On a recent Friday night, Berkeley Hillel opened its doors for friends and strangers of different faiths to engage with the Jewish tradition. Over a few hours, Jewish students sang Kiddush. Catholics offered a prayer to open the meal, and Sufis recited a blessing at the end. In between, people of all faiths — Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Sufis — talked, laughed, shared and learned.
In many ways, hosting the Avi Schaefer Interfaith Shabbat was the epitome of what our Hillel — and every campus Hillel — stands for. It’s no coincidence that our organization is named for the first-century Jewish sage famous for his adage: “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?”
Those of us who love and nurture Hillel have kept that core value in mind as we have faced recent efforts to recast our organization. One side calls for a so-called “Open Hillel.” Another, responding to that campaign, demands a “Safe Hillel.”
Our answer: We are already open and safe, and have been for more than eight decades. Hillel is pluralistic, educational, challenging, transdenominational, political, comfortable, discomforting, pro-Israel and your Jewish home on campus. It is a place to be reassured and a place to wrestle.
What makes Hillel the organization successful and relevant are the qualities espoused by Hillel the sage: We are open to the diversity of those around us, while never letting go of who we are. We’re not called “open” or “safe” just as we are not called “right” or “left” or “religious” or “secular.” We are Hillel. Our work isn’t about limiting our organization to a single adjective that fits some people’s vision. It’s about creating and holding a space for as many people as possible.
I was reminded of that the evening last week when I spotted a student sitting on a couch in the Hillel building, her head buried in a book.
“Studying for a class?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I realized that I haven’t read the Torah and thought I should, so I started tonight at the beginning.”
And I was reminded again on one Friday night last year, a senior came to services. She had never participated in a minyan with a mechitzah — the divider separating men and women at traditional services — and wanted to give it a try. Afterward, I asked what she thought.
“I didn’t like it so much,” she said. “But I’m glad I tried.”
That’s what Hillel provides: a safe and open place to try new experiences, to challenge our own beliefs, to be both comfortable and uncomfortable. Sometimes students emerge transformed, other times more confident in who they are, with more understanding of where they come from.
For one second-year student, whose parents are native Israelis, coming to terms with Israel meant attending the AIPAC policy conference and seeing how the American Jewish community supports his relatives in Israel.
For another sophomore, who grew up active in her local Jewish community and attended Jewish summer camp, Hillel has offered a place to find her voice and explore her passion for Israel through J Street’s campus arm, J Street U. She values engaging in the group’s challenging conversations and appreciates how her involvement has forced her to think deeply about Israel, ultimately strengthening her commitment to the Jewish state.
That is Hillel: open, safe, challenging, vibrant, pluralistic. Hillel offers a place for all Jewish students to discover who they are, to push their Jewish expression and to become producers of their own Jewish identity.
It’s also a comfortable and warm place to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with their Jewish homeland. Hillel is not about creating answers, but about creating spaces for students to engage with Israel and, in the process, create deep, meaningful, mature and loving relationships with Israel.
The Talmud recounts how a group of rabbis were gathered at a house in Jericho when they heard a heavenly voice. It declared that there was only one among them worthy to have the divine spirit rest upon him. Hearing that, the story goes, the rabbis all looked toward Hillel the sage.
Creating the best possible organization isn’t about inserting one adjective or another, or forcing one agenda or another. It’s about working with humility and wisdom to create a space worthy of our namesake, and truly worthy of the divine spirit.
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive director of Berkeley Hillel.