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Berkeley Hillel provides safe and open spaces, not answers

by rabbi adam naftalin-kelman

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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.

9_Vnaftalin_avatar_withnameIn 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.


Posted by calalum
03/12/2014  at  12:07 AM
Berkeley Hillel is an Open Hillel in all but name

Congratulations to the staff at Berkeley Hillel; they’ve successfully created a place so open that it doesn’t stand for anything at all.

With more secular (or interfaith) than Jewish content, and nothing but shoulder-shrugging on Israel, Berkeley Hillel prides itself on bringing hundreds of students through its doors, and then promptly wastes the opportunity. Most of them come for free food, and all of them leave without experiencing an ounce of real Jewish education.

Berkeley Hillel strives to create an open atmosphere, which means avoiding real content as much as possible, lest it offend someone. Their take on the educator’s role is not as a mentor who transmits our people’s wisdom, tradition, and values, but as a babysitter who makes sure nobody gets their knees scraped or sensibilities offended while they explore freely and come to their own conclusions. This is the opposite of leadership, the opposite of education, and frankly a waste of a building and thousands of dollars in budget. With this philosophy, who needs Hillel at all?

Since the only real leadership the Hillel staff has displayed is adamantly refusing to take a proud stance on teaching Zionism and supporting Israel, it’s no wonder that the pro-Israel activist students feel unwelcome at Hillel. It’s only a sense of responsibility to the community (to fill the space left by Hillel nihilism) that keeps them there at all. The Tikvah activists are the real Jewish leaders at UC Berkeley, making a bigger lasting difference than Hillel with a tiny fraction of the support and resources.

Berkeley Hillel staff is abdicating their responsiblity as educators in favor of empty smiles and empty words that keep everyone happy, including the donors. The community that supports and funds Berkeley Hillel is being cheated out of a real Jewish institution and the students that attend it are being cheated out of a real Jewish education.

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Posted by Elijah Granet
03/12/2014  at  09:22 PM
I don't normally reply to

I don’t normally reply to online comments, but you’re words are so utterly ridiculous I have no choice but to answer you.  You claimed that Berkeley Hillel has more “secular” and “interfaith” content than Jewish content; that is patently untrue.  Every Wednesday I spend nearly two hours closely examining the Talmud at Hillel with our Senior Jewish Educator , and I’ve found Hillel to be a welcoming home for deepening my connection to traditional Judaism, and conveying precisely the “wisdom, tradition, and values”  you asserted was lacking at Berkeley Hillel. 

Berkeley Hillel’s “open atmosphere” does not preclude transmitting Jewish values.  It instead allows the Hillel staff to enable each person to receive the education and services they need in order so that they can be the sort of Jews they want to be.  The fact that Hillel doesn’t endorse one particular Jewish position doesn’t mean that it refuses to teach about Judaism; indeed, quite the opposite is true.  Although there is secular content at Hillel, (as well there should be), religious Judaism of all stripes is welcome and encouraged there.  Furthermore,  we have had only one interfaith event at Hillel this year (the Shabbat Rabbi Adam mentioned in his article), and that was an enormous success in allowing us to explain our connection to Judaism to people of other faiths. Berkeley students are adults and Hillel is not a “babysitter”, it is a mature Jewish institution which provides the resources which Jewish students require. 

As a strong advocate for Israel at UC Berkeley and a member of Tikvah, I can’t fathom your claim that Hillel is a nihilistic institution which refues to support Israel.  Hillel is proud of its connection to Israel and provides ample opportunities for the students to learn and grow in their relationship with their homeland.  Tikvah holds its meetings at Hillel, and Hillel is a proudly Zionist organization.  Of course, students have a variety of different opinions on Israel; and at Hillel we welcome that discourse. 

I don’t know who you are, but as a student at Berkeley who is extraordinary active in Hillel, I can say as a fact that you couldn’t be more wrong.  Hillel has allowed me to grow as a Jew and as a Zionist, and has provided the same nurturing to people with different views than me (as well it should). 

You ask, “With this philosophy, who needs Hillel at all?”

The answer is: I do.  I need Hillel to allow me to, as a proud Jew, express the fullness of my Jewish identity and religious beliefs.  And I am not alone.  The nearly 2500 Jewish undergraduates at Berkeley depend on Hillel as a vital resource, and spurious claims like yours don’t change the fact that for most Jews at Berkeley, Hillel is their home away from home.

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