Cal alums letter calls for an open Berkeley Hillel

Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania was first. Then came Vassar College in New York. Now, if a group of U.C. Berkeley Jewish alumni has its way, Berkeley could be the next campus Hillel to put the word “open” before its name.

An “Open Hillel” is one that has claimed independence from the international Hillel organization — so it can reject guidelines that require chapters to “not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers” deemed hostile toward Israel, including those that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Berkeley Hillel is on Bancroft Way across from the southeast corner of the U.C. Berkeley campus.

More than 100 U.C. Berkeley Jewish alumni, spanning the last six decades, according to organizers, have signed onto a letter to Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman and Ron Ruby, Berkeley Hillel’s executive director and president, respectively, calling upon the 85-year-old institution to become an “Open Hillel.”

Such a decision would fall to the 22-member board of directors of Berkeley Hillel, an independent 501(c)3 that works in cooperation with Hillel International, Naftalin-Kelman said.

The letter also asks Berkeley Hillel to appeal to Hillel International to update its Standards of Partnership, enacted in 2010.

“We believe that Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership weaken the organization, alienate Jewish students, and reduce the vibrancy and diversity of the Hillel community,” the letter says. “Since these standards constrict free discourse about Israel both on the right and the left, we stand for the freedom of all Jewish students to engage with Israel in any way they find meaningful — so long as it does not promote racism, violence or other forms of hatred.”

The signatories include recent graduates, professors who are Cal alumni (such as U.C. Davis professors David Biale and Diane Wolf), and Bradley Burston, a senior editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The letter was organized by several recent Cal graduates now living in Israel, Jeremy Elster (2012), Roi Bachmutsky (2012) and Emily Schaeffer (Berkeley Law, 2006), who say they were buoyed by the actions at Swarthmore and Vassar and still feel very connected to their college experience.

­­Bradley Burston

Elster is on a year-long Shatil fellowship sponsored by the New Israel Fund, working with Israel Social TV, which promotes social activism and publicizes the actions of activist groups working on the ground in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Bachmutsky is working for Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israel Defense Forces soldiers who lead tours to Hebron in the West Bank and lecture at home and abroad about “the daily reality in the occupied territories.” Schaeffer is an attorney who defends Palestinians.

In a Skype interview last week with J., Elster described himself as the poster child of the Jewish establishment, as he attended Jewish day school and summer camp. He practically lived at Hillel his freshman year, he said, but over time, as he became active with J Street U, the college division of the left-leaning Israel lobby J Street, he felt less and less comfortable there. When he ran for president of the Jewish Student Union at U.C. Berkeley, he was labeled a “self-hating Jew” and was constantly asked to defend his positions on Israel.

“Berkeley Hillel has made significant strides in opening up a more tolerant and open conversation on Israel, but if you find yourself on the progressive side of the discourse, there are roadblocks every step of the way, which doesn’t  happen if you’re on the right end of the spectrum,” Elster said.

As an example, he cited Berkeley Hillel’s rejection in 2010 of student initiative requesting an event with Dana Golan, then the executive director of Breaking the Silence. According to Elster, Golan instead met outside of the Hillel grounds with a small group of interested students.

Elster continued: “I was one of those people actively fighting for a place in the community, wanting to keep my connection with Hillel, but a lot of students gave up that fight, realizing how much work it was to even be in the building as yourself.”

Added Bachmutsky, as quoted in a press release: “Although conversation about Israel and the occupation is opening up within the American Jewish community, Hillels across the country are lagging behind. If Berkeley Hillel wants Jewish communal life to remain vibrant on campus and not turn students away, it must lead by example and proudly declare its doors open to a wider diversity of opinions on Israel.”

In a comment to J., Naftalin-Kelman countered: “Hillel is the most open, pluralistic Jewish campus movement around the globe, and Berkeley Hillel takes immense pride in our policy and stellar record of inclusiveness and openness for all Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley.”

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman

The letter ends by asking for a commitment from U.C. Berkeley Hillel to live up to its namesake, the Hillel of ancient times, who pushed for “fearless inclusivity” to make all Jews feel welcome within its walls.

Naftalin-Kelman responded immediately to the letter.

“In the course of my five years as the executive director,” he wrote, “Berkeley Hillel has sponsored, supported and advertised programs presenting a very wide range of perspectives, including groups sharply critical of Israeli government policies, films raising challenging questions, presentations from left to right, discussions about domestic issues, and the social justice protests in Israel.”

On its website, Berkeley Hillel lists no fewer than 16 campus Jewish groups it supports. One of them is J Street U, a group that has twice been rejected in its bid for membership in the Jewish Student Union at U.C. Berkeley. Berkeley Hillel hosts JSU board meetings.

Naftalin-Kelman said that he looks forward to continued dialogue on the matter.

Elster and other organizers of the Berkeley Alumni for an Open Hillel were less than mollified by his response, however.

“We … appreciate the thoughtful response to our letter as written by … Naftalin-Kelman,” Elster said. “Regrettably, however, we find the thrust of its argument inconsistent. If Berkeley Hillel believes they have shown fearless inclusivity with respect to Israel programming, then they should have no issue declaring themselves an ‘Open Hillel.’

“In fact, what Berkeley Hillel suggests,” Elster continued, “is not that it is ‘open,’ but rather ‘less closed.’ We respect their interest in open dialogue and have taken steps to pursue a conversation with Rabbi Adam and Rob Ruby that will address our goal of declaring Berkeley Hillel to be open to all Jewish students regardless of political beliefs.”

Last week, Vassar College’s Jewish Union (a Hillel-affiliated group) declared itself an “Open Hillel,” two months after Swarthmore Hillel did the same thing.

Burston, a 1976 Cal graduate who served as one-time president of Berkeley Hillel, wrote about the movement and related issues in a Feb. 18 piece in Haaretz.

“When I was president of [Berkeley] Hillel, I saw this, over and over: the more that Hillel opened itself up to a broader range of views, the less politicized and the more welcome a place it became,” he wrote. “And the more welcoming it became, the more that young people who might otherwise have had no interest whatsoever in Israel, nor in Judaism, found themselves with a cause, and a passion, and a commitment that has lasted a lifetime.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."