June 26, 2019

Why Choosing a Torah Path Is So Hard to Explain

Orthodox Jews like me often must try to explain our beliefs and practices to those who hold many misconceptions about Judaism.

A Christian colleague once asked me, “Is pork still not kosher?”

“Still not and never will be,” I answered.

A Jewish woman cornered me one night after a laughter yoga class and said, “I didn’t know you were allowed to attend a mixed gathering like this. Do you get out much?” On the flip side, when I recently arrived in Israel, the passport control man looked at me and asked, “You can go around in your community with that much hair showing from your beret?” I smiled and said yes. Then he whipped out a picture of his wife, who wears berets like I do. “She used to be Satmar,” he explained.

I used to carry loads of my own stereotypes about Torah observance. The most embarrassing one was thinking most Orthodox women were just Stepford Wives with two sets of dishes. Despite being a writer always in search of a good story, it never occurred to me to write a book about my slow transition to tradition — until a terribly awkward incident at a weekend writers’ conference.

I tried to duck out unnoticed on a Saturday night, being needed at home, but as the elevator doors were closing on my way down to the lobby, another writer jammed his foot inside and joined me. You didn’t need a journalism degree to be curious about the tall red and white box on my luggage cart with the incriminating label “KOSHER LAMP” on it.

“What is a kosher lamp?” he asked in a snarky tone. I knew instantly he was a Member of the Tribe. Most non-Jews wouldn’t dare be so chutzpadik about someone else’s religion. Hadn’t I already paid the price for being shomeret Shabbat by walking up the 11 flights of stairs on Friday night and Saturday, carrying my homemade meals on a paper plate to get to the conference room?

I tried to explain about the movable cover over the lamp, but I knew it sounded technical and weird. I failed the Hillel test spectacularly. When Hillel had been challenged to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he did so masterfully — in one sentence. The MOT parried a second sarcastic question as we parted ways.

I was so frustrated. I hated being seen as some unthinking religious fundamentalist. A formerly snarky nonobservant Jew myself, I also had looked down on my brother and sister Jews who dutifully walked to shul on Saturday while I was driving right past them on my way to the movies.

This fellow writer and Jew knew nothing of my years of personal struggle — intellectual, emotional, spiritual — that preceded and to some extent continued in my life as a baalat teshuvah. How could I explain in mere seconds what it had taken me years to understand and appreciate? The magic of Shabbat is that it is a day when we stop frantically doing to enjoy the serenity of being. Yes, the laws of Shabbat observance are strict and numerous, but they are required for the integrity of the experience.

“A formerly snarky nonobservant Jew myself, I also had looked down on my brother and sister Jews who dutifully walked to shul on Saturday while I was driving right past them on my way to the movies.”

My decision to finally write a memoir about my experiences gained added urgency because around the same time, several anti-Orthodox memoirs were published, mostly by people in Chasidic communities. Their stories were uniformly damning, even dystopian. These books were lavished with media attention, despite several of the writers having little to no publishing history. The Jewish Book Council, an important review clearinghouse, reviewed them all. Yes, leaving religion is sexy.

In writing about Orthodoxy at its narrowest borders and in some cases, without the perspective of distance in time to offer a counterbalancing view, these writers unfairly reinforced the adjective “Orthodox” with “repressive.”

I could not let those writers speak for me. I chose my journey only after serious thought, study, conversation and observation. My truth was that signing onto the covenant at Sinai had given me great gifts of a warm and supportive community, pleasure and intellectual stimulation through Torah study, and a solid framework for my marriage and family life. I had been stunned to discover how little about Judaism I really knew. For example, I was blown away to learn the idea of an immortal soul — which I always thought was Christian — was Jewish in origin. What other emotionally nourishing ideas had been dropped from the syllabus?

Choosing Torah observance felt right but also was scary. It threatened my sense of self as a feminist and my social standing among my close Jewish friends. None of them ever asked me why I was doing this.

Thousands of formerly secular Jews have become Torah-observant over the last generation, and our stories are underreported. My life has been immeasurably enriched but still has plenty of challenges, as all lives do. While many mitzvahs have come naturally to me, such as giving 10 percent to tzedakah and trying to avoid lashon harah, or gossip, others — like covering my hair after marriage — were deeply unpalatable. I resisted for years until I found a measure of understanding and acceptance of the reasons behind them. If I find out one day that having kept a mitzvah that was hard for me earned me more points “up there,” I won’t mind.

Orthodox Jews get a lot of bad press, and some of it is deserved. But the beautiful stories about Torah life seemingly only are told in books and articles geared toward an insider crowd. Leaving Orthodoxy is sexy; joining it is not. My book, despite my credits as a longtime journalist and the distinctiveness of a funny memoir about finding Orthodoxy not abhorrent but rather wonderful, was ignored by all the secular media outlets that rushed to publicize the religion-as-abuse memoirs. Even the Jewish Book Council took a pass.

As for the MOT who razzed me about my “Kosher Lamp,” I am happy to report he came over to me as I packed my car, smiled and wished me a good week. I smiled in return. It had been a classic baal teshuvah moment — wanting all our MOTs to accept us.

My story is for him, and for all of us.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is her memoir, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith” (She Writes Press). Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Jewish Action, Aish.com and many other media outlets.

Day School Surprises Kids With U.S. Soldier’s Return in Time for Purim

Rivka and Moshe Scheinfeld with their family following their surprise reunion March 15. Photo courtesy of Rivka Scheinfeld

What was initially thought of as a Purim assembly became a homecoming reunion for Hillel students.

Rabbi Y. Boruch Sufrin of Harkham Hillel in Beverly Hills surprised his students with a real-life Purim hero March 15 by welcoming Major Moshe Scheinfeld home. Scheinfeld had just returned from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army and not only surprised the school, but his three children who had no idea he was coming to surprise them.

“It was very hush hush,” Rivka Scheinfeld told the Journal. “We knew he was coming home before Purim. We didn’t know exactly, but I picked him up Friday. The kids didn’t know. This was a true surprise for them. They ran to him and they were shocked they were so happy that he was back.”

Photo courtesy of Rivka Scheinfeld

In his remarks following the welcome, he shared with the students his pillar of strength during his time of service which was learning Pirkei Avot and Tehillim. He then gave thanks to Rabbi Sufrin, the Hillel families and staff who gave him and his family strength and support while he served.

“It really was special. And the community, I have to say, was amazing to our family,” Rivka added.

Rivka said she was happy that their family was able to celebrate Purim together. She said the family dressed as a basketball team so their kids were the basketball players while Rivka and Moshe were the referees.

“We were all together,” she said adding that he finished his deployment. “He’s home for good now. He’s home.”

‘Homelessness’ Now Resides at UCLA’s Hillel

Ted Hayes and the artist, Pat Berger. Photo by Peter Martin

In the winter of 1984, artist Pat Berger learned that the American Red Cross planned to erect two enormous tents near Los Angeles City Hall to help feed the homeless for Christmas. She went downtown to investigate and began talking to the men, women and children standing in the long lines snaking out from the overcrowded tents onto the sidewalks. She approached two men and asked permission to photograph them. They agreed — on one condition: she had to shake their hands.

“I said, ‘Of course,’ ” Berger recalled. “I realized they just wanted to be part of the human race. It’s such a solitary life. I knew I wanted to get involved, and I decided to do a consciousness-raising statement through art.”

Berger, who will turn 90 in March, called up this memory during an interview at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel, where 18 of her 35 paintings inspired from that period of her life are on display. The exhibition, simply titled “Homelessness,” may consist of images created in the mid 1980s, but the scenes they depict remain alarmingly timely. 

At the exhibition’s opening on Jan. 24, the Dortort also hosted Berger’s longtime friend and fellow homelessness activist Ted Hayes and a series of speakers from UCLA and neighboring facilities, who considered ways to confront the topic of homelessness.  

After that Christmas encounter 34 years ago, Berger got to work. She met regularly with the residents of Hayes’ Tent City and Skid Row, and conducted more research of homeless people living by the beaches. She worked extensively with Hayes, who at the time lived on the streets and who she helped get office space in the Bradbury Building downtown. She also spent time with film maker Gary Glazer, who featured her work in his documentary, “Trouble in Paradise.” 

“I spent five years down there, and there were so many stories,” Berger said. “It was the most exciting time of my life. For five years, that was my beat.” 

As Berger advocated, she also painted, creating a series of 35 acrylics and lithographs depicting people and scenes meant to be neither glamorous nor gut-wrenching. Among them, a group sits at a half empty table in Venice consuming “Christmas Dinner”; two boys holding soda cans wander amid the clutter of boxes and containers in “Home for a Day”; and a woman sits guarding rows of “Donated Shoes.” 

“I think it’s important for our community. This is where they do their Shabbat dinners. I want them to understand that they live in a very privileged society — except, of course, those who are homeless.” — Perla Karney

“She was a toughie,” Berger said. “I would go down and sketch and take pictures when I could. I had to be careful, because if they didn’t like it, they would chase me away. Some of them were people who would never go into shelters. I don’t blame them, really.” 

The works were first exhibited in the cafeteria of the Weingart Center for the homeless on Skid Row. In the ensuing years, they have traveled the nation and are filling a very specific function at the Dortort, according to the center’s Artistic Director Perla Karney. 

“I think it’s important for our community and for our students to have an in-your-face kind of thing,” Karney said. “This is where they do their Shabbat dinners. This is where they have their lectures. This is where they are confronted with these paintings. I want them to understand that they live in a very privileged society — except, of course, those who are homeless.”

This region has a turbulent history with homelessness, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and the California Housing Partnership Corporation. According to homelessness counts between 2010 and 2017, the number of homeless people across Los Angeles County increased from 38,700 to more than 55,000. In March of 2017, voters approved a tax increase to fund $3.5 billion to address homelessness over the next 10 years. The effects of that financial boost are still being determined, but the number of homeless in Los Angeles County decreased by 4 percent in 2018.  

Local universities are by no means exempt, including UCLA, which operates the Bruin Shelter for homeless students. During his opening remarks, Hillel’s Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lerner said that approximately twelve students from the shelter made the rounds of Westwood area churches in search of a place to live. Turned down multiple times, they ended up in Santa Monica, housed several miles away from their educational base.

Lerner evoked the theories of Eli Ginzberg who, during the heart of the Civil Rights movement, insisted that Jewish organizations “must first, foremost and always be concerned with the deepening, furthering and survival of our specifically religious Jewish values.”

“I’m left wondering about accepting the challenges of [Ginzberg’s] words from more than 55 years ago, when there are parking lot programs that are available for the city to make space for people who have cars but have no homes, when I have space that’s not used at night,” Lerner said. “What am I really willing and able to do? I don’t have a good answer for you.”

“Homelessness” is on display at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. For more information, call 310-208-3081 or visit uclahillel.org/now_on_view.   

Rethinking Jews’ Place in America

Photo from Twitter.

Unlike any other anti-Semitic incident, the Tree of Life Congregation tragedy has destroyed American Jews’ assumptions about our place in American society. We believed that deadly acts of anti-Semitism had been relegated to another era, only to see the rebirth of violent hate in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood and beyond. Now, caught up in a suddenly tense and hostile political climate, America’s Jewish community is struggling to find its political voice. 

As a community, we hold to a series of core beliefs. We envision our Judaism and our Americanism to be in consort with each other. We believe each generation builds upon the last. And we see the pursuit of these value propositions advancing the perfectibility of humankind. 

Following World War II, globalism would redefine America’s place in the world. As a central player in promoting regional models of collective action, the United States would form military alliances and economic trade arrangements designed to connect this nation with the world. The genius of the Marshall Plan and the success of NATO had symbolized the post-war American model of global engagement. Many of us also became globalists. We asserted our role in advocating for human rights on the world stage, beginning with Soviet Jewry and extending to endangered communities well beyond the Jewish world.

Because of our economic and social standing, and the individual and collective achievements of Jews, we have taken pride that Jewish Americans disproportionately contribute to this nation’s cultural messaging, imprinting its social behaviors and helping to frame its political conversations.

The Trump presidency has brought about a fundamentally disruptive moment in this nation’s political culture. Not only are we experiencing strikingly different policy options and directions, but the current cultural artifacts of politics — namely how this president operates — dramatically challenge the existing norms of political behavior and action. As our society is shifting from a period of American liberalism to political populism, deep fissures are dividing Americans in general and Jews in particular. Jewish political differences may never have been more pronounced than they are today, as Jews debate and disagree over how to define their vision for America and their own self-interests.

Amid this fundamental political sea change that appears to be underway, with new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism emerging to test America’s social fabric, America’s Jews are experiencing a new type of angst. After decades of being seen as political outsiders, Jews in recent times have become defined as part of the United States’ power class — or, within some circles, the “oppressor class.” On the left, political forces embrace the “intersectionality” movement and interject their anti-Zionist convictions as they dismiss Jews as privileged white political actors. By embracing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the political left has targeted Israel as a strategic gateway to its war on the Jews. On the political right, we see patterns of both blatant and subtle anti-Semitism. The liberal Jewish establishment is blamed for promoting “anti-white policies” such as immigration and diversity. The alt-right and others see egalitarianism, globalism and multiculturalism as Jewish-inspired, liberal initiatives that run counter to American nationalist norms and values. 

“With new strains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism emerging to test America’s social fabric, America’s Jews are experiencing a new type of angst.”

A debate has arisen within the Jewish community over which of these political assaults, from the right or the left, should be considered more potentially damaging to America’s Jews and our interests. In arguing such questions, advocates seek to minimize the impact of one side over the other, suggesting that there are degrees to the new politics of hate, as if anti-Jewish behavior is somehow less threatening or damaging from one political extreme than another.

Are the political climate and social fabric of this society coming undone, and in the process are Jews finding themselves increasingly disconnected from the changing mores and values that define the changing American character? What are the contributing ingredients to this new condition?

Pittsburgh may have awakened us to this new and uncomfortable reality. The loss of historic memory and a devaluing of the past give credence to our opponents. The radicalization of our nation’s politics and the invention of political myths are contributing to this new political order. In an age when the rhetoric of hate has taken center stage, this must be seen as problematic to the Jewish condition. 

Today, there is a growing political uncertainty among some of us. The impact of the Pittsburgh attack represented more than an assault on individual Jews. It brought to light the question of our collective well-being. Many Jewish voters entered their voting booths on Nov. 6 still dealing with the aftermath of the most deadly anti-Semitic shooting in American history.

We need to remind ourselves that, historically, Jews have not fared well in political regimes built around extreme nationalism and hate rhetoric. Identity politics, which has become the mantra for some, may produce some short-term victories; but ultimately it must be seen as highly problematic for the Jewish community. 

The biggest potential story of 2018 may still be unfolding. In the aftermath of Trump’s remake of the Republican Party, where will prominent conservative thought leaders and writers such as Bret Stephens and Max Boot find a political home? Unhappy with their party’s white nationalistic rhetoric and anti-immigrant focus, what political pathways are ahead for Jewish Republicans who differ with the president? 

One needs to ask a similar question to Jewish Democrats who, in some cases, are increasingly concerned about the progressive wing of their party and, more pointedly, its anti-Israel, pro-BDS sentiments.

 Over time, are we likely to see a fundamental, political realignment involving disillusioned Jewish Republicans and Democrats? Where do American Jewish activists find a new political base in this uncertain climate?

In both real and symbolic ways, has Pittsburgh distorted and destroyed our assumptions about ourselves and our beliefs about America? We had understood this nation to represent a different proposition: here, anti-Semitism would have no space and we envisioned our Judaism in consort with our Americanism.

At this moment, we are a people in search of our political identity.

There is a heightened awareness among Jews of the growth of extremist expressions challenging not only the existing democratic norms of the nation but also how minority communities, including Jewish Americans, are being categorized and threatened. As we have seen, the fallout from this type of politics has also invaded today’s Jewish public space, where Jews are battling against one another.

Who today can speak to the collective priorities of American Jewry? A new and dangerous divide seems to have replaced the once robust voices of an energized polity. As this American Jewish journey unfolds, how we manage this moment represents a critical test about our character and credibility and our future roles as Americans.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. 

UCLA Hillel Director: NSJP Turned UCLA Bruin Into ‘A Symbol of Anti-Semitism’

Screenshot from Facebook.

Aaron Lerner, the executive director of UCLA Hillel, wrote in an op-ed for the Daily Bruin that National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP)’s conference logo turned the UCLA Bruin into “a symbol of anti-Semitism.”

NSJP’s logo shows a bear playing with a Palestinian kite; the left half of the kite is shaped like Israel and is colored in red. NSJP has said that the bear is supposed to be a general California grizzly bear; others interpret the bear as the UCLA mascot, Joe Bruin.

Lerner argued that the kite “resembles actual petrol kite-bombs, which Hamas, a terrorist organization, launches into Israel to start fires and terrorize the population.”

“NSJP is openly broadcasting its solidarity with Hamas terrorists by co-opting UCLA’s cherished mascot in this fashion,” Lerner wrote. “Standing for Palestinian human rights is one thing; advocating for violence is another. This use of the university’s trademark should offend all Bruins, regardless of their political sympathies.”

Lerner added that several SJP leaders have uttered violent anti-Semitic statements such as “Kill all Jews.”

“The group now mocks our cherished symbol,” Lerner wrote. “Sure, a bear flying a Palestinian kite might not be perceived as a hateful message at face value. But the political context of the imagery – and the history it reminds us of – cannot be ignored.”

Lerner acknowledged that not all SJP members are anti-Semites and genuinely care about achieving peace in the region, but he encourages them to start a group that is independent of SJP.

“A hate group can’t advocate for human rights,” Lerner wrote. “But people who really care about Palestinians, Jews and the future of humanity in the region can still do important work without demonizing and attacking others.”

UCLA issued a cease-and-desist letter to NSJP regarding the logo; NSJP agreed to remove the UCLA name from the logo, although the logo remains intact in otherwise. The university seems to be fine with this modification.

The conference is set to take place on Nov. 16-18.

Getting Out the MitzVote

A poll party at USC
Photo courtesy of Hillel International

Like B’Nai Mitzvot, voting is a rite of passage. This idea was the seed for what became MitzVote, Hillel International’s nonpartisan campaign to get students on campuses across the United States excited and informed about registering to vote and voting in the midterm elections on Nov. 6.

“What we are really trying to say is that voting ought to be considered a mitzvah,” Sheila Katz, Hillel’s vice president of student engagement and leadership, told the Journal in a phone interview. “And that we have an obligation to vote, as Jews — stand up for our community and make sure we’re taking action on the things that matter to us and to our neighbors.”

The MitzVote campaign includes a fun, funny and informative video. “Today You Are A … Voter” features actors and comedians — including Joshua Malina, Lisa Edelstein, Odeya Rush, Michael Ian Black and Tim Meadows — sharing voting facts as they congratulate Hannah, the MitzVote girl, on the occasion of her first opportunity to vote.

“This is basically a mazel tov video, but instead of being for a 13-year-old, it’s for an 18-year-old,” explained Mik Moore, principal of Moore & Associates. Moore’s agency developed the creative concept with Hillel, and delivered the video, website and other elements for the MitzVote project. 

“Instead of using the video to explain something that didn’t exist, we were pretending as if this was already a thing,” Moore continued. “We really like this because it’s celebratory, inspiring and has a lot of positive energy to it.”

“We wanted to make something that non-Jews would appreciate too, and get a laugh from,” said the video’s director Jessie Kahnweiler. “I actually found that being more specific, you actually tap a broader group of people. Yeah, Jews are going to laugh at the Bubbe jokes and the Yiddish slang, but every culture has that family — that grandma, that aunt, whatever it’s about. So to me [Judaism] is synonymous with family, and that’s what we were trying to do with the spot: make it feel personal to not just Jews, but to anyone.”

Kahnweiler also loved was how everything came together.

“The goal of MitzVote is to create a simcha of participating in the democratic process.” — Sheila Katz

“We went and scouted a location [and] had no idea what the house was going to look like,” Kahnweiler said. “We walked in and there were pictures of Bubbe and Zayde and kiddish cups. It was this big Jewish house. And this was random. I really do believe, on projects like this, you are doing a mitzvah. It was cool how things all came together perfectly with the help of God and Hillel.”

The four-minute video was filmed in one day in August in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, and was released Sept. 6. It was just the jumping-off point for the two-month long campaign, which has support from 70 Hillel campuses and 25 national partner organizations. So far, MitzVote has reached 690,000 people and counting.  

The website (www.Mitz.Vote) is filled with resources to break down barriers students have with voting. The voting tool, set up through a partnership with TurboVote, includes new voter registration, requests for absentee ballots and text alerts. The site also has prayers for voting, instructions on how to vote together, contacts for all the campus ambassadors and more. 

“The goal of MitzVote is to create a simcha [celebration] of participating in the democratic process,” Katz said. “We followed the process of becoming Bat Mitzvah and applied it to voting.” This includes studying the ballot, a Jewish voting ritual for election day, and concluding the voting process with a large celebration.

“Poll parties” are proven to increase voter turnout by 4 percent, Katz said. Currently, 55 Hillels that are part of the MitzVote campaign are hosting or co-sponsoring poll parties. For instance, on Oct. 21, Hillels at USC, Chapman University and Cal-State Long Beach did a throwback B’nai MitzVote celebration on the USC campus, complete with voter registration, voting planning, music from when students were 13 and (of course) the hora.

At the LA Area Hillel Bnai Mitzvote event.
Photo courtesy of Hillel International

The idea for MitzVote started with a conversation between Katz and student leaders, who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives rally earlier this year. While Hillel doesn’t endorse political marches, it tries to provide a Jewish experience around students’ activism. “We were hosting Havdalah at the Jefferson Memorial right after the March, and a group of students came up to me and said, ‘So what do we do now?’ ” Katz explained. 

“It prompted us to put together a [call with a] group of college students to ask them what they hoped for, what they are doing, what they want to see from Hillel International. They’re the ones who said they wanted to see us engage in this topic of voting. They wanted to be a part of something bigger than their local campus, and we responded to that.”

One of those students was Jeremy Cronig from Ohio State University, who became MitzVote’s civic engagement campaign manager. Cronig, who took the semester off and is getting academic credit for his work with Hillel, has been providing direct support to staff and students and connecting them to the campaign.

“Many Jews are passionate about helping people who have barriers in front of them, and for many of us, that’s intertwined with our Judaism,” Cornig said. “Being active, caring and educated, and participating in our democracy, our country’s foundation, is a vital piece of Jewish life today.”  

Surviving the College Application Process

College application form

The prevailing wisdom is that junior year of high school is the toughest. However, Ross Mankuta, director of college counseling and academic planning at Milken Community Schools, disagrees.

“We’re firm believers that senior year is the hardest year,” he told the Journal. “They are taking their hardest curriculum in high school while simultaneously applying to college.” And right now, high school seniors are in the thick of it, with the University of California and California State University applications due in November and most others due in January.

Making things even tougher, “admission rates are plummeting everywhere,” Mankuta said, because more people are applying to college than ever before. 

“The best role a parent can have for senior year is really to be a consultant,” said Aviva Walls, dean of academic affairs and director of college counseling at Shalhevet High School. 

That role, she said, involves checking in with your child once or twice a week to ask where they are in the process and where they might need help. “Students should really be the driver of the process,” Walls said, adding that there are benefits to parents stepping back, including giving students the experience of doing paperwork, a skill they are going to need for the rest of their lives.

For students who are still figuring out where to apply, Sue DeRuyter, director of college counseling and dean of academic advisement at de Toledo High School, recommends they first take some time “to get to know themselves, to start to understand how they learn best … and what excites them about learning. It’s an internal search more than an external search,” she said, noting that once they do this, they will be better positioned to start considering schools. 

DeRuyter also recommended visiting a few local schools. “Even if they aren’t considering the campus,” she said, it’s worth doing, as it will help a student begin to determine what they want and don’t want in a school. “It’s really hard to decide what you want to eat if the menu is blank,” she noted.

“Jewish parents want the best for their children and [they feel] the best college is best for their children. But that creates a lot of stress on students.”

— Aviva Walls

Many Jewish students are also looking for a school  with a vibrant Jewish community. Walls shared several resources that are helpful in making that determination. One is the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (oujlic.org), in partnership with Hillel. The site offers information on both the number and percentage of Jewish students on a campus, the number of Orthodox students, whether there is a Hillel or Chabad, as well as detailed information about kosher food options. Hillel also has its own college guide (hillel.org/college-guide). Then there is Heart to Heart (theheart2heartproject.org), which describes itself as “a grass-roots movement of Jewish college students sharing Jewish life with their peers.” 

As for how many schools to apply to, there is no hard and fast rule and, of course, every student is different. But at Shalhevet, for example, the general recommendation is eight to 12, Walls said, with the University of California schools counting as one, since they are covered by a single application. And while it’s fine for students to have so-called reach schools on their list, Mankuta said they should have some “viable” schools as well. (The common term for such schools used to be “safety” schools).

“Shoot for the stars but have a plan here on Earth,” Walls likes to say.

“Too many of our students are close-minded about where they can and should go, and where they deserve to go and what options are out there,” Mankuta added.

Parents, too, sometimes get fixated on a particular school. “What I often say to families is, ‘If you really have your heart set on putting that sticker on the back of your car, do your child and yourself a favor and buy the sticker and put it on your car,’ ” DeRuyter said. “But that doesn’t have to be where your child has to go to college. It’s less expensive, and you will all have a much better year.”

Throughout the process, it’s important to keep in mind a couple of big-picture points: “Where your son or daughter goes to college is not a reflection on your parenting achievement,” DeRuyter said. “Also, where you go to college does not dictate your future success or happiness.” 

Few people would argue these points on paper, but they can be hard for parents to accept. 

“Jewish parents express love through education from what I have seen,” Walls said. “So they want the best for their children and [they feel] the best college is best for their children. But that creates a lot of stress on students. It isn’t always helpful.”

Ultimately, Walls said, “College is an amazing time in your life no matter where you go.” It’s also not forever. “It’s a winter coat and not a soul mate,” she added. “It’s not who you are married to for the rest of your life.”

Gun Control: The Most Dangerous Conversation

Community members console one another at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four days after the shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Kehillat Israel

It is completely incomprehensible to me that the current culture in this country makes even a conversation about a conversation regarding gun safety impossible. How is it not, at this point, a moral and ethical imperative for us to begin that conversation?

We American Jews have been leaders in both conversation and pressure for legislation around issues we believe to be central to the preservation and quality of human life. What is it that makes the conversation about policies related to gun safety forbidden? When and why did we decide to abdicate responsibility for addressing the number of assault weapons in circulation (some of which were illegal until the lapse of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004) and the ease of acquiring them?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called demonstrating for change in legislation in this country “praying with his feet.” Why aren’t we demanding legislative change now?

To quote Hillel, for the sake of all we hold precious, all entrusted to our care, “im lo achshav ematai — if not now, when?!”

Shot and Scarred at 6 Years Old

Community members console one another at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four days after the shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Joshua Stepakoff, gun violence survivor

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” — Hillel

I learned Hillel’s lesson the hardest way: After I was shot twice during a mass shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999, I expected my elected leaders to “be for me” and pass sensible gun control laws. They did not.

I was 6 years old when I survived a mass shooting, along with three other children — ages 5, 6, 16 — and one adult. While attending summer camp, a white supremacist set foot on campus with an Uzi-like submachine gun and a Glock semi-automatic pistol and began spraying bullets. I was shot in my left shin and a second bullet lodged in my hip, narrowly missing my spine. Since then, I have been in and out of therapy, coping with the pernicious effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, which plagues me to this day, every day.

It has been 18 years since I was shot — I’m 25 now — but I still do not feel my country’s elected officials have done anything “for me.” I hoped they might do something for the children of Sandy Hook, Conn., or for the families of those killed in Las Vegas, Aurora, Colo., and now Parkland, Fla. But they continue to disappoint me as well as a growing community of victims and survivors.

The problem of gun violence is not a mental health issue; it is not a school security issue; it is not an issue of protecting your home. It is an issue of too many guns, too easily accessible. Every country in the world copes with mental illness and personal protection rights yet they do not have anywhere near the same number of mass shootings that we do.

Make no mistake: I do not want to abolish our Second Amendment rights, but we are doing our nation a disservice by prioritizing gun manufacturers over precious children’s lives. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, passed in 2005, which grants the gun industry immunity from nearly all lawsuits. This is a miscarriage of justice, preventing victims of gun violence from filing civil lawsuits against irresponsible manufacturers and sellers.

There is an epidemic of gun violence in America. If you are not willing to admit that, then you are part of the problem.

It is time to put partisanship aside and recognize that innocent people are being slaughtered by weapons of war on a daily basis.

It is not enough to talk about gun violence. Our politicians need to commit to common sense gun violence prevention measures such as universal background checks on all gun sales, repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and reinstating an assault weapons ban.

Until then, Hillel’s question remains: When will our elected officials be for you?  When will they be for me? And if not now, when?

Israel Deputy Foreign Minister Speaks At Princeton Despite Hillel Cancellation

Photo from Facebook

Israel Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was able to speak at Princeton University on Monday even though the campus Hillel canceled the speech in face of pressure.

Hotovely was initially scheduled to speak at Princeton Hillel’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL), but Hillel canceled the event after the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP) lobbied for the cancellation.

“Hotovely’s work causes irreparable damage to the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” AJP wrote in a letter published in The Daily Princetonian. “She has stated her opposition to a Palestinian state and has made it her mission to expand settlement construction in the West Bank.”

The letter added that the CJL was hosting “a racist speaker” and silencing “progressive voices” in doing so.

Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the CJL, explained in a letter to the Israeli consulate in New York their decision to cancel Hotovely.

“This program will be reviewed by our Israel Advisory Committee and we will refine our procedures to learn from this experience,” wrote Roth. “We look forward to continued robust and healthy debate around Israel in our community.”

Hotovely criticized the CJL’s decision in a letter to Roth.

“By canceling this lecture, you are infringing on the fundamental academic freedom of the students,” wrote Hotovely. “You are denying the basic freedom of students to hear different points of views, to question, challenge and think for themselves.”

Hotovely added later on in the letter that Roth was “silencing the voice of Israeli democracy” and stated that “a liberal dictatorship is ruling here.”

Fortunately for Hotovely, Princeton Chabad’s agreed to host her instead and she ended up speaking after all.

The head of Princeton’s Chabad, Rabbi Eitan Webb, introduced Hotovely and said, “We bend over backwards to give free speech to all.”

“Asking difficult questions is a part of listening,” said Webb.

The left has an Israel problem. Do colleges have an anti-Semitism problem?

Illustrative photo of Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators at an Apartheid Week event at the University of California, Berkeley, in February 2012. Photo by James Buck/Flickr

Last week, the JTA news service reported a story about a student alternative guide published by student activists at Tufts University that labels Israel a white supremacist state. The so-called “disorientation guide” also reduced the university’s Hillel to a “Zionist” organization that offers nothing of value to the private campus’ diversity or culture.

The authors of the guide might deny that, of course. But what else do you make of a guide to campus diversity that does not discuss Jewish social, cultural or religious life? And one that takes at face value complaints from an African-American organization that a Hillel-sponsored event about gun control was meant to “exploit” Black people “for their own pro-Israel agenda”?

After all, what’s a Jewish organization doing promoting liberal causes, right?

The conflation of “Jewish” and “Zionist” (and “racist” and “colonialist,” while we’re at it) is hardly a new thing on the left, although the guide was a pretty stark example of an entire minority group on campus being erased or devalued with a few taps of a keyboard by those who purport to stand up for religious and ethnic minorities. That’s why we considered it an important story, and that’s why we published it.

Still, a few things bothered me about the story — and the issue itself.

First, just because an activist group says dumb and misguided things about Jews and Israel, that doesn’t mean the campus in question is “hostile” or “uncomfortable” for Jews. Too often groups, mostly on the outside, seize on incidents like these (and articles like ours) to tar the school or administration as unfriendly or anti-Semitic. Last year, the Algemeiner Journal, a New York-based newspaper covering American and international Jewish and Israel-related news, published a list of “The 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students,” which was really just a list of  anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic incidents at various campuses. Missing was any sense of how Jewish students actually experience Jewish life at these colleges.

As the student magazine New Voices recently put it:  “If Columbia University — home of kosher dining, multiple minyans and a joint program with Jewish Theological Seminary — is the worst school for Jewish students … you’re probably defining ‘bad for Jewish students’ wrong.”

Indeed, Tufts, No. 23 on the Algemeiner list, has a student body that is 25 percent Jewish. Our article noted that it has a range of Jewish and pro-Israel clubs, including Hillel, the Tufts American Israel Alliance, Tufts Friends of Israel, J Street U, Jewish Voice for Peace, TAMID and  Israeli American Council (IAC) Mishelanu. Hillel offers Reform and Conservative Shabbat services, and there’s a Chabad. The Forward, which took into account many more factors than pro-Palestinian activism when assembling its own list of top colleges, named Tufts the 13th best school for Jewish students.

That’s not to say that “Israel Apartheid Week” demonstrations, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions and screeds like the “disorientation guide” aren’t upsetting. Or that a strong reaction isn’t called for when anti-Zionists slander Israel, Jewish groups and individual Jews.

But colleges are also places where students are supposed to encounter upsetting or uncomfortable ideas. You can’t ridicule a leftist campus like UC Berkeley when it offers counseling to students offended by a talk by a conservative like Ben Shapiro, and then demand that a university “protect” Jewish kids from a pro-Palestinian message. (I mean, you can — but just watch out who you’re calling a “snowflake.”)

On the other hand, the Tufts “disorientation guide” itself also failed the test of university-level inquiry.

There are already enough reasons to be critical of Israel, if you are so inclined, without inventing slanders like “white supremacy.” Liberal Zionists, for example, see Israel’s control of millions of noncitizen Palestinians not only as a hardship for Palestinians but a threat to Israel’s own Jewish and democratic character. Their critique — shared with a weakened but persistent left in Israel itself — is one side of a debate in which reasonable people can take part. You can disagree, but you understand that the critics are serious in their concerns and can summon a strong factual argument in their defense.

But by accusing Israel of “white supremacy,” the anti-Zionists sound like that old tongue-in-cheek definition of anti-Semitism: “disliking Jews more than is necessary.” They yank the debate into a territory where it doesn’t belong. Nothing in Zionism assumes Jews are white, and indeed Israel’s Jewish population — four-fifths of a country that includes a substantial minority of Arab citizens — includes a range of ethnic groups hailing from Europe, North Africa, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Ethiopia and India.

And the “white supremacy” gambit is shoddy scholarship and a tactical disaster. It casts the conflict as a simple case of segregation and civil rights, and not as a clash of national identities. So you can be proud of yourself as a good leftist if, in the name of intersectionality, you rally all kinds of dispossessed groups and discriminated-against people behind your anti-Israel cause, but you do nothing to bring Israelis and Palestinians any closer to peace.

Because, the Palestinians aren’t looking for equality, they are looking to fulfill their nationalist aspirations, just like the Jews. Palestinians — I am talking about those who live in the West Bank and Gaza, not Israel’s Arab citizens — don’t want to vote or serve in the Knesset. They want a country — some, a country coterminous with Israel; some separate and side-by-side. But if you delegitimize Israel — and that can be the only motivation behind calling it “white supremacist” — it can mean that you are wishing for only one outcome: the end of the idea of a Jewish homeland, and the elimination of the political sovereignty for one national group, the Jews, in favor of another, the Palestinians.

Then you would have to explain why Palestinian nationalism is any less “racist” or supremacist than the Jews’.

Anti-Zionists, selective in their nationalisms, have found an easy and fashionable metaphor into which to plug their anger at Israel and solidarity with the Palestinians. As a former colleague put it on Facebook: “They’re not really interested in doing good; they’re interested in feeling good. And forcing complicated realities into simplistic moral frameworks helps them feel good about themselves and their ‘activism.’”

What’s more, by hating Israel more than they have to, they have managed to discredit the left in ways that are spreading into the center, and handing a huge victory to a pro-Israel right that is only too happy to paint its adversaries as unserious, uninformed and anti-Semitic.

UCLA named America’s third best campus for Jews

Royce Hall at UCLA

The Forward named UCLA the third best college in the United States for Jewish life, behind only Cornell University and University of Pennsylvania.

The ranking was part of the Jewish newspaper’s first ever college guide, which weighed universities using a formula that factored in the categories of academics, Jewish life and Israel, listing the top 18. Factored into UCLA’s score were its many Jewish organizations, the availability of kosher food and its Jewish studies program .

Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, said the school’s thriving Jewish life is a result of the bottom-up model employed by some of the 20 or 25 Jewish clubs and organizations that exist on campus, most prominently by Hillel.

“We’re probably going towards a decade of student leaders who have been fully empowered to run a great Jewish community, and as a result that’s exactly what they do,” he said.

UCLA scored high on the Forward ranking for academics and Jewish life, but its score flagged when it came to Israel, with nine points out of a possible 20. In recent years, the school has been the site of several high-profile incidents where Israel’s reputation came under fire, such as a student government resolution in 2014 calling for divestment from Israel.

But Lerner said those events are exceptions to a campus environment that otherwise embraces its Jewish students.

“It doesn’t define the student experience,” he told the Journal. “It’s incidental, not endemic.”

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.”


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