An Ode to Hillel

To Hillel International: I stand unequivocally with you, your resilient students and your devoted staff.
May 8, 2024
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As a junior at UC San Diego in 2004 (Go, Tritons!), I attended a talk by Gina Waldman (born Gina Malaka Bublil), a human rights activist and co-founder of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa). Waldman, who was born in Tripoli and whose family had lived in Libya for centuries, was persecuted, nearly killed and ultimately forced out of her homeland as a result of horrific pogroms against Jews during the 1967 Six-Day War. 

Waldman was the first Libyan Jew I had ever met. I will never forget her survivor’s account of almost being burned alive when she was 19 years old. Waldman and her family were riding a bus to escape Libya when the bus driver stopped in the middle of the desert and poured gasoline on the vehicle, hoping to set it on fire and murder Jews inside. 

Waldman left a deep impression on me and for the first time, I contemplated whether anyone would want to hear my own story, and whether I had anything to contribute in the realms of Jewish advocacy and activism. And as an Iranian, I was incredulous to learn that an educational advocacy organization like JIMENA existed for Jews like me. 

That critical event with Waldman was hosted by UC San Diego Hillel. 

I have a special place in my heart for Hillel, formally known as Hillel International, which celebrated its 100th birthday several weeks ago. In honor of this milestone birthday, I want to share with readers for the first time some of my most memorable Hillel experiences, and shed light on the previously-unimaginable challenges that Hillel is now facing as a result of antisemitic students on campus. 

I entered college two weeks after 9/11, beginning my freshman year at UC Davis (Go, Aggies!).

For the first two weeks on campus, I felt viscerally lost and out of place, and I realized it was because I had not met or spoken to another Jew since I had arrived. This sense of loneliness had nothing to do with being religiously observant; it derived from a deep-rooted desire to find my own people, my own kind, while still forming meaningful friendships with many non-Jewish peers. 

After two weeks of feeling wholly out of place, I finally saw a flier taped to a wall at Olson Hall promoting an AEPi event being held at the Hillel House. I wasn’t exactly a candidate for a Jewish fraternity, but I pounced on that flier because I finally realized that UC Davis had a Hillel, and an address to boot. 

The Hillel House at Davis became my home away from home, and I learned much from its patient director, Hillel Damron, a film director and novelist whose parents had survived the Holocaust. I loved that Hillel ran Hillel. Every Friday night, I could be found there for Shabbat dinner, especially because for Persian Jews, Shabbat dinners are sacrosanct. The fellow students felt like family and the food was kosher. In fact, I tasted matzo ball soup for the first time at a Hillel Shabbat dinner. I still missed my mother’s Persian Gondi meatballs, but there was something wonderful about those fluffy matzo balls.

It was at UCD Hillel where I first attended lectures by Middle East experts, including the incomparable Dr. Mitchell Bard. When Bard discussed his vital book, “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” I realized that in order to honor myself and my identity, I had to learn much more about the modern Middle East.

I spent two years at Davis, during the Second Intifada and the impassioned protests of the early George W. Bush years. At times when I felt the most unsafe during massive anti-Israel campus rallies, I walked quickly to that Hillel house on A Street and spent a few hours socializing and, of course, eating.  

As a junior, I transferred to UC San Diego, where, during my campus tour, I met a young Hillel program director named Keri Copans (née Savage). This time, I didn’t even have to wait two long weeks to find my home away from home. 

I immersed myself fully in UCSD Hillel and its pro-Israel student group, where I met lifelong friends. I even wrote for the Jewish student paper. Every Friday night, I was at the International Center, which Hillel used for Shabbat services and dinner (it recently secured a permanent home). At UCSD Hillel Shabbats, I heard non-Iranian tunes to Jewish prayers for the first time. It was magical.

It was also at UCSD Hillel where the remarkable Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then the chapter’s executive director, taught this public-school Jew how to read Hebrew, and also broke down the elements of Jewish prayer in the siddur. Her brief words of inspiration each Friday night energized me for the week. 

Hillel is one of the reasons why, after graduation, I proudly served at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, co-founded 30 Years After to encourage civic action among a new generation of Iranian American Jews, and why, for half a decade, I have been a weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal. 

During graduate school at USC (Go, Trojans!), I even briefly worked at Hillel. It was then that I was first exposed to a new low in campus anti-Israel activity: Hateful students were no longer merely boycotting pro-Israel campus groups, they were going directly after Hillel. 

Beginning a few years ago, protesters began appearing outside Hillel at UC San Diego, often in response to conflicts between Hamas and Israel, such as those in May 2021. Jewish students who wanted to attend everything from a “Lunch and Learn” to a Shabbat dinner were faced with protesters. 

Is Hillel an arm of the Israeli government? No. Does it have the right to include Israel as part of its wonderful programming because the Jewish state is an important element in the identity of most American Jews? Of course.

After Oct. 7, the targeting of Hillel on campuses nationwide has been particularly unforgivable. Recently, a flier at a local university attacked Hillel by depicting a Hillel logo and fulminating: “Zionist Alert! Long Beach State University endorsed generations of Zionist bigots. Should LBSU students be taught to be hateful?” At the bottom of the flier, there was a photo of Jewish students seated at a table, drinking sodas. Oh, the pernicious activities of Hillel students. Also, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the ominous warning of “Zionist Alert!”

The irony is brutal. Whoever created that flier is a shameless bigot. But “generations” of Jews, whether current students or alumni, are “Zionist bigots.” That’s funny. When I first started attending Hillel Shabbat dinners, I was mostly there for the free matzah ball soup. The Zionist bigot addition was a delightful afterthought.

For decades, Hillel staff have tried their best to support Jewish students of all religious and political backgrounds, from right-wing to left-wing. Their job is not easy.

There’s another irony: For decades, Hillel staff have tried their best to support Jewish students of all religious and political backgrounds, from right-wing to left-wing. Their job is not easy, especially because, unlike off-campus organizations, Hillel has to be very careful in how it approaches campus administration. 

To Hillel International: I stand unequivocally with you, your resilient students and your devoted staff. One of the most meaningful moments of my career occurred when JIMENA invited me to speak at UC San Diego, alongside Gina Waldman, roughly 10 years after I had graduated. Of course, the event was also organized by UCSD Hillel. 

If Hillel has meant anything to you, please contact the Hillel at your alma mater; offer support and ask how you can help. These days, I hear Google is very good for searches related to Jewish campus life. 

And if need be, I will return to that Hillel house on A street in Davis, or to the new Hillel house in La Jolla, or to the Hillel at USC. I will stand proudly outside those welcoming doors and hold an American flag in one hand and an Israeli flag in another. Maybe I’ll even stay for Shabbat dinner.

Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X and Instagram @TabbyRefael.

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