, on over 60 campuses.

Yet we have not seen Mr. Fingerhut or Hillel International’s leadership demonstrate any interest in our efforts. Where are their initiatives in support of two states? What have they done to encourage the thousands of student activists working for such a solution?

Rather than empowering youth to become active in the Jewish community around the issues they are passionate about, which so many other Hillel professionals do, Eric Fingerhut has said to J Street U and to the rest of the Jewish community that the only way to be pro-Israel is to fight BDS. When 1,000 passionate pro-Israel student activists are regarded by Hillel’s leader as merely foot soldiers in a vitriolic campus war with the BDS movement, something has gone wrong. It begs the question: Is Hillel a pro-Israel organization or just an anti-BDS organization?

Moreover, if Mr. Fingerhut does mean to fight BDS, he’s modeling the least effective way to do so. His office claims that he withdrew from the conference because he could not be listed in the same program alongside Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority. What example does it set for students and for campus discourse to walk out on a conversation and refuse to speak simply because someone else (speaking the next day!) might say something with which you strongly disagree?

The late Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, a major supporter and friend of Hillel, once said, “True learning comes from engaging in discourse with those who are profoundly different. Your mind may not be swayed, but the interaction may open up your eyes.”

Just a few weeks ago, Hillel participated in a national event that called on students “to commit to disagree more constructively.” Mr. Fingerhut’s actions seem to indicate that for him, these are just empty words. If anything, his logic echoes many in the BDS movement that we should exclude and silence those with whom we disagree.

As a tool to combat BDS, this approach is useless. It only alienates and angers the concerned and conflicted students who we should be engaging. If Mr. Fingerhut’s mission in addressing J Street U students was to instruct us in how to defeat BDS, he has failed there as well.

We are sorry that Hillel’s president won’t join us, but we will continue to work for peace, security and civil rights for Israelis and Palestinians nonetheless. We will continue to oppose BDS in order to better support the two-state solution and an end to the occupation. And we will continue to ask our communal leaders not to use us as tools, but to work with us as partners.

(Gabriel T. Erbs, a senior at Portland State University, is the northwest representative to the J Street U national student board. Amna Farooqi, a junior at the University of Maryland, is the southeast representative to the J Street U national student board.)

Why Santa Barbara Hillel’s largest donor is the Jewish Federation of … Boston


Rabbi Evan Goodman, executive director of UC Santa Barbara’s Hillel, was concerned when annual funding allocations from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles were cut year after year, beginning in 2011. But he wasn’t surprised.

After all, officials from the two organizations had come to a new funding agreement in 2011 after Federation announced a new policy that limited allocations to groups within the borders of Los Angeles County. Santa Barbara Hillel, which is 104 miles from Federation’s headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, sits 70 miles outside the Los Angeles County line. 

So Hillel and the L.A. Federation, its largest single donor until recently, according to Goodman, agreed that through 2014, the final year of their relationship, Federation would gradually reduce its annual support in order to give Hillel time to find other donors to fill the impending gap.

Santa Barbara Hillel’s budget has ranged from $535,000 in the 2010-2011 school year to $687,000 in the 2014-2015 school year. In 2010, Federation gave Hillel $150,000 but gradually reduced that amount year after year until 2014, when it gave $35,000. Goodman said that most of the funding was for general expenses and operations, but that from year to year some of it was tied to specific grants and programs.

“It was over a 50-year relationship that was terminated at that point,” Goodman said. “It’s still a challenge for us to replace the unrestricted dollars that were coming to us from L.A. Federation.”

So far, Goodman and Hillel have managed, thanks, in part, to a major grant, not from The Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara (which gives about $20,000 per year to Hillel), but from a Jewish Federation 3,000 miles away, in Boston. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP) serves not only that metropolis’ Jewish community, but also pro-Israel campus programs in New England and across the country, including at the University of Florida, the University of Maryland, The Ohio State University, the University of Texas at Austin, and now UCSB.

Its campus initiative, known as IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed), aims to capitalize on Taglit-Birthright programs. It recruits students who are less involved in the campus Jewish community for Birthright trips, and then follows up with them regularly upon their return to inspire them to increase their engagement in Jewish and pro-Israel activities.

“[We are] trying to engage the non-low-hanging fruit, those the least likely to walk in the doors of a Hillel,” said Cheryl Aronson, CJP’s vice president.

CJP launched IACT in 2007 at three schools in the greater Boston area, only to expand the program to 12 more schools across New England, and then five schools nationwide. Aronson said CJP plans to launch the program at seven more colleges in the near future. 

“Birthright is a gift, and we have the opportunity to take advantage of it,” Aronson said. “UC Santa Barbara is a great site for us because there are so many students who are marginally affiliated.”

Goodman said that CJP’s grant for IACT to Hillel for the 2014-2015 academic year came to about $100,000, which includes the cost of UCSB’s on-campus IACT coordinator, Rafi Schraer, 25, an alumnus of San Diego State University and a former engagement coordinator with the Hillel at the University of Vermont. Goodman said Hillel’s goal for the upcoming Birthright trip in the summer is to sign up 120 UCSB students, 80 percent of whom IACT will aim to regularly engage in Jewish and Israel programming following their return.

But, while Goodman envisions Hillel’s relationship with CJP as being an ongoing and productive one, he remains concerned about the impact that the loss of funding from the L.A. Federation will have on a Hillel that he said reaches about 900 Jewish students per year on a campus that has among the highest percentage of Jewish students of any school in the University of California system.

“[The] IACT program allows us to delve deeply into one area of tremendous interest for us, and that is Israel and Birthright,” Goodman said. “Our biggest issue is asking ourselves the question, can we continue to provide the services we provide at the level we’re providing for the students who are here with this loss of funding?”

He said that in past discussions with Federation about their ongoing relationship, he made the case that large numbers of young Jews from Los Angeles attend UCSB, benefit and grow from their experience at Hillel, and then return to Los Angeles. Goodman estimates that about half of UCSB’s Jewish population is from Los Angeles.

Jay Sanderson, L.A. Federation’s president and CEO, said he felt it “didn’t make sense” that the organization was spending time on Hillel in Santa Barbara, when Hillel 818 — which serves CSU Northridge, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College — could use more attention.

“There’s a limited amount of things we do,” Sanderson said. 

Asked to respond to Goodman’s point that many L.A.-area students attend UCSB, benefit from the Hillel, and then return to L.A. (some of them going on to work in Jewish professional life), Sanderson said that the same logic could be applied to universities even farther away from Los Angeles. 

“The truth is there’s a large number of Jewish students [from Los Angeles] that go to the University of Michigan,” Sanderson said. He added that Santa Barbara Hillel could use the Jewish Federations in both Santa Barbara and Ventura.

“Their funding is a small portion of our needs,” Goodman said referring to the Federation in Santa Barbara, and noting his gratitude for the decades-long relationship between Santa Barbara Hillel and the L.A. Federation. He added, though, “Santa Barbara’s Federation does not have the capacity to fund at that level.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara’s executive director, Michael Rassler, said in a Feb. 24 interview that Santa Barbara Hillel is Federation’s largest single grant recipient in Santa Barbara and that Federation boosted its support to Hillel by 10 percent this year, to $22,000. He made clear, though, that the Santa Barbara Federation is neither capable of closing the gap left by L.A. Federation’s absence nor of matching the support offered by CJP.

“Our Federation is not like the L.A. or the Boston Federation,” Rassler said. “Our total budget is approximately $1.2 million.” 

Santa Barbara’s entire population of about 90,000 is significantly smaller than the Jewish communities in Los Angeles and Boston.

Despite Santa Barbara Hillel’s newly challenging financial environment, Goodman remains optimistic that Hillel will be able to provide what it has in the past for its students — such as weekly Shabbat dinners to more than 100 people — even if its reliable source of core funding is no longer there.

“We’re confident that as long as we get the word out, that we can find people who care passionately about what we’re doing,” he said.

On campus sexual assault, Jewish groups have taken lead


Jewish campus groups were ready for the painful national dialogue that took place in the wake of murky rape allegations at the University of Virginia.

That’s because organizations such as Hillel and historically Jewish Greek houses, such as Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Delta Tau, had been having the conversations for months before the explosive Rolling Stone story made national headlines — first for the brutality of the alleged gang rape detailed in the magazine, and then for the subsequent evidence of flawed reporting on the part of Rolling Stone.

Zeta Beta Tau last year joined Sigma Delta Tau and Jewish Women International in launching a workshop called “Safe Smart Dating.” Hillel International is a partner in the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign against sexual violence, and the network of Jewish campus centers has also dedicated to sexual violence a stream of its “Ask Big Questions” program, which organizes lectures and salons on topics of Jewish interest.

Meanwhile, Alpha Epsilon Pi features sessions on consent at its conclaves and a fraternity brother, Matthew Leibowitz, launched the “Consent is So Frat” movement this year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

“The prevention of suffering is what we do as Jews, and making pathways for people to heal if they’ve been traumatized is also what we do,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the editor of the anthology “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” and the director of education for Hillel’s “Ask Big Questions” program. “We need to take care of our own in creating a world in which consent is non-negotiable.”

The Rolling Stone story has been unraveling as the magazine revealed that it had not reached out to the alleged assailants in the attack that was the article’s centerpiece, and friends of the alleged victim have since told the Washington Post that they had been misrepresented.

Revelations of the article’s problems had just begun to trickle out during this reporter’s recent visit to the campus, but students and Jewish officials said the broader issue of whether women were safe on campus remained a pre-eminent topic of conversation among students at the school. Weeks earlier, in the wake of the article’s publication, students took part in large-scale protests in front of the fraternity where the alleged crime had taken place.

Since 2011, the University of Virginia has been under federal investigation for allegedly not treating adequately complaints of sexual misconduct, and the Rolling Stone article broadly addressed the complaints.

Madison Orlow, 19, a first-year pre-med student, said the school’s initial reaction to the allegations did not reach far enough and led her to question its honor code. The code, first formulated in the 1840s, mandates permanent dismissal if a student lies, cheats or steals.

“The honor code does not encompass all of the things that are needed,” said Orlow, volunteering at a Challah for Hunger booth on a chilly Thursday afternoon on the university’s fabled lawn, which was designed by the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.

“It doesn’t cover sexual assault,” offered her fellow volunteer, Patricia Garvey, 20, a student of environmental science. Volunteers for the group bake and sell challahs to students just before Shabbat; the proceeds go to the needy.

“There was an initial sense of ‘this needs to be dealt with,’ ” said Jake Rubin, the director of the university’s Hillel, the Brody Jewish Center, describing reactions by university administrators to the article. “It certainly is a problem at the University of Virginia, but it is not only a problem at the University of Virginia. It has moved to, ‘What do we do, how do we fix this issue?’ — [by] being absolutely committed to really taking a hard look at the community and trying to figure out steps forward.”

The University of Virginia is not a destination university for students who want deep Jewish involvement, although in recent years, the school has increased its Jewish profile. This year, it added graduate courses to its Jewish studies program; three years ago, the school opened a new Hillel building.

Among the 21,000 students overall at the university, there are 1,200 to 1,400 Jewish undergraduates and 400 to 600 Jewish graduate students, according to Rubin.

The modern Hillel building is not particularly distinctive-looking. It sticks out on University Circle, a street just off Rugby Road, the leafy, winding causeway where many of the elegant Victorian fraternity houses are situated and ground zero for what the Rolling Stone article described as an out-of-control culture of drinking, sexual aggressiveness and worse.

Rubin said venues like Hillel provided a homey refuge for students dealing with what has been a traumatic semester, including the alleged kidnap and murder of a student and two suicides, in addition to the allegations described in Rolling Stone.

“Frankly, students are overwhelmed,” he said. “To have a resource for them that’s comforting in a sense, just to be there for them, that’s been our first priority.”

Jewish fraternities are among those taking the lead nationally in addressing sexual assault on campus.

Leibowitz, a 22-year-old recent Wesleyan graduate, started “Consent is So Frat” this year in part because of reports of fraternity-related sexual assaults at Wesleyan during his undergraduate years. AEPi chapters at other campuses, including Rutgers, have spread the program.

The initiative developed and distributes a curriculum on consent that is aimed at members of fraternities and sororities.

Ruttenberg said the notion of sexual consent is rooted in Jewish texts.

“It’s deeply embedded in our tradition,” she said. “In the Talmud, consent is one of the great non-negotiables in any sexual encounter. The Talmud forbids marital rape, which is astonishingly forward-thinking, considering it took until 1993 for North Carolina to ban it. The Talmud says that if a woman is raped and has an orgasm, she is still raped.”

Jonathan Pierce, a past president of AEPi International, said the fraternity solicits advice on sexual consent from groups such as Jewish Women International, inviting its experts to speak at its annual conference, and from its own board of rabbis.

The AEPi website links to broad restrictions mandated by the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, to which it is affiliated. According to the guidelines from the national risk management association, fraternities “will not tolerate or condone any form of sexist or sexually abusive behavior on the part of its members, whether physical, mental or emotional. This is to include any actions, activities or events, whether on chapter premises or an off-site location, which are demeaning to women or men, including but not limited to verbal harassment, sexual assault by individuals or members acting together.”

Pierce said the best programs arose from grassroots efforts, citing “Consent is So Frat.”

“This is where real learning takes place —  you have your own members coming up with programs,” he said.

Jeffrey Kerbel, president of the University of Virginia’s AEPi chapter, said its consent education begins with pledges and is sustained throughout the brothers’ university career.

“This responsibility and this education are also stressed to our probationary members — first through formal trainings and then through further emphasis within the chapter,” he said via email. “Our aim is to emphasize these points consistently and frequently; otherwise we risk growing vulnerable to the social and cultural influences that can diminish the value of consent and the place it must have in society.”

The “Safe Smart Dating” workshop was scheduled before the Rolling Stone article for an upcoming University of Virginia appearance.

The two-hour presentation starts with students texting their encounters with sexual assault, firsthand or otherwise. The texts are projected on a screen, prompting discussion in smaller groups.

Case studies also are included, including the 2010 murder of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love by George Huguely, also a lacrosse player at the university, as well as more ambiguous outcomes, such as the acquittal of Taylor Watson, a Minnesota man who had sex with a friend who was in a drunken stupor. Jurors accepted the defense’s argument that the woman had deliberately intoxicated herself before asking to sleep at Watson’s apartment.

Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Delta Tau train campus facilitators to run the program.

“It’s starting conversations that people are often uncomfortable with and unwilling to have,” said Dana Fleitman, the director of prevention for Jewish Women International.

Included among the hypotheticals handed out to participants on slips of paper are scenarios of digital abuse through online harassment, she said.

“The girlfriend who texts all the time and gets mad if you don’t respond” is one scenario, she said.

Laurence Bolotin, the national director of Zeta Beta Tau, said the program does not “reinvent the wheel” but guides students on how to use existing resources, including sexual assault responders on campuses. A focus of the programs like the one Hillel directs is how to be an “active bystander,” or to intervene when witnessing what appears to be sexual assault.

“It’s not a Greek issue, it’s a college issue,” Bolotin said in an interview.

With pro-Israel groups all but absent, UCLA student government endorses divestment


UPDATE, 3:00 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 19: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block released a statement, which reads in part: “UCLA and the UCLA Foundation share the Board of Regents conviction that divestment decisions should not hold any one organization or country to a different standard than any other. The Board of Regents does not support divestment in companies that engage in business with Israel and UCLA agrees with that position.”


Some students held up posters, others wore t-shirts with pro-divestment slogans and most of the 400 UCLA undergraduates present repeatedly snapped their fingers along in near-unanimous agreement as they packed an auditorium on campus Tuesday night to hear – in the school's second public hearing in 2014 – their student government debate passage of a symbolic resolution that would call on school administrators to divest university funds from American companies that do business in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

And unlike in the previous attempt in February, which failed by two votes, the student government voted this time for divestment by a decisive 8-2 margin, adding UCLA to a small but growing list of universities where the elected, representative undergraduate body endorsed the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to weaken Israel and promote the Palestinian cause via economic pressure.

Supporters of the resolution, who comprised nearly 100 percent of the audience, saw the move as a protest against American economic support of what they view as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

And prompted by a new strategy enacted by some of UCLA’s Jewish student groups, including Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U, supporters of Israel effectively boycotted the hearing in an attempt to discredit and delegitimize UCLA’s strengthening pro-BDS movement. Only about 10 student representatives and members from those three organizations sat together during the hearing. While none of them participated in the public comment period that would have given the floor to dozens of divestment opponents in two-minute intervals, four of them made their case against divestment to the student government during a scripted 15-minute speech.

“We are not going to have our community sit through however long a session of bullying and hate speech,” said Tammy Rubin in an interview before the hearing began. Rubin is the president emeritus of Hillel at UCLA. She said that unlike last year, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U will now use the time not spent on opposing symbolic divestment resolutions to “reinvest in our community.”

“We’re not not fighting it [divestment],” Rubin said. “We are just fighting it strategically in a different way.”

Gil Bar-Or, president of the UCLA branch of J-Street U, described an approach that would differ markedly from that of last year’s pro-Israel community, which passionately and publicly opposed divestment actions in a climate of toxic relations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.

“We are trying to present an approach that’s creating positive things for both people that are involved in the conflict and not alienating anybody,” Bar-Or said. “In order to promote one community’s interests you do not have to trample on the other community’s interests.” In place of rallying against the divestment resolution, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel, and J-Street U hosted an alternate off-site meeting with about 125 pro-Israel students, where they discussed the thinking behind the new tactics and how Jewish UCLA students can strengthen their community.

At Tuesday evening’s hearing, while dozens of divestment supporters from a broad spectrum of various ethnic, national, religious and gender student groups took the podium during the hour they were granted for public comment, not a single pro-Israel student took the podium, even as the few present divestment opponents brought forward a list of 2,000 students who signed a statement opposing divestment.

And while the public comments coming from the pro-divestment side covered an enormously wide array of political grievances—from exploitative capitalism and U.S. drone strikes to discriminatory gender bathroom rules at UCLA and Chicano feminists—each settled on a similar opinion: UCLA should divest from American companies doing business in parts of Israel. Virtually every public comment was met with a sea of approving snaps and the occasional holler.

Some of the commenters included Arab-American UCLA students who described the plight of friends and relatives who live in the Gaza Strip, and two Palestinian students studying at UCLA—but who were not present—recorded an interview that divestment supporters played on a large projector.

During February’s vote, with no time limit and with members of the public permitted to submit public comments, the hearing went until dawn before the student government voted 7-5 against divestment. This year, though, security guards manned every door, only current UCLA students and approved media were allowed inside, and the student government ensured that the evening would end relatively early—this time officials voted just before midnight.

Just before the vote, when it was already clear that the student government would endorse divestment, Avinoam Baral, an Israeli native and the government’s president, emotionally lambasted divestment supporters, accusing them of targeting Jews and Israelis while purporting to be concerned about human rights in general.

“[The resolution] says this language that it’s not meant to target you, but there’s a difference between intention and action and if our intention is to divest from all countries violating human rights and the actual effect is to only divest from Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, it’s hard for me to take it any other way,” Baral said. “It’s hard for me to not feel targeted.” After Baral concluded, student government representatives voted, and as their votes were tallied, the auditorium erupted in applause. About 20 minutes later, around one hundred divestment supporters gathered outdoors and chanted slogans such as, “Free, free Palestine.”

Just moments after the vote, Amber Latif, a UCLA sophomore and member of the campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, was pleased with her side's victory but “unnerved” by Avinoam Baral’s vocal opposition.

“I’m trying to think if there’s anything that we could’ve done to make the Jewish community feel less targeted by this,” Latif said. “But I feel like we did everything to the best of our powers.”

The small and hugely outnumbered pro-Israel group of students that came all sat together and provided some lonely snaps in response to comments by Baral and the other representative who opposed the resolution. Those interviewed reaffirmed their support of the Jewish community’s decision to sit out the divestment vote, but still appeared visibly upset after the council resoundingly endorsed it.

Natalie Charney, the student board president for Hillel at UCLA, led the alternate off-site meeting and, while disturbed by what she saw at the divestment hearing, expressed no regret at Jewish groups’ decisions to avoid it.

“We don’t validate this conversation, not in a space where people are able to spew hatred and anti-Semitism,” Charney said. “We didn’t subject Jewish students, pro-Israel students, to the hate that is in this room.”

Omer Hit, the vice president of Bruins for Israel, said he’s concerned that UCLA may now be perceived as “not a good place for an entire Jewish community.”

“I am thankful that we did not have to bring our entire community to sit through that,” he said. “That would’ve been heartbreaking. Look at it now—it’s already heartbreaking for the six of us that came.”

“I know that this is all a PR thing,” Hit added. “I’m afraid that they were able to dominate that.”

Waxman honored at UCLA Hillel


Dignitaries, students and Jewish community members gathered on Nov. 10 at Hillel at UCLA to celebrate the legacy of U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and the 40 years he has spent representing the area.

“Why do we here all love Congressman Henry Waxman?” his successor, Congressman-elect Ted Lieu, asked the audience during the event. “The reason we love him isn’t just because he fought for our issues and he was right. It [is] because he was effective.”

As Waxman, a giant whose name is synonymous with Southland Democratic politics, completes his final months representing of California’s 33rd District, voices across the broader political landscape have been reflecting on the importance of his political legacy. 

“His retirement is drawing more attention than any congressional retirement that I can recall, because of his historical record,” Burt Margolin, a lobbyist and former assemblyman who spent seven years as Waxman’s chief of staff, told the Journal. There hasn’t been another lawmaker in the last 50 years who has accomplished more on behalf of progressive values than Henry Waxman.”

Waxman attributed his success, in part, to a compatibility between Jewish and American values. First elected to Congress in 1974 as one of the so-called “Watergate babies,” Waxman made his reputation sponsoring legislation unpopular with many of his colleagues. In particular, Waxman’s career-long efforts to improve the quality and accessibility of health care and to enact stronger environmental protections are now considered ahead of their time. 

“I was elected to Congress by constituents who, I felt, wanted me to go there and be a leader on national and international issues,” Waxman told the audience. “We were in Israel when [Egyptian leader Anwar] Sadat came to speak at the Knesset. We were in Israel when the Ethiopians were brought in. I remember being in Israel when we were struggling to get Jews out of the Soviet Union and it looked like it would never happen.”

Drawing a comparison between Waxman’s career and Moses’ leading of the Israelites across the desert, Hillel at UCLA’s executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, called the politician “the man of 40, our very own Moses.” He added that Waxman “carried the biblical legacy as he led the battle against the seemingly divine corporate forces that endangered our health and enveloped us with this smoky deceit.”

Of the many bills related to health care Waxman had an essential role in passing are laws improving the quality of infant formula, incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to develop and market drugs to treat rare diseases, facilitating the sale of less-expensive generic drugs, authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to require nutrition labeling on foods, and allocating money for treating people with HIV and AIDS. 

Waxman also aggressively pursued improvements to the Clean Air Act during his time in Congress. More recently, Waxman played a prominent role in passing the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Throughout his four decades on Capitol Hill, Waxman was known as a tough negotiator and an ideologically consistent legislator. “This guy had a sense of discipline and a tenacity, and I think in some ways — most important of all — he was a legislator who could not be intimidated,” said former U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, a close friend of Waxman’s from their days as students at UCLA.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming, once famously described Waxman as “tougher than a boiled owl.” As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Waxman aggressively pursued investigations of the tobacco industry, Major League baseball and Wall Street, among many others. 

“He was never afraid to lose,” Margolin said. “Henry liked nothing more than taking on issues knowing that he had only a small chance of prevailing in the short view. He always fought with the long view — the sense that we might not win this year, but that two years, four years or six years down the road, we can prevail.”

Unwilling to allow his relative inexperience to be an excuse for not acting, Waxman early in his career challenged the seniority system entrenched in House committee politics. 

The UCLA Hillel event was also a
fundraiser for the establishment of the Henry Waxman Fellowship for Jewish Leaders at Hillel at UCLA. The fellowship, which will be awarded to 10 students per year, is intended “to prepare students for a career in public service and train them to emulate the organizing and political styles of Henry Waxman,” Seidler-Feller said.  

The nine-month fellowship will allow Jewish students to meet weekly with local leaders inside and outside of the Jewish community, and to take on greater leadership roles in Hillel and in UCLA more broadly. The fellowship, Seidler-Feller stressed, is shaped in Waxman’s image.

“I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that Henry the lawmaker embodies the classic Jewish-American impulse to establish a model society in our American homeland,” he said. “He has displayed the divine chutzpah to take on the giants and to defeat them … in the name of tzedek umishpat, of justice and righteousness.”

Controversies roil UCLA, Berkeley campuses


“Leaked emails reveal partnership between Hillel, PR firm,” read the headline on a story that made the front page of Wednesday’s Daily Bruin, the lively UCLA student newspaper.

The plotline for this story may seem a bit arcane for those not up-to-date on campus politics, but the central protagonist is Rabbi Aaron Lerner of UCLA Hillel. His focus, in his own words, is on “community organizing and reaching students on the periphery of Jewish life at UCLA.”

Earlier this year, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Students for Justice in Palestine asked the UCLA undergraduate student council to pressure the University of California administration into divesting from any companies that “profit from the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.”

The motion was narrowly rejected, but it is expected to resurface in the near future.

To prepare for such a likelihood, Lerner sought advice from various contacts, including the 30 Point Strategies public relations firm. The main conclusions reached in an exchange of emails was to portray BDS advocates as unrepresentative of student sentiment, to focus on the large majority of UCLA’s 42,000 undergraduate and graduate students who know next to nothing about Israel, and try to hold media coverage about the whole controversy to a minimum.

The email exchanges between Lerner and the public relations firm were hacked and published Oct. 27 on the website of

Open Hillel is a necessary intervention


Four rabbis are engaged in an animated debate about Jewish law. Three of them agree, but the dissenter is adamant that he’s got it right. He cries out: “A sign, God, I beg You, a sign!”

It begins to rain, but the three in the majority are not swayed. “Another sign, please God!”

The rain picks up and lightning strikes near the rabbis, but still the three refuse to budge. After another plea from the one rabbi, a voice thunders from Heaven: “Heeeee’s Riiiiight!” The three rabbis look at each other, not sure how to react. Finally, one responds: “Well, all right. So it’s three against two.”

This lighthearted parable — an adapted version of the Talmud’s “Oven of Akhnai” story — highlights one of the foundational truths of Judaism: We do not always agree on our foundational truths.

Our disagreements are not a hindrance to communal existence but rather the source of an intellectual diversity. No matter the subject, it is precisely in and through these disagreements that Judaism finds its richest expression.

Open Hillel — a student-led campaign to change a Hillel International rule that, among other things, precludes it from partnering with groups that seek to change Israeli policies through nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts — is hosting our first conference this week at Harvard. We are gathering because we believe that the principle of intellectual diversity ought to apply to our politics as well as our theology.

While our core demand is that Hillel International drop its so-called “Standards of Partnership” rules, our movement has much more to do with ensuring a Jewish future that recognizes the diversity of the Jewish people. Even among our organizers, there are many different opinions on Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel). But we are united by our shared commitment to a vibrant am Yisrael, to a Jewish people that carries on the treasured communal, spiritual, prophetic and ethical values of Jewish tradition.

By enforcing standards that alienate a significant cohort of the Jewish student population, Hillel International has failed to foster an inclusive space for all members of the Jewish community. While this may please certain vocal and powerful elements of the American political establishment, it ultimately amounts to an abandonment of many Jewish students and a weakening of the Jewish community.

Jews do not think with one mind about anything, least of all about Israel-Palestine. The notion that speakers who hold particular views are dangerous to the vitality of the Jewish community serves only to demonize the diversity that is central to our future.

Many Jews believe that BDS is wrong-headed; many do not. Open Hillel’s call is for a Jewish space in which that conversation can take place, along with the myriad other contentious conversations our people have engaged in from time immemorial.

In his Oct. 8 JTA opinion piece, Hillel International’s president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, inaccurately suggests that Open Hillel was founded “in order to provide a platform for organizations that promote the [BDS] movement.” In fact, our conference is designed to showcase the type of diversity and debate that Hillel’s “Standards of Partnership” do not allow for. We sent invitations to left-wingers, right-wingers, Zionists, one-staters, BDS supporters, Palestinians and Jews — and the list goes on.

Some of our attendees passionately oppose all boycotts. Others support a boycott of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and still others support broader forms of BDS. There are bound to be heated disagreements, but these will only serve to stimulate our thinking and strengthen our core commitment to pluralism.

Our conference, where more than 300 participants are expected, models the kind of am Yisrael that we believe is most conducive to a strong Jewish future: one in which everybody has a seat at the table, whether you’re an anti-Zionist who’s shomer Shabbos or an oleh [new immigrant to Israel] who eats on Yom Kippur.

(Evan Goldstein is an organizer with Open Hillel and a senior at Boston College majoring in theology and minoring in philosophy. He is also an Opinions staff writer for the BC Gavel and can be found on Twitter as @egoldstein93.)

 

Jewish student assaulted at Temple University


Hillel, the campus student group, is expressing “outrage” over an attack on a Jewish student at Temple University on Wednesday and is calling on the university to ensure the safety of its Jewish students.

At the same time, the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine is condemning the attack and is claiming the alleged assailant was not a member of its organization. 

Daniel Vessal, an upperclass member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and a fellow with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a pro-Israel organization,  allegedly was assaulted during move-in day at Temple’s main campus here.

For full story, visit jewishexponent.com.

L.A.’s Russians recapture their Jewish soul


In March, Svetlana Rapoport became a bat mitzvah.

Raised in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, where practicing religion was discouraged and anti-Semitism was rampant, Rapoport hadn’t had the chance to celebrate this rite of passage.

Finally, at 34, Rapoport had her moment on the bimah.

“This day symbolizes a new beginning … a new level of devotion and dedication to our people,” she said in her speech to her family and friends gathered for the occasion at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

Rapoport had come to this point because of the Russian Jewish B’nai Mitzvah Project, an initiative designed to strengthen Jewish identity among young adults of Russian heritage. It is sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Some of the participants are immigrants from Russia and its neighbors, including Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet countries. Others are first-generation Russian-Americans. All have roots in a land and culture where religion was spurned, and, as a result, many of them were once a blank slate with regard to their Judaism.

 “What’s unique about Russian Jews is they feel Judaism very differently than the rest of Jews,” said Jenny Gitkis Vainstein, a regional representative in Los Angeles for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Gitkis Vainstein’s job is to increase interest in Judaism among Russian Jews, and she has been working with Federation toward that goal since 2010.

Institutional engagement with this community is not new. In fact, it dates back to at least the 1970s, when the Soviet Union still existed and its government was making life miserable for Jews there. Even as Soviet leaders placed restrictions on education, arts and culture, and religious practice, they denied Jews the right to emigrate, fearing if the Jews left, they would reveal Soviet secrets to the international community. 

The refusal to issue exit visas to Jews led to the popularization of the name refusenik, The refuseniks were, in essence, trapped inside the Soviet Union, as author and Jewish Daily Forward journalist Gal Beckerman described them in his award-winning book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.” And, in the 1970s and ’80s, their plight prompted a swell of activism among American Jews.

When the Soviets eventually allowed a mass exodus of the Jews, it was largely in response to international pressure and the fact that the Soviet Union itself was dissolving.

[Related: Everybody has a story]

Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation, said approximately 25,000 Russian Jews eventually settled in Los Angeles as a result of the multiple immigration waves out of the former Soviet Union that took place between the 1970s and ’90s. Federation and other organizations actively assisted those Russian immigrants with their transition to life in the United States. And along the way, many of the activists who had advocated on the immigrants’ behalf recognized that the Russians often were not engaged religiously. This was troubling to them, Beckerman said in a phone interview with the Journal from his office in New York, adding that there were too many other immediate needs at the time to focus on giving this serious attention.

“For people who just arrived, for them the most important thing is to get bread on the table, to have jobs, to have their kids in school,” Maya Segal, an L.A. community member who ran Federation’s resettlement efforts for Russians and Iranians from 1997 to 2013, said in an interview. “The spiritual part, the religious part, comes later.”

That time is now, apparently.

Today, approximately 80,000 Russian Jews live in Los Angeles, Gitkis Vainstein estimates. And they don’t all live in West Hollywood. Sure, Russians playing dominoes is a common sight in the neighborhood’s Plummer Park on a Saturday morning, and Russian eateries, grocery stores and businesses line the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that runs through West Hollywood. 

Today, however, Russian Jews are dispersed throughout L.A. — especially the first-generation Russian-Americans, the 20- and 30-somethings born in America, as well as those young adults who arrived here as children with their families. They live all over Los Angeles, including the Westside, but also Studio City, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and other neighborhoods. Gitkis Vainstein described them as a hip crowd of college degree-carrying professionals. “They’re very cool; they’re very educated. They are lawyers, they are doctors, they are involved in computer science. They are very successful in life, very warm, very funny,” she said.

Among them is Alex Grager, a managing partner at family-law firm Lopez and Grager and co-founder of Ru-Ju-LA, the Los Angeles Russian Jewish Network, a group that got started as a grass-roots effort propelled by Grager’s vision to unite this cohort. 

“When I first started thinking about this — there are a bunch of Russian-Jewish young adults in town, and all of their friends are Russian Jews, and they hang out … so they certainly have something in common, but they don’t really … do anything about it,” Grager said. He has been making a big push to change that. 

Today, Ru-Ju-LA has come under the auspices of The Jewish Federation and it has a steering committee of young Russian-speaking Jews. However, among its members, familiarity with Jewish life runs the full gamut. Some come from families who practiced Judaism, at least somewhat. Others learned they were Jewish in their teens.

“The majority have very few Jewish stories to share from Russia, and there are those with deeply embedded Jewish experiences,” Tal Gozani, Federation’s senior vice president of young adult engagement and leadership development, told the Journal.

What unites them is their interest in negotiating the role Judaism will play in their lives and spreading their passion for this journey to other Russian young adults.

Ru-Ju-LA is similar to some other young adults groups, such as ATID at Sinai Temple and the Federation’s Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA). Its events are usually connected to Jewish holidays and often feel a bit like singles’ parties. 

And because they are meant to offer introductions to Judaism, without being particularly learning-bound, they are generally low-key in their Jewish content, so as not to discourage their observance-averse target audience from showing up. 

Last December, for example, dozens of young adults met for drinks at a West Hollywood bar for a Ru-Ju-LA Chanukah party. During the event, Grager sat down for an interview even as a stream of friends kept coming up to say hello. 

It was late in the evening when Gitkis Vanstein interrupted all the shmoozing to demonstrate how to light Chanukah candles. 

“We do this so they will celebrate it in their homes,” Gitkis Vainstein explained later. Otherwise, she said, “they wouldn’t.” 

Another Ru-Ju-LA party a few months later, this one for Purim, was in the same vein — heavy on socializing, light on Jewish content. But a recent Passover seder was an exception. Approximately 70 young adults gathered for the Ru-Ju-LA seder at Maxim, a restaurant in the Fairfax District, and their seder followed a haggadah specially created by Ru-Ju-LA.

“This Haggadah has been designed to integrate the modern miracle of the freedom attained by Soviet Jews with the beauty and excitement of a modern Passover Seder,” the haggadah reads. 

The attendees sat at long, banquet-style tables covered in white tablecloths complete with ceremonial seder plates, and, throughout, they drank the ritual wine, but also vodka in the tradition of their homeland — in fact, they were instructed that if they ran out of wine for the service, they could drink as much vodka as they wanted, which, as a part of the evening’s celebratory mood, they took to heart. 

Toward the end of the night, a DJ spun pop hits, including Robin Thicke’s 2013 smash “Blurred Lines.” In response, the crowd left their seats and turned the empty space between the tables and the restaurant’s stage into a joyous dance floor.

 

Another project at Federation to engage the Russian-Jewish community falls under its Community Leadership Institute (CLI). In terms of its organizational Russian-Jewish engagement and outreach, CLI might seem the brainy older brother of Ru-Ju-LA. The Russian program is just one of four leadership development programs, or “tracks,” as  Federation refers to them, for cohorts of young professionals ages 25 to 45. Currently, CLI’s Russian track is in its second year. 

Of course, CLI, like Ru-Ju-LA, wouldn’t be possible without funding. Genesis Philanthropy Group, founded by several wealthy Russian Jews with offices in North America, Israel and Russia, provides much of the resources driving Federation’s Russian programs, paid for through two grants totaling $140,000. Ilia Salita, the nonprofit’s executive director, believes it is essential to partner with organizations such as Federation on this work.

“This is extremely important in this day and age — community-building programs for Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world,” he said.

Cushnir agrees, describing the Russian Jews as “a dynamic space in the community. Everyone is defining what it means to be Jewish differently.”

Genesis money must be used only for the engagement of Russian Jews. It also pays the salary of a Federation staff person — an assistant director focused exclusively on working with the Russian-Jewish community. Sasha Zlobina, who had worked previously in Jewish organizational life, both inside Russia and out, was hired for this position. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Odessa, in Ukraine, where she worked for a Hillel.

She has also worked as an executive assistant at Jewlicious, the youth engagement nonprofit led by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. 

Unlike many of her peers, Zlobina came to the United States in her 20s. Now 27, she moved here at 23 to marry her husband, George Gromovoy, who owns a moving company; she met him during a retreat for Hillels in the former Soviet Union. Zlobina said she did not know she was Jewish until she was 16. A family friend in Odessa invited her to an event at a Hillel, which, in former Soviet Union countries, is open to all Jews and not affiliated with universities as they are in the United States. She was surprised by the invitation.

 “She said, ‘You’re totally Jewish,’ ” Zlobina told the Journal. “And I went to my mom and asked if that was true, and my mom said ‘yes,’ and she started telling me about our history and my grandmother and my [great-] grandmother, and that’s how I realized that I am. That’s how my Jewish journey begins.”

After the revelation, Zlobina became heavily involved with Hillel. 

“I went there and started to learn about Judaism and the history of Israel and all kinds of Jewish stuff. I decided to consider myself Jewish and tell everybody that I am Jewish, and then it became kind of a big deal for me,” she said.

Hillel offered her a job in outreach, which eventually led her to become its deputy director. 

She said she loves her work now at Federation in Los Angeles; her oversight of CLI allows her to draw upon work she did in Odessa. 

CLI’s first cohort attempted to create a Soviet Jewish film archive, and asked participants to interview their parents and grandparents about their lives in the Soviet Union. The plan was to translate the interviews into English, edit them together and hold a screening. But so far, the project has not proceeded beyond the filming stage. 

Grager, a graduate of the first CLI cohort and current co-chair of the second, takes such shortcomings in stride. Any attempts at creating engagement with a new immigrant community can have setbacks, he said. “I think the key here is small steps, and I sometimes get frustrated, because I think we are moving too slowly, but then I recognize this is how this community is going to develop,” he said.

Grager’s own ambitious plans include opening a center for the Russian-Jewish community, “a space for [the] Russian-Jewish community both to get together and enjoy each other’s company. In other words, what we are trying to accomplish is [to allow] members of the Russian community to be a resource for each other — be it social, educational, professional, whatever you want it to be.”

Meanwhile, Federation is considering creating a Birthright trip to Israel exclusively targeted to the Russian community. 

“We’ve had one conversation about it; we’re just trying to explore it,” Gozani told the Journal. “We think there might be interest.”

Gozani already has led one trip to Israel for the Russian participants of the inaugural CLI. She was new to the job at the time, but she was ready for the challenge. Gozani, who isn’t Russian, said she was moved by the experience of traveling with Russians who have such unique personal stories. 

“A week after [I started] the job, we spent 10 days in Israel,” she said. “I had an amazing experience with them and have been close with them since.”

 

At Kehillat Ma’arav last March, Svetlana Rapoport was one of 13 young adults from that first CLI cohort celebrating their b’nai mitzvah. She had been chosen from among the group to give her interpretation of the week’s Torah portion on behalf of all the celebrants. As Rapoport spoke, her 4-year-old daughter, Alena, left her seat and walked up to join her mother on the bimah.

Audience members laughed, delighted by the sight of the little girl so charmingly oblivious to social norms. Rapoport herself, however, was a little embarrassed. She apologized, picked up her daughter, and continued her speech: “We should always strive to be better, wiser, stronger and happier,” she said, holding the girl in her arms. 

Perhaps, in retrospect, it was apt that Alena had joined her mother on the bimah. After all, it was Alena who inspired Rapoport to undertake the long hours of preparation for her bat mitzvah. Benjamin Rapoport, Svetlana’s husband, told the Journal how this all came to be: “We want to make sure we can pass on something to our daughter,” he said. “So that she will know more about where we came from, and make sure she grows up understanding our religion, our tradition. And, hopefully, continues that legacy.”

Ru-Ju-LA founder Grager points to the Russian b’nai mitzvah project as one of the biggest successes of local engagement for this community effort to date. 

“The whole idea behind this program was to return the Russian-speaking Jewish adults to their Judaism one way or another, and this adult b’nai mitzvah class really kind of exemplifies everything this [CLI] leadership class, and Ru-Ju-LA for that matter, stands for,” Grager told the Journal on the day of the ceremony. “It’s an opportunity, it’s a reminder, and it allowed them to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

Santa Barbara Hillel supports students in wake of shootings


Approximately 40 UC Santa Barbara students sought comfort and grief counseling at the Santa Barbara Hillel on May 24,  the day after Elliot Rodger, 22, killed six students and injured 13 more. Rodger also died during his Friday night murderous spree of  “revenge” in Isla Vista, a community where students live adjacent to the university.

Rabbi Evan Goodman, the Edgar M. Bronfman executive director of the UC Santa Barbara Hillel, said the students came to discuss the tragic events. Rodger, who was not a student at UCSB, began his killing spree in his own apartment, stabbing three students to death. He followed this by shooting two women outside a sorority house and a third victim, a man, was at a deli in Santa Barbara. Rodger also wounded others by running people over in his car and shooting randomly from his car window while driving.

[Invocation by Rabbi Evan Goodman at UCSB memorial]

Rodger exchanged gunfire with police, but his death may have been a suicide. None of his victims are known to be Jewish.

Speaking to the Journal by phone on Tuesday, Goodman said students with varying degrees of connection to the incident came to Hillel on Saturday.

Among them was a female student who said she had aided a friend Rodger had shot in the leg, Goodman said.

“Our students are infinitely intertwined with the entire university community; we’re not an island… and so it’s important for us to be there to remember the victims …and to support the survivors in the rest of the community,” Goodman said of why Hillel immediately became a grief counseling center in the aftermath of the attack.

Goodman spoke to the Journal a few hours prior to a UCSB campus wide memorial service on Tuesday, May 27.


A student signs a remembrance wall in the Isla Vista neighborhood of Santa Barbara, Calif., on May 27. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The Hillel’s Isla Vista location is “only about a block away” from where part of the shooting happened, Goodman said. So he quickly reached out to university officials and spoke with other religious leaders on campus, offering Hillel as a place to come for all students – not just Jewish ones — needing assistance in the wake of the traumatic episode.

“I was in touch with the university officials as the events unfolded late, late Friday night and Saturday morning, and in conversation I offered that, because we are located right in the heart of Isla Vista, right by the university, that we would be happy to open our doors to provide help,” the rabbi said.

In the wake of the rampage, various events have been taking place in southern California commemorating the losses. On Monday night, Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks held a vigil. Veronika Weiss, one of two victims from the Los Angeles area, was a graduate of the high school.

Goodman said his remarks at the UCSB memorial service would center on the healing process and moving forward.

“I want to focus on the idea that we while we may ask why this happened — and those are important questions to ask — the most important thing to do now is look at how we can move forward from this, how we can support one another, and in the Jewish sense, bring a little bit more light into the world despite this.  That we’re defined not as victims, but how we react to and address the challenges and even the tragedies that come our way,” Goodman said.

Goodman was just one of a group of religious leaders of various faiths participating in the campus memorial, scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday and held at the campus’ Harder Stadium.

UCSB’s regular classes were cancelled for Tuesday.

Meanwhile, students needing support could meet with various faculty members, according to a message from the school’s chancellor, Henry T. Yang and interim executive vice chancellor, Joel Michaelsen.

Events to support the students and memorialize the dead will continue in the coming days. On Friday, May 30, Hillel will hold a Shabbat dinner with a memorial service. The entire UCSB community is invited, Goodman said.

The days following the tragedy in Isla Vista: 

UC Santa Barbara students attend a candlelight vigil on May 24. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Memorial flowers placed in bullet holes in the window of a deli that was one of nine crime scenes of the Isla Vista shooting. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

People lay flowers at a makeshift memorial for 20-year-old UCSB student Christopher Michael-Martinez. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

UCSB students, from left: Lisa Kitson, 20, Jason Dahn, 20, Ariana Richmond, 20, and Melissa Barthelemy, 36, march between drive-by shooting crime scenes in a protest against sexual violence and hate crimes. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

UCSB student Jorge Anaya, 20, stands outside the 7-11 where he saved a student who was shot, by helping carry her into the store. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

UCSB students from various sororities hug outside a sorority house where two women were killed. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

U. of Washington Hillel evacuated after fired worker’s explosive threat


Hillel at the University of Washington was evacuated after a fired employee allegedly threatened to cause an explosion in the building.

Police shut down streets in Seattle’s University District Monday afternoon after receiving a call from employees about the threats. No one was injured.

Police believe the suspect was a custodian who had just been given notice of his termination and threatened to blow up the Jewish student building at the corner.

Rabbi Oren Hayon, the Hillel’s executive director, would not identify the suspect, but he told JTNews that “there was a credible enough threat that… a number of our staff knew to respond quickly.”

“We got emergency first responders on the scene immediately,” he said.

According to the Seattle Police Department, an employee followed the custodian into the building’s basement at approximately 1:45 p.m. after he suspected there may be a threat, saw the custodian begin to mix ammonia and bleach together, then evacuated the building.

Witt said she does not believe the threats had any anti-Semitic connotations, and the suspect apparently has a history of threatening suicide.

“I’m not concerned about anti-Israel or anti-Semitic overtones of the threat,” Hayon said.

According to the Seattle police blotter, the SWAT team found the suspect in Hillel’s basement and put him under arrest at 3 p.m. Monday afternoon.

Police did not initially release the suspect’s name. The suspect was taken to a hospital for treatment of chemical inhalation and was under observation for mental health issues.

Hillel staff returned to the building around 4 p.m. Monday.

Hillel guidelines scrutinized


Hillel International CEO and president Eric Fingerhut has called for a review of how his organization’s national guidelines will be applied to Hillels on college campuses around the country.

“The guidelines were passed in 2010. Frankly, not a lot of work was done on how to explore how they would be applied on campus. … They haven’t been updated or modernized. They are getting all this attention, now, for the first time they have been called into question,” Fingerhut said during a Jan. 12 panel discussion at UCLA titled “Through the Looking Glass: A Glimpse Into the Future of Jewish Life on Campus and Beyond.”

Fingerhut was referring to a December 2013 resolution passed by Swarthmore College’s Hillel chapter that rejected Hillel International guidelines. Those policies state, in part, “Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” 

Hillels on college campuses receive resources from Hillel International, but they function as autonomous organizations. The Hillel at UCLA, for instance, is an independent nonprofit. 

Hillel International’s response to the Swarthmore decision — namely, that the school Hillel’s “position is not acceptable” — has sparked a debate about whether Hillels on college campuses are inclusive enough when the topic is Israel. Fingerhut insisted that the organization remains welcoming of many perspectives on Israel, including those of JStreet University, the campus affiliate of J Street, a pro-Israel group that advocates an end to Israeli settlements.

Other participants on the panel, which took place at the Hillel at UCLA’s Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life, included Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University. A leading historian on modern Jewry and the Holocaust, Lipstadt earned additional notoriety by winning a libel case in an English court against Holocaust denier David Irving.

Former University of California President Mark Yudof also participated on the panel. The moderator was David Myers, who teaches Jewish history and is the Robert N. Burr Department Chair of the UCLA history department.

Controversies surrounding Hillel were not the only topic that the speakers addressed during the gathering, which lasted approximately 45 minutes and attracted an audience of about 200 people. Panelists also debated the implications of the Pew Research Center’s recent survey, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” whose findings about Jewish affiliation being on the decline have some worrying that the end is nigh. 

Despite the study’s finding that fewer Jews than ever are reporting being “Jewish by observance,” Lipstadt said she prefers to look at the study’s finding that shows that 90 percent of those surveyed consider themselves proud to be Jewish. 

“I think what the Pew study is saying … is that there are now more and more ways, multifaceted ways, of doing and being Jewish. Different avenues and entry points into being Jewish,” she said. “I think the study is reminding us of that.”

Yudof agreed, saying that while the Pew report illustrates challenges for the Jewish community — such as the high incidence of intermarriage — American Jews have always had many issues with which to wrestle.

“I think sometimes we idealize our past,” he said. 

The future, on the other hand, was close by. Elyssa Schlossberg, 21, a UCLA psychobiology major and member of the campus Hillel’s student executive board, was seated at one of the dozens of banquet-style tables at the event. 

Schlossberg said that Hillel’s weekly Shabbat dinners — including some that are followed by hip-hop concerts at the AEPi house — are among the activities that have drawn her to Hillel. She called the organization a “close-knit community.”

Additional speakers included Zev Yaroslavsky, a UCLA alumnus and  member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors; Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director at Hillel at UCLA; Dorothy Salkin, a member of the Hillel at UCLA board of directors and board of trustees; and Tammy Rubin, student chair at Hillel at UCLA.

Their speeches, along with the panel, wrapped up a daylong program at the Hillel that marked the rededication of the center’s Jerusalem Stone Wall, which was erected years ago in memory of Salkin’s parents, Morris and Celia Kahn Aberman. It also celebrated the campus’ new Capital Donor Wall. 

It was an event that, more than anything, marked how far the Hillel at UCLA has come since its building at the Westwood Village-adjacent address on Hilgard Avenue opened in 2002, according to Rachael Petru Horowitz, UCLA Hillel director of development.

The 22,000-square-foot facility serves as a community building, providing recreational and study space for the university’s approximately 4,000 Jews. It even has its own Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on the ground floor. Horowitz called the Hillel campus a “permanent fixture of the Jewish community and  the Westwood community.”

CSUN Hillel became temporary classroom following Northridge earthquake


In the months after the Northridge earthquake, the Hillel House at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) became a makeshift classroom facility for hundreds of students as many university buildings had been damaged.

“It was an unusual experience for us,” said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the CSUN Hillel director at the time. “Jewish students knew where Hillel was, but to have hundreds of students coming every day for their classes — anthropology, English, history, lecture classes — it was quite an experience for us to be hosting that.”

Goldstein recalled how, in order to reach the Hillel building, which had minor damage, students would walk past a new $11 million parking complex a few yards away that had collapsed during the tremors.

“I think all of us had a sense of wonder,” Goldstein, now 77, said. “Had it been a few hours later, that parking structure would have been filling with cars and students. That would have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.”

According to Goldstein, currently the secretary of the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din of Southern California, the university’s Jewish student population had numbered about 4,000, with an average of 40 to 60 students at Shabbat dinner and services.

“It was really regarded with great pride by the students and by me to be of great service to the university community,” Goldstein said. “It symbolized the strength of Jewish survival that the Hillel house stood and could offer hospitality to anybody who needed help.”

Letters to the Editor: Hillel serves up diverse buffet and Orthodoxy dividing the community


Hillel Buffet Serves Up a Diverse Menu

Hillel at UCLA enjoys a good relationship with the local Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen — Hillel and Chabad on Campus,” Oct. 25). The unconditional love they exhibit is indeed laudable, and it is true that Chabad’s free Friday night dinners influenced us to also offer our dinners for free. 

However, the recent cover story in the Jewish Journal comparing Hillel and Chabad on campus missed the essential differences between the organizations, their missions, and their measures of success.

Hillel provides a buffet of Jewish choices that range from the intensely religious to the Jewishly worldly. Our philosophy is: “Come to Hillel to taste all the Jewish delights.”

Do you want Torah and Talmud study? We have that. Do you want tikkun olam? We have that. Do you want Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer services? We have those, too. Do you want to learn about Jewish culture? Jewish history? Heschel? Soloveitchik? Freud? Einstein? Maimonides? We have them, as well.

Do you want Holocaust education? Israel advocacy? Leadership training? Jewish art exhibits? Conferences on important Jewish issues? Or how about just hanging out at our Coffee Bean to mingle with other Jews? We offer all of that, as well as social justice projects such as “Challah for Hunger,” “Swipes-for-the-Homeless” and building medical clinics in Northern Uganda.

This is not a Judaism that downplays tradition. To the contrary, our beit midrash pulsates with the rhythms of Jewish learning, and, with our glatt kosher cafeteria and daily minyanim, Hillel at UCLA has become home to the largest Orthodox campus community west of the Mississippi.

The point is this: Hillel at UCLA offers a broad, Big Tent Judaism that no one else offers. 

For the Jewish Journal to suggest that we are being influenced and even “changed” by a Jewish group whose programs and approach are completely different is not just unfair to us, it’s also unfair to our friends at Chabad.

Yes, we respect all methods of Jewish outreach, and, at the same time, we believe that our pluralistic, Jewish buffet offers the best hope of attracting Jewish students from across the spectrum.

This substantive pluralism is what distinguishes Hillel from other Jewish organizations, and it is our holistic formula for sustaining and growing a Jewish future. 

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel and Rabbi Aaron Lerner, Senior Jewish Educator, UCLA Hillel


Orthodoxy Putting a Wedge Between Jews

It’s not a contest (“Why Orthodox Is Growing,” Oct. 25). Nobody “wins” when the overall number of Jews who practice and adhere to their religion is diminished. The Orthodox can easily “win the battle but lose the war” if they become so marginalized and exclusive that the rest of Jews fade away. Unless Orthodoxy exerts efforts to bridge the gap, it will find that there are a million Orthodox Jews in the United States and nobody who views them as “co-religionists” or “brothers” and that is a real small and totally insignificant minority except in Boro[ough] Park, Williamsburg and a few other minor American shtetlach.

Charles Hoffman via jewishjournal.com

Dennis Prager makes a number of thoughtful explanations for the group of Orthodox Judaism, but his connection of Orthodoxy and right-wing Conservatism is not one of them. Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum. Here in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches. By doing so, they have not undermined Orthodoxy or diminished their love for Israel. Just the opposite — their Ahavat Israel of Orthodox Jews or the left of the political spectrum has grown without any signs of the cynicism Prager associates with liberal Jews.

Elie Shapiro, North Hollywood

Dennis Prager responds: Elie Shapiro conflates liberalism in politics (“Orthodox Jews can be found across the political spectrum”) with liberalism within Judaism (“Orthodox Jewish men and women are challenging traditional approaches by infusing their Jewish life with more liberal approaches”). They have little to do with one another.
I, for example, welcome a more liberal approach to halachah. But the notion that Orthodox Judaism and leftism have much, if anything, in common is unsustainable. And since Mr. Shapiro did not cite any examples, I don’t know what left-wing positions he is referring to. Is Orthodoxy for redefining marriage as the left is? Is Orthodoxy anti-Israel, as most of the left here and in Europe is? Does Orthodoxy believe that people are basically good? Does it morally agree with abortion on demand?

There is a reason that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are conservative. The reason is Orthodox Judaism.


correction

An article on Hillels and Chabad (“Sharing the Next Gen,” Oct. 25) suggests that a “fundraising partnership” exists between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation. In fact, there is no formal relationship or partnership between Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA Foundation.

Jewish art spans city with ‘Sacred Words, Sacred Texts’


The Jewish art scene in Los Angeles is a small but vibrant community that spans generations, styles, and the full length and breadth of the city itself. Now, for the first time, three of L.A.’s preeminent Jewish institutions — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), University of Southern California Hillel and American Jewish University (AJU) — have teamed up to produce a collaborative exhibition that stretches across three venues and features more than a dozen local artists. 

“Sacred Words, Sacred Texts,” which officially opened Oct. 6 with a reception at AJU, is an exhibition that celebrates Jews as a People of the Book: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and sacred poetry are all explored through various media by more than a dozen Jewish artists from the L.A. area. It was curated by Anne Hromadka, Sara Cannon and Georgia Freedman-Harvey.

A second reception — this time beginning at HUC-JIR and spilling over to the nearby USC Hillel — took place on Oct. 13, featuring a wide range of styles and forms, from a very traditional, literal sculpted Torah by Soraya Sarah Nazarian, to Will Deutsch’s instantly recognizable drawings, to a video installation by Jessica Shokrian featuring accompanying spices that guests were invited to sniff in a sort of avant garde Smell-O-Vision.

Hromadka said that one of her main motivations for the exhibition was to ask the question, “How are Jewish artists thinking of ourselves as keepers of the book?” 

She continued: “In thinking of ‘Sacred Words,’ I wanted to think about not just the words that we speak to each other, but what are some of the holiest words ever spoken in our tradition? And those are often the words spoken from God to us.”

Hromadka highlighted the work of artist Andi Arnovitz, a beautifully constructed sculpture made of Hebrew text featuring colorful flourishes that depict the battle between the houses of Hillel and Shammai, the circa first century BCE rabbis whose heated debates helped shape much of religious Jewish law and custom.

“The scrolls that make up the house are actually copies of pages from the Talmud,” Hromadka said.

She also spoke about a piece by Iranian artist Krista Nassi, who immigrated to the United States in 2006 after living in Iran post-revolution. The piece, a bold painting featuring sharp contrasts between darkness and light, and the text of the Shema, was apparently a personal one for Nassi. 

“She lived in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war,” Hromadka said. “Whenever there was shelling … her family would gather in one space in the house … and they would huddle. And what were the words they would say to comfort themselves? The Shema.”

Among those in attendance were participating artists Melinda Smith Altshuler and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. Altshuler, speaking briefly, highlighted her use of found objects in her work, which she credited to her father being in the scrap metal business when she grew up. He’d bring home “wonders” that she couldn’t help but love. Altshuler described her work, which included a piece that made use of old record sleeves, as being “like the anti-text, because they really have to do with addressing recording, which is what the written word is also, but with visual materials.”

Brynjegard-Bialik went into more depth about what the concept behind “Sacred Words, Sacred Texts” means to him. 

“What I’m trying to do is tell stories,” he said. “I’m very much into our narratives, our stories as a people. Most of my work is informed by biblical stories. And I always say my work starts with text. Maybe it’s a portion from the Bible, maybe it’s something from Talmud, maybe it’s a myth, as with the golem story.”

Brynjegard-Bialik’s beautiful pieces, which weave in images from comic books to create mythic takes on Torah and the Jewish experience, breathe new life into the often tired art of paper cutting. 

“It’s all about revisiting these texts, revisiting these stories, revisiting those things that inform us as a people, and trying to make sense of them,” he said. “The text becomes ours to own and to struggle with. What I try and do is put that struggle on the page.”

At USC Hillel, a jazz quartet played while guests, most of whom made the short walk from HUC, looked at more work by Brynjegard-Bialik, along with Hillel-specific artists like the appropriately named Hillel Smith and Carol Es. 

This display has more of a youth-oriented feel, between the comic book-influenced work of Brynjegard-Bialik, Smith’s selections — which ranged from a pop art T-shirt to colorful abstract prints — and Es’ warped, trippy paintings.

Among the artists represented at AJU are Corrie Siegel, whose map of Los Angeles was used as the artwork for the exhibition’s poster, and philanthropist Peachy Levy, whose generous gifts to many Jewish institutions, particularly camps, have helped fund arts programming for countless children over the years. 

Whichever location art lovers visit, they are guaranteed to see a wide cross-section of Jewish art from Los Angeles, a collection that fittingly captures the many artistic voices that make up our community, and asks powerful questions. The exhibition at all three institutions will continue through mid-December.

Sophie Zeidman Hamburger, survivor, 94


Sophie Zeidman Hamburger, 94, of Los Angeles passed away at home Oct. 10th with her family by her side. A Holocaust survivor, Sophie inspired many people with both her courage and her warmth.

Sophie was born in Bedzin, Poland, in 1919 and was trained as a tailor before World War II broke out. In 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she worked in a munitions factory until she was sent on a death march shortly before the camp was liberated in January, 1945.  She escaped and managed to survive the last months of the War in hiding. When she returned to her hometown after the War, she found only devastation and incomprehensible loss. 

We first met Sophie when she was ninety-two years old. She was part of UCLA’s “Bearing Witness” program and a class organized around Holocaust testimony.  The program is a collaboration between the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, Hillel at UCLA, the Jewish Family Service’s Café Europa (an organization focused on support and community for survivors), and the LA Museum of the Holocaust. It provides a unique opportunity for university-age students to recognize the value of eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and participate in the effort to document the life experiences of Holocaust survivors.  

The shining smile on Sophie’s face created a bond that made us feel like family. Every Wednesday Sophie would greet us and recount her story.  We knew that the listeners were not just those of us present in the room with her, but all the future generations who would have the chance to learn about her story. She was a beautiful, articulate, and inspiring woman who we are grateful to have known. Sophie cared deeply about creating bonds between generations, between the past and the present, for the sake of a better future. In the hospital, she said to her son, “I guess I won’t be able to do UCLA’s [Bearing Witness] program this year.”  She was deeply committed to meeting students, telling her story, and inspiring hope through education, outreach, and an ethic of respect. 

Her story can be heard at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as part of the museum’s audio guides. The story was recorded by UCLA undergraduate students in 2012 who interviewed her and documented her life journey.  Her story is a testament not only to survival but also the indelible compassion of the human spirit.  This is the gift she left with all of us who were lucky enough to meet her and to everyone who is fortunate to hear her story. 

Sophie Zeidman Hamburger was a member of Temple Beth Israel. She is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Funeral services were held Oct. 13 at Mt. Sinai Hollywood Hills.

Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life


Shabbat dinner tells one part of the story.

When Alon Kashanian, a UCLA senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, he goes to Hillel’s grand, Jerusalem-stone-adorned, 25,000-square-foot Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Hilgard Avenue in Westwood. He socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 100 to 200 students — the number can vary widely — who come for services and Friday night dinner.

On a recent Friday, well over 100 students passed through Hillel’s doors. The night started with two prayer services: A Reform service — held in the center’s large yet cozy recreation room — included guitars and Craig Taubman melodies. A second, smaller, Orthodox service, held upstairs in Hillel’s beit midrash, drew around 20 people, this one with non-instrumental singing. Both services were student-led, with Hillel’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, present at the traditional service and also speaking briefly at dinner.

During the week, the rec room could have been transplanted from a JCC. In “The Shack” on a recent weekday, games of pingpong were ongoing as students worked at their laptops or chatted with friends. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of UCLA’s approximately 4,000 Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study. 

Just before Shabbat dinner began, the students received a set of instructions from a Hillel staff member as to where to go to eat; it all felt like a casual but well-organized Shabbaton, with five to 10 round tables set for dinner in several different rooms, each table seating about 10 students.

Kiddush began with a few students standing up on chairs and singing “Shalom Aleichem to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Nearly everyone quickly joined in, clapping and slapping their thighs to the beat. After hand washing and ha-Motzi, soup, chicken and rice, potatoes and salad were served buffet style. 

Chatting with some freshmen who were attending their first Shabbat at college, one got the sense that, at least at UCLA, Hillel was the go-to place for newcomers looking for Shabbat dinner.

Chabad Shabbat

On weeks when Kashanian wants a more spiritual, less social Friday evening, he said he opts for Chabad.

Walking across UCLA’s campus to the small and unassuming Chabad townhouse on Midvale Avenue, the atmosphere could not be more different from that of Hillel. 

The dining room was lit with the soft glow of electric candelabra lamps and adorned with pictures of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The smell of fresh-baked challah and soup wafted through the air. 

Run by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich and his wife, Elisa, UCLA’s Chabad house doubles as the Gureviches’ home, and as Shabbat dinner entered the second course, the well-dressed Gurevich children could be seen playing with one another and mingling with the guests. On this night, more than 50 students filled every inch of the dining room, some spilling over into the small living room. 

The food, home-cooked by the rebbetzin, included baked gefilte fish, terra chip salad, tomato tarts, barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and more — not bad considering the cramped kitchen in which Elisa Gurevich, with the help of a few students, prepared it all. 

“It’s what you would expect at your grandma’s Shabbat dinner,” Kashanian said.

This particular Shabbat came just after the release of a Pew survey of American Jewry, which reported a decline in involvement among young Jews, so Rabbi Gurevich’s question of the night to each student was: “What aspect of Judaism do you most identify with?” 

Some said unity, some said food, a non-Jewish student at the dinner said that the weekly gathering of Jews for Shabbat stands out in her mind. 

Unlike at Hillel, Chabad’s Shabbat dinners often stretch late into the night, even until midnight. After dinner and dessert, a few dozen students hung around to help clean up, and then stayed to chat, relaxing on the couch and, of course, eating the remaining pecan brownies and peanut-butter crunch.

While most of the students there on this evening were not observant, their presence offered them a front-row view not only of Orthodox family life, but also of the inner workings of Chabad’s rapidly growing campus movement. The first Chabad campus center was established at UCLA in 1969, but it is in recent years, since 2000, that the campus movement’s expansion, both locally and nationally, has been transforming Jewish life on campuses that had been Hillel-centric for much of the 20th century. 

From free Shabbat dinners to a grass-roots, decentralized fundraising strategy, Chabad’s tactics on the 200 campuses it serves full time have impacted Jewish life on campus, including how Hillel reaches out to Jewish students. 

If Hillel used to be the primary — often the only — option for organized campus Judaism, its standing now is somewhat less dominant. Whereas on some campuses, like UCLA, Hillel has maintained its lead role, at others, including the University of Southern California (USC), it now more or less shares that leading spot with Chabad. 

New kid on the block: USC Chabad

Students participating on USC Hillel’s Birthright trip in June 2012 get ready to cool down on a hike in Har Meiron, in northern Israel. Photo by Alison Levine

Los Angeles has three local full-time Hillels — at UCLA, USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), each run with annual budgets of at least $250,000. By contrast, the only Chabad to have cracked the quarter-million mark is at USC, run by Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife, Runya, where the annual budget recently hit $360,000. 

Indeed, the expansion of USC’s Chabad mirrors the national growth of Chabad’s campus movement. In 2000, when two shluchim (emissaries) approached Susan Laemmle, USC’s then-dean of religious life, about the creation of a USC Chabad house, initially she had some reservations.

“Hillel was the umbrella, the big umbrella,” Laemmle said. “And all the Jewish stuff fit under Hillel.” 

Indeed, by the time the Wagners came to USC in 2000, Chabad had established houses on only 35 campuses throughout the country, less than one per year since its campus debut in Los Angeles 31 years before. 

But that was about to change. Today, the Brooklyn-based international Chabad arm of the group’s campus movement serves nearly 400 American colleges and universities, with 200 of those campuses having permanent Chabad student centers.

“It became clear to me that just as there were multiple Christian groups, it was conceivable that there would be multiple Jewish groups,” Laemmle said. Observing the new Jewish campus landscape, she continued, “was a breakthrough, really, in terms of my thinking.”

In 2006, Rabbi Chaim Brook and his wife, Raizel, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to open a Chabad house at CSUN. One year later, Rabbi Eli Levitansky and his wife, Mirel, opened another at Santa Monica College (SMC).

Hillel’s dominance dates to the second half of the 20th century, when the organization became the “anchor of Jewish student life” on campus, said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president for Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

CSUN student Daniel Sigal wraps tefillin at a Sinai Scholars field trip two years ago, as Rabbi Chaim Brook of Chabad finds a prayer in the siddur. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

In L.A., from the early 1940s until the turn of the millennium, Hillel student centers had footholds at UCLA (1941),  USC  (1949) and Los Angeles Valley College (1957). 

But due to Chabad’s ascent, as well as the addition of even more alternatives, like the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), students now have options, said David Harris, the campus activities coordinator at Federation. “You are looking at a multitude of entry points into Jewish campus life,” Harris said. “In earlier years, there were really only one or two.”

JAM, a local campus group that has a presence at four Southern California campuses (including UCLA and USC), was founded in 1996. While not nearly as large as Hillel or Chabad, it offers students weekly learning, Shabbat dinners, challah baking, and trips to Israel and London. 

Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel’s director, has been a staple at Hillel since 1975, drawn initially to the Hillel movement for, as he put it, its “ideological commitment to pluralism.”  

Seidler-Feller’s case for Judaism to the assimilated Jews, who are the “overwhelming number of Jews in America today and on the campus in particular,” is that “you can be open, involved, and integrated into American and Jewish society on the whole, and retain a significant [Jewish] identity, practice [and] commitment,” he said. 

“When I started, one felt that there was a residue of Jewish commitment and knowledge that was present among certain sectors of the student community,” Seidler-Feller said during one of two interviews at his Hillel office, which is lined with a seemingly endless number of books. “There has been a very noticeable decline in the [last] 20 years, as far as that’s concerned.”

Michael Jeser, who led USC’s Hillel from 2009 to June of this year, said that today’s young Jews often don’t want to get involved. “The overwhelming majority of Jewish students don’t affiliate to anything,” said Jeser, who was recently named executive director of Jewish World Watch.

To attract those Jews, USC Hillel molds some of its programming around activities that don’t, at least on the surface, appear Jewish, such as Trojan Hoops for Justice, a basketball tournament to raise money for programs for under-privileged children.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker — who grew up in Reseda, graduated USC in 2002 and received a master’s degree there in social work in 2006 — was a regular at Hillel and an occasional guest at Chabad, becoming close with Rabbi Wagner. 

In 2011, Watenmaker became the Reform outreach-initiative rabbi at the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Speaking by phone, he pointed out that a key difference between Chabad and Hillel is that while Chabad focuses on offering Jewish programs, Hillel offers programs for Jews, not all of which have a religiously Jewish theme. 

Watenmaker remembers attending a USC Hillel masquerade ball for Purim where there was no reading of the Book of Esther — which every Chabad house in the world reads on Purim.

“It was a chance to go out with other Jews, even if there wasn’t something overtly Jewish about it,” Watenmaker said. 

And while Shabbat dinner, tefillin wrapping and menorah lighting are key activities at a campus Chabad house, Jeser said Hillel’s programming will “reflect the identity of the majority of the Jewish students,” usually not so tied to observance. 

Contrasting outreach strategies

Josh Faskowitz, a 21-year-old senior at USC, grew up Reform, participated in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and became involved with Hillel after going on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2011.

“I needed some way to slow down the monotony of college,” Faskowitz said. “I worked with the rabbinic intern at Hillel, and we talked about how to instill Judaism in my routine.” Faskowitz decided to learn how to cook a Shabbat meal every week.

“That was kind of my religious opening,” Faskowitz said, pointing to the way Hillel engages today’s Jewish students through a process it calls “relationship-based engagement.” A Hillel intern helped Faskowitz find a meaningful Jewish routine through making Shabbat dinners, and Faskowitz, on his own, shared the dinners he prepared with his friends.

Shoshanna Pro, a senior at CSUN and a volunteer for Hillel 818 (a collaborative Hillel that covers programming at CSUN, as well as at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and L.A. Valley College in Valley Glen), said that, in her experience, Hillel’s focus on developing leadership qualities is so emphasized that many times “the staff will not step in” if a student-led program is falling short of expectations. 

At Chabad, by contrast, it is the rabbi and rebbetzin who run most programs. And in the event of a faltering student-run program, the Chabad husband-wife team will usually step in to help, as their goal is always to run successful programs. 

A program at Chabad can be something as seemingly minor as setting up a table on campus with brownies and informational fliers (student volunteers lead much of the campus “tabling”), to wrapping tefillin with Jewish men chancing to walk by. 

During an on-campus interview with Rabbi Brook of Chabad at CSUN, the rabbi frequently stopped the conversation to chat with Jewish students walking by. To the male students, he added, “Would you like to wrap tefillin?” 

Almost every student accepted Brook’s request and put on the arm and head tefillin right in the middle of the busy campus thoroughfare, saying prayers, then unwrapping and continuing on with their day.

According to Chabad tradition, any mitzvah is an experience “that remains forever in the person’s life,” said Chabad of Santa Monica College’s Rabbi Levitansky. “Chabad feels that when you do a mitzvah, it’s not just a mitzvah that you did and then it’s gone.” 

During Sukkot at USC, Rebbetzin Wagner involved students in baking brownies and making chicken soup, while the rabbi, his seven children and some student volunteers manned the sukkah during the day, attracting dozens of students in to shake the lulav and etrog — as well as to snack and chat. 

“If somebody has a positive Jewish experience, which can literally be just one single mitzvah done in a sukkah,” Wagner said, “that already, in itself, is a positive accomplishment. And we see that as fulfilling our mission here.”

While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not “represent any dogmas,” according to Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus

For example, because UCLA has significantly more Orthodox Jewish students than either USC or CSUN, the Hillel in Westwood offers a traditional Friday night service in addition to its Reform one. Not so at USC, where there simply is not the demand for a separate Orthodox service at Hillel.

Chabad, meanwhile, is fiercely consistent in its messaging on any campus or other site. Shabbat services are traditional Orthodox and follow the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the father of contemporary kabbalah.  

And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families. While Jeser said that USC Hillel’s “strategies have to reflect” the high number of Jews of interfaith families at USC, that reality would not liberalize or otherwise change how Chabad reaches out. It would likely further motivate shluchim to increase their efforts.

Student demographics at Chabad

Even though Chabad’s philosophy is traditional, the affiliations of many, if not most, of the students who attend Chabad closely resemble the range of observance of modern-day Jewish students on college campuses across America — from observant to, more often, not at all. Despite the reality of these demographics, Chabad on Campus spokesman Motti Seligson said by phone from Brooklyn the perception remains that Chabad is primarily for Orthodox students.

“Some people may perceive Chabad as being only for Orthodox Jews,” Seligson said. “If you walk into any Chabad house on campus, that perception quickly evaporates when you see who’s actually there.”

Wagner estimated that just 5 to 10 percent of regular attendees at the Chabad of USC identify as Orthodox. Brook said that among Jewish students at CSUN, he interacts the least with Orthodox ones, perhaps because most of them live at home and would not be on campus for Shabbat.

For a handful of non-observant or unaffiliated students, Chabad serves as the steppingstone to an observant lifestyle. Ellen Watkins, a UCLA senior from San Francisco, was raised, aside from Jewish summer camp, as a secular Jew. As a freshman, she said she tried out UCLA’s Jewish gamut (Hillel, Chabad and JAM), eventually settling with what the Gureviches were offering and even becoming Chabad’s student board co-president in her junior year.

Marketing, outreach and cooperation

The immersion of Chabad emissaries in environments that aren’t natural hubs for religiosity or spirituality walks in line with the group’s core philosophy that it is the Jewish people’s mission to make the world a holier place. Tabling on campus, inviting a secular Jew to Shabbat dinner, working with fraternities and sororities that have significant Jewish populations — these are all a direct outgrowth of the movement’s philosophy of immersion in American society.

This, in fact, may be the deepest similarity between Chabad and Hillel: While the two organizations have very different outlooks on Judaism, both see college campuses as key to the future of American Judaism.

Sisters in the Sigma AEPi colony at CSUN learn how to bake challah last year at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

At USC, the Wagners have engaged extensively with the two Jewish fraternities there, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Mu (Sammy). USC has no official Jewish sororities.

From challah baking, to Greek Shabbats, to “stump the rabbi” sessions, Rabbi Wagner says engaging in Greek culture is a natural way to reach large numbers of Jews. “If you’re able to reach into a couple of students, you’ve got access not only to that student [and] maybe a couple of their friends, but to the group as a whole,” Wagner said.

One luxury at USC, a private university, is the access offered by the school’s Office of Religious Life to engage incoming freshmen. Every year, the office gives both Hillel and Chabad the list of accepted applicants who checked off “Jewish” as their religion. 

Of course, as Wagner points out, working with a college bureaucracy is not always easy: “The university is like the government. There are a million different offices, and each one is to some extent independent of [the others].” 

“You have to develop a relationship with the office of admissions, and a relationship with the office of religious life, and a relationship with the office of alumni programming, and a relationship with the financial office.”

Discussing what is perhaps the most cooperative local Hillel-Chabad relationship, Bailey London, USC Hillel’s executive director, said that Hillel and Chabad work closely every year to plan Shabbat 500 — which, as the name suggests, is a Shabbat dinner for 500 Jews, held under a massive tent outside the Chabad house.

This past August, after Fresh Fest — a two-day annual retreat for Jewish freshmen held in August at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley — London said that Hillel invited the students to a welcome barbecue at Chabad.

As Chabad grows, Hillel adapts

Judith Alban, acting executive director at Hillel 818, pointed to two major changes Hillel has adapted to in the past generation. One is an evolution of how Jewish students want to be engaged. Whereas in the past, students may have been willing to work the phones to raise money for Hillel, today’s students “don’t want to sit on the phone asking people for money,” Alban said during an interview in her Hillel 818 office adjacent to the CSUN campus.

“They like to see the actual fruits of their labor,” she said. “We can get a lot of students to come out and paint a school. That’s just the way this generation is.”

The second change that Hillel has adapted to is one that was actually spurred by campus Chabad houses — free Shabbat dinners, a core principle for Chabad. After all, a family inviting people over for Shabbat dinner would likely not ask them for an upfront payment. Whereas many Hillels used to charge students for Shabbat dinner (even if only $5 or $10), competition from Chabad helped change that. 

Students who don’t lean toward Hillel or Chabad were often enticed by Chabad’s free Shabbat dinners. So, Alban said, “in order to compete,” Hillel had to adapt.

“It was like [free-]market enterprise,” she said. “Hillel had to start doing what Chabad did.”

The competition also offers a challenge for both Chabad and Hillel — if students are used to getting everything for free, how will they understand that those programs rely on funds raised by others?

“My biggest fear is that students have an expectation that everything in the Jewish world will be free,” said Josh Fried, Hillel 818’s program director. “They don’t understand that they are going to have to pay it forward and donate.”

UCLA seniors at Dockweiler Beach in 2012 for a Hillel event. Photo courtesy of Hillel at UCLA

Rabbi Gurevich at Chabad of UCLA echoed a similar sentiment during an interview in his Westwood office. “People have kind of gotten used to, in a way, some handouts — Birthright, free trips,” Gurevich said. “It’s hard to stimulate someone to get excited about something unless there’s some kind of giveaway.” 

Parents, Gurevich said, tend to donate on behalf of their children only while the kids are in college. As for the alumni, “It takes a while for them to make their way in the world,” to the point where they feel they can give back.

Gurevich also pointed to a Chabad program known as Sinai Scholars — which offers a $350 stipend to students who come to study — as one drawback of what he says is, overall, a wonderful program. “I’m ambivalent about it because it might create these expectations,” Gurevich said. “It’s the question people ask about Birthright: Are you giving too many free things to people?”

But, as with offering free Shabbat dinners, Gurevich and Chabad on Campus see the stipend as a way to get otherwise unmotivated students to commit to hours of Torah study.

“The bottom line is that the benefits outweigh the particular detriment, because we see that people become a lot more involved and a lot more engaged,” Gurevich said. The Sinai Scholars program is now offered on 77 campuses nationally, according to Chabad spokesman Seligson.

In contrast, at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his wife, Sharona, have been working for almost a decade as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). Offering one-on-one learning with students as well as group classes on Jewish topics, Kaplan said that he has never offered a cash stipend.

“Our general position is never to pay for learning,” Kaplan said. “We found that we haven’t needed to do it in order to have a crowd.” 

He added, however, that he and Sharona do offer other incentives, such as a free lunch or dinner, or having a running tab at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, allowing students who learn with JLIC to get a cup of coffee or a snack on the house. “The bottom line is an incentive is an incentive,” Kaplan said.

UCLA student Eli Mordechai wrapping tefillin on campus with Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dovid Gurevich

Hillel and The Jewish Federation

Hillel’s dominance on college campuses was long reflected in Federation’s relationship with the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct organization that helped finance local Hillels, in large part through Federation support.

Federation’s Harris, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the past Federation-LAHC funding stream as a “lump sum” to LAHC, which was then “divided up among its member units.” 

Until about three years ago, every dime of Federation’s campus funding went to LAHC and, by proxy, to local Hillels. Between 2008 and 2010, all of Federation’s combined $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC.

LAHC’s dissolution about three years ago forced the Hillels under its purview to become independent 501(c)(3)s, which also coincided with a major upcoming change in how Federation will distribute grants to all Jewish organizations for all programs under the aegis of its Ensuring the Jewish Future department, including those on campus.

Because Federation plans to shift to a program-based grant process, beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, Hillel, like Chabad, may have to rely more and more on local, grass-roots, relationship-based fundraising.

Previously, Federation’s Jacoby said, the official view was, “We have a historic relationship with this organization [Hillel]; therefore we will give it money.” Now, he said, Federation has “no predisposition whatsoever for, or against, any organization.” 

In 2010, Federation began to encourage more Jewish campus groups — including Chabad and JAM — to apply for program grants. 

Since then, Federation has given about
$2.3 million directly to local Hillels and $386,000 to other Jewish campus groups, $28,000 of which went to Chabad of USC for program grants, Harris wrote in his e-mail. Federation’s gradual shift away from a Hillel-only funding approach is a reflection, at least in part, of “the myriad of ways a Jewish student in today’s world can get engaged in Jewish life on campus,” Harris wrote.

Once Federation’s grant-based funding is in full effect, money that used to cover operating costs at local Hillels will soon only be distributed in the form of grants for specific programs, which Hillel as well as other Jewish groups will have to apply for. 

For UCLA Hillel, which has its own fundraising team, a fundraising partnership with UCLA, and relies on core Federation grants for only 7 percent of its annual budget, losing those core grants may not have a tremendously adverse impact. 

But, as Seidler-Feller said, “Every organization is reliant on a core budget, and this new approach undercuts or seemingly undercuts that core budget, or part of it.” He added, though, that a grant-based process may have an upside. “It also means there’s a push for excellence,” he said. “You have to earn the grant.”

For Hillel 818, which has relied extensively on Federation for many years, adapting to a new landscape — by tapping into relationships with parents, alumni and community members — may be a struggle. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner and students enjoy food at Chabad of USC’s falafel fiesta night in January 2012. Photo  courtesy of Chabad of USC

“It’s a very tough transition,” Alban said. “We are going to the community and telling them how we are struggling. I just think sometimes the parents don’t really think about it,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, the Jewish community funds you.’ ”

At Chabad, the primary fundraiser generally is just one person — the rabbi. Seed money from major donors and small annual grants from Chabad on Campus are not uncommon, but on a year-to-year basis, Brook at CSUN, for example, is almost entirely responsible for raising his $200,000 annual budget.

Chabad operates on something approaching a franchise model — each Chabad house can use the Chabad brand and can pay for the rights to a standard Chabad on campus Web site. But each Chabad house is entirely responsible for its own operations.

“It’s a yearly struggle,” said Chabad of SMC’s Levitansky. “But I think it creates an element of constant motivation. You are the king or the queen on the chessboard, which creates a much greater desire to get toward
your goal.”

A model for the future

As Jewish campus life in Los Angeles continues to adjust to having twice as many options on campus, some Chabads and Hillels are learning how to share the playground. 

At USC and CSUN, the two organizations already often work together when they can. 

“It’s healthy to have us both here,” Hillel 818’s Alban said. “It really is.” 

One benefit of having a Chabad rabbi right down the street, according to Alban, is that when it comes to questions of Jewish law, she knows whom to call.

“We had a student who wanted to get her apartment kashered, and so we called [Rabbi Brook],” she said.

At UCLA, some students don’t see competition: “They are interconnected,” said David Chernobylsky, a 19-year-old UCLA junior. “When you start meeting people through the other, you become more ingrained in the entire Jewish community.”

“It’s just good for the Jews,” Brook said with a smile, as he walked back to the CSUN Chabad house after spending a few hours on campus. “There’s enough work for both of us.”

And, as Seidler-Feller bluntly put it, there’s so much room for growth with Jewish college students that neither group can call itself king.

Seidler-Feller may be leading one of the most successful Hillel centers on any campus. But still, he emphasized, “Anyone who thinks one organization controls the campus is hallucinating.”

Seeking consolation


How does an irreligious Jew find consolation at a religious service?

Seeking such consolation, I attended the Hillel at UCLA High Holy Days services conducted by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller. I don’t often go to services, but in February our oldest daughter, Robin, died, and I felt drawn there.

Rabbi Seidler-Feller — people simply call him Chaim — is a comforting presence, at least to me. I have attended a few High Holy Days services at UCLA Hillel in the past and have interviewed the rabbi for my column in the Jewish Journal. He has a scholarly yet freewheeling mind, an ability to explain our religion to skeptics like me and to welcome us into the flock, even for a brief time. He has an understated sense of humor that appeals to me, and he is a warm and approachable man.

I went alone on Rosh Hashanah. Nancy, my wife, is an abstainer. My late father once asked her why she didn’t go to temple. “Dad,” she said, “I don’t believe in it.” 

“Believe in it,” he replied. “Why, nobody believes in it.” In his mind, it was simply his duty to go. 

As the services went on around me, I was thinking of Robin. Images of our family life flashed through my mind, mostly the good times we had, but also the tough ones experienced by Robin, her sister, Jennifer, Nancy and me, a mental slide show of the Boyarsky family story.

Another family — a dysfunctional one — was the subject of the Torah reading and of Rabbi Seidler-Feller’s words to the congregation. It was the family headed by Abraham, including his wife, Sarah, and her maid, Hagar. As is well known, Sarah, unable to conceive, persuaded Abraham to father a child with Hagar, who gave birth to a boy named Ishmael. After his birth, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. The two mothers did not get along. Sarah, feeling Ishmael was a bad influence on Isaac, persuaded Abraham to send mother and son away. He complied, but after their banishment, they had a harrowing experience in the desert until an angel of God appeared to save them. God promised that Ishmael would lead a great nation. Isaac, too, was chosen to lead a great nation, and the conflict continues to this day: Isaac’s Jews versus Ishmael’s Arabs. 

Rabbi Seidler-Feller, I am sure, had told this story and commented on it countless times. Yet, in his telling, it was fresh, dealing as it does with the insoluble issues of relationships with God, with husbands, wives, siblings and, as it eventually turned out, among Arabs and Jews, although the rabbi did not dwell on this point.

With so many angles of the story to consider, I lost myself thinking about it, not paying much attention to the service. What was wrong with Abraham? How could he kick out Hagar? Of course, what could you expect from a man who later was about to sacrifice Isaac on God’s command until God rescinded the terrible order? I wondered how that defense — God told me to do it — would stand up in a trial in the Criminal Courts Building.

In early afternoon, we approached the time for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and my thoughts returned to Robin. By the time of the prayer, the congregation had thinned out. I looked around at others saying the Kaddish, wondering whom they had lost, what they were thinking about and whether they were as sad as me. Not entirely sad, however. I smiled, thinking of how the witty Robin, although appreciating the fact that she was loved and being remembered, would have had some ironic comments about the event.

On Yom Kippur, I again went to services at Hillel, this time with my cousin Rhona Singer. She is as irreligious as me. We enjoy going together, because it brings back memories of growing up in Oakland with our large family and of old friends and religious school at Temple Beth Abraham, where my mother was the principal. 

I understand the solemnity of the day, but I find it difficult to repent for the many sins listed in the Al Chet recited by the congregation, even though Rabbi Seidler-Feller explained it didn’t mean we had committed them all. We were repenting for Jewish community members who had committed them.

One sin always stops me — “For the sin which we have committed before You by scoffing.” Scoffing is what I have done for a living throughout my career. Scoffing is central to my character. I couldn’t very well repent that.

During the Yizkor service, Robin’s name was among those recited by the rabbi. Rhona touched my arm in sympathy. 

I left Hillel consoled, helped by a rabbi who makes a place for the religious and the scoffers. Feeling welcome there, I was free to let my mind roam through thoughts of family, including the daughter we’ve lost. Over the years, we’ve had more happy moments than sad, and I’m thankful for that.


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).