2016-06-30
It's nearing sundown on Friday, and a group of Jews has gathered to welcome another Sabbath. The room fills with music, dancing, and friendly chatter until it's time for services, when the group quietly disperses to three separate rooms, one for the Orthodox, one for Conservatives, one for Reform Jews. When the prayers end, they reconvene for a festive Shabbat dinner.

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.

The very architecture of these centers encourages pluralism: At Princeton, for example, arks holding Torah scrolls were built on all three floors of the building, and students of different religious affiliations take turns using each space for prayers. At Harvard, worship spaces are separated by glass walls and face each other around a U-shaped courtyard, fueling the feeling that, despite differing religious viewpoints among students, they form a single community. No synagogue was built at the University of Michigan Hillel, but arks on wheels are moved from room to room for weekly services, sending the message that all Jewish prayer groups are welcome there, and none is favored above the others.

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.

In the absence of any national rabbinical board to bridge the various movements--the Synagogue Council of America, the most important one, fell apart years ago--Freedman believes Hillel offers a rare national platform for a diverse group of leaders committed to dialogue and cooperation.

Linda Askenazi, the Hillel director at Brooklyn College, oversees a program that attracts a large community of Russian Jews, and she's seen that religion isn't the only divisive issue. Askenazi, who is modern Orthodox, says she's gradually seen the cultural divide narrow between her immigrant students and their American-born classmates, largely because the Hillel building has provided a safe place to mingle and talk. And the talk isn't all friendly chatter.

At a "unity dinner" after the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of the Russian student leaders stood up and challenged American notions of Jewish identity. Askenazi recounts: "He says, 'You know, I just want to say when we came to this country, you asked me do I go to shul [synagogue], and I say no. Do I observe Shabbat? No. Am I kosher? No. And you decided that I'm barely Jewish. But you don't ask me do I know what it is to hide matzah at Passover, to have a circumcision at age 12, to be running down the street at age 7 because kids are calling me names. You think you know what being Jewish is. You are not asking the right questions.'"

Askenazi continues: "The room was silent by the time he had finished speaking."

For Brooks, the Hillel director at Michigan, such straightforward dialogue is the key to Hillel's success.

"The challenge is not how do you conduct a tepid conversation that won't offend anyone, but how do you conduct a passionate discussion about matters important to all of us without killing each other," Brooks says. "In other words, how to sustain a passionate debate but leaving the guns outside."

Not all students choose to touch the prickly issues. Brooklyn College economics professor Robert Cherry, who sits on its Hillel board, says students in general seem "incredibly apathetic" about religion and politics. "It's not their thing. They are looking to socialize," he says. "They are not self-conscious about their own religion."

Cherry also notes that the ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews, part of the growing Orthodox wing least open to Jewish pluralism, tend not to enroll in mainstream universities and therefore aren't reached by Hillel's programs.

Diane Raskin, 20, a Reform Jew who is a junior at the University of Michigan, says she's never discussed thorny identity issues with her Hillel classmates. Among the topics she has avoided is that of patrilineal descent, the Reform movement's position that a child is considered Jewish if either of his or her parents are Jewish. Bucking Jewish tradition, which holds that a child is Jewish only if his or her mother is Jewish, the patrilineal issue is among the most divisive in American Judaism today.

"I guess we stay away from the controversial issues sometimes," agrees Deena Levitt, 21, a modern Orthodox junior at the University of Maryland. She adds, however, that differences of opinion do arise--about keeping kosher, for example, or the authority of Jewish law--and that students are eager to learn from each other. "There's a mutual respect," she says.

And that, says Maryland Hillel director Scott Brown, might just be his students' unique gift to American Jewry.

"I think we're teaching them a wonderful model of tolerance and acceptance and celebration, and I only hope the community at large, when they leave the Hillel community, is ready for them, so they can carry the feeling further," Brown says. "It's not an ideal. It's the way it ought to be."

It may be too soon to say if Hillel programs will have a broader impact, because Hillel's outreach to a broad spectrum of students is still relatively new, and not every campus Hillel is as diverse and vibrant as Michigan's, Maryland's, or Harvard's, for example.

Brooks, at the helm of the University of Michigan Hillel for the past two decades, says many of his graduates go on to build careers as rabbis or Jewish activists. Asked if he thinks they have the power to heal a fractured community, however, Brooks said he's not optimistic they can do it alone.

"Unless the world these people are going into gets on board, I don't think we're going to see any significant change," Brooks said.


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