Hillel Should Be Donor-backed and Student-led

Their ideas too often shunned, Jewish students will stop engaging in communal campus life unless they start being heard.

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The Jewish community is rightfully concerned about the next generation of Jews. The recent Pew study shows that young Jews feel increasingly alienated from Israeli government policy and institutions. Contributing to the situation is the fact that many of our most important communal institutions - though they have good intentions - have not traditionally empowered young Jews in serious decision-making. While well intentioned donors and communal leaders invest in all sorts of programs to “engage” my generation, providing what they want us to know and do, they fall short of empowering us to use our own creativity and innovation to lead.

The controversy over Swarthmore and Vassar Hillel's recent rejection of Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines reveals the danger of a process that does not empower students as serious - even primary - decision makers. Had students been meaningfully involved in the guidelines’ creation, the critical press coverage of the widespread student unrest over the guidelines might have been avoided.
Many stakeholders were consulted in the creation of the guidelines but the process included few students. According to a Hillel memo given to me by a former Hillel International board member, “dozens of campus Hillel professionals, members of the Director’s Cabinet, Schusterman International Center professionals in Washington, D.C.,” and “local, national, and Israeli community partners” were consulted. But where were the students?

The problem stems even deeper than the Israel Guidelines. In the past few years, there have only been a handful of students on Hillel International’s Board of Directors. This year, only six of 49 board members are students. The small group of student representatives on the board are not elected by their peers, but rather handpicked by staff and board members.

A student who sat on the Board of Directors in 2010 spoke to me on condition of anonymity about how younger, student board members were not taken seriously by the older, adult members. She said that when student and adult board members disagreed on an assessment of Israel issues on campus, the outcome was at times disempowering and unproductive. “When I offered my critique,” she told me, “the response of adult members was to essentially pat me on the head and tell me that they had it covered.”

Too often not taken seriously, it isn’t surprising that many students choose to organize outside the Jewish community. Why spend time as a junior member of a Jewish group when you can be a leader in a secular campus advocacy organization? Why join the Jewish conversation on Israel when there is a far more open conversation happening elsewhere? Until students are true partners in Jewish decision-making, they will continue to seek empowerment elsewhere.

These unfortunate situations could be easily avoided if students were enabled and empowered to become drivers of our communal agenda. To their credit, a growing number of Jewish leaders understand this, and are working with students to change the dynamics.

Hillel professionals and its new CEO, Eric Fingerhut, want students to take on more significant roles within the organization. Just last month, Fingerhut signaled his concern that the Israel Guidelines have not been “modernized” since they were adopted in 2010, and in recent conversations with J Street U student leaders, he discussed the importance of significant student representation in emerging conversations and committees about Hillel’s relationship with Israel.

This is a step in the right direction, and there are more to be made. More Jewish students should be sitting in the highest ranks of Jewish organizations, and they should be elected by their peers. This will not only empower those students in leadership roles, but also those whose voices are heard through their ballots. When they feel they have a say, Jewish students are more likely to want to engage in Jewish conversations on campus.

As John Judis recently described in The New Republic, Hillel’s past was perhaps poorer and smaller, but vibrant and student-led. While I too appreciate the beautiful buildings and well-funded programming, I know that Hillel cannot carry out its mission to strengthen the next generation without putting the cultivation of student leadership front and center, in conversation with other important community stakeholders. The strongest Hillel is donor-backed and student-led.

As president of the J Street U National Student Board, I acknowledge that my organization and Hillel may disagree on a wide array of issues, but those disagreements must not prevent us from working together on two critical mutual goals: fostering a new generation of Jewish leaders and ensuring Israel’s future.

Jacob Plitman is the president of the J Street U National Student Board. He tweets at @jacobplitman.

File photo: University of Washington quadCredit: Wikimedia Commons

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