In December, a group of student leaders at the Swarthmore Hillel declared themselves to be in opposition to Hillel’s policy on Israel, and began calling themselves an “open Hillel.” The issue received coverage in media outlets ranging from the Jewish Daily Forward to The New York Times to the Jewish Exponent, and has led to ongoing discussion in the Jewish world.
Much of the conversation has focused on Israel policy, and hasn’t fully addressed an important topic: the concept of an open Hillel. In my opinion, the phrase “open Hillel” is a redundant one. Hillel is an incredibly open, pluralistic and accepting organization that serves diverse students and young adults on 550 campuses around the world.
When I meet new Jewish students on campus, I want to learn as much as I can about who they are, where their interests lie and how they hope to grow while in college. My job as the executive director of Penn State Hillel is to find Jewish opportunities that connect to their passions, or to challenge the students to create their own.
Our entire student engagement philosophy is predicated on meeting students where they are, understanding them and helping them to grow Jewishly on their own terms and at their own pace — i.e., being open. This openness, however, exists within a certain context. Every organization needs to determine the values it aspires to uphold, and ours is no different. Hillel’s vision is to create a world in which every young Jew makes an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel.
But our support for Israel isn’t dogmatic. Just as there are many valid ways to live a Jewish life or engage in Jewish learning, there are numerous perspectives on Israel that can be expressed, debated and challenged. Hillel encourages this open sharing of ideas, including positions critical of Israeli policies or actions. The line Hillel draws is where respectful dialogue crosses over into antipathy, demonization and double standards.
As a Jewish organization, no one would require us to bring into the fold a group whose stated goal is to convert Jews to another religion. Similarly, Hillel won’t promote organizations or platforms that seek to delegitimize Israel. That’s a structural and institutional policy, however, not a personal one. Every Jewish student, in fact any interested student at all, will always be welcomed by Hillel.
Our organization is filled with intelligent, talented and dedicated professionals, volunteers and students who are passionate about enriching the lives of Jewish students — all Jewish students — so they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.
Aaron Kaufman is the executive director of Penn State Hillel.