In these times of unprecedented factionalism and friction among American Jews, this scene may sound like a pluralist pipe dream. But it's actually a typical Friday night at the University of Maryland Hillel, and it's a scenario you'll find at college campuses across America. Given that the leaders of America's major Jewish denominations won't even sit at the same table, and while some experts say arguments over identity and practice are at an all-time high, these collegiate islands of Jewish pluralism are moving against a strengthening tide.
For more than 75 years, Hillel has provided Jewish college students with a safe place to explore their identity; these days, it's also offering a rare forum where Jews of different religious affiliations can engage each other without rancor. The organization--officially known as Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life--was founded in 1923 at the University of Illinois. Led by a spectrum of rabbis and lay people committed to Jewish pluralism, it has grown into a global network of more than 500 centers targeting the estimated 400,000 American Jewish college students.
"In the Jewish world, I think it is unusual to have people who define themselves by denominational labels to come together, not just to share space, but to really share in others' lives," says Michael Brooks, Hillel director at the University of Michigan, who has seen Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular students cooperate to build everything from sukkot--huts used on the Festival of Sukkot--to social action programs.
One way Hillel accomplishes this is by opening its doors to all Jewish students, aiming, in the words of its mission statement, to "maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews." The organization has also increased its outreach efforts in the past decade, attracting an increasing number of students and an increasing number of dollars from alumni and other patrons. New Hillel buildings at Harvard, Princeton, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, are evidence of growing demand and support.
At the University of Maryland, where roughly 20% of the student body is Jewish, it's not unusual to find a pair of Reform Jewish women playing guitar while Orthodox men dance around them before Shabbat services, a rare scene of harmony between the most liberal and the most conservative of the major denominations. Says director Scott Brown, "It's a great moment."
"People my age and my generation are looking at the divisions between the sects, and it bothers us a lot, because we don't understand it," says Jill Spielman, 19, a Maryland sophomore. "Hillel is a place where people can go and sit down and say, 'OK, you're Orthodox. Why? What's important to you?' Hillel provides an environment that says, OK, you're all Jewish. Let's get together and experience Judaism as a whole."
"It has that feeling every time I walk in," she continues. "I feel like I can sit down and talk to almost anyone about almost anything, and they're not going to judge me because I'm not as religious or I'm more religious."
Spielman is part of a diverse student team in Maryland's Hillel that organizes campus events to get more students involved in Jewish life. Spielman is a Conservative Jew by upbringing, but the coalition, known as the Jewish Renaissance Project, represents a broad religious and political spectrum.
Such an environment is "extremely unique" in this time of unprecedented factionalism, says Samuel G. Freedman, author of the recent book "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." Freedman offers details of an evolving civil war between a growing Orthodoxy on one side and an increasingly assimilated Jewish population on the other.
"The other point worth making is that Hillel rabbis often tend to be great exemplars of pluralism," Freedman says. Two examples include Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of the Hillel at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Reform Rabbi Robert Levy, a former regional director of Hillel in Southern California who now serves as president of Hebrew Union College.