Why Hillel Should Strive to Be More 'Open' - Not Less

Jewish students on American campuses who want to be involved in Israel should be encouraged – even if they disagree with its policies.

As the Hillel director on the politically tumultuous Berkeley campus in the early 1970s, I experienced first-hand how an "Open Hillel" that welcomes a range of opinions could encourage Jewish students to become more engaged with Israel. A significant number of the Jewish students who were then among the most vocal and critical of Israel at Berkeley Hillel are now – 40 years later – living in Israel and making major contributions to Israeli society.

So I was dismayed when a recent meeting of the Knesset committee dealing with the Diaspora turned into a forum to accuse the Hillel organization of encouraging anti-Israel activism at American universities by being too open to views that "badmouth" Israel.

Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut, who took part in the committee session, defended the guidelines his organization has established, which place a number of restrictions on the views of speakers and groups campus Hillels can host. But the guidelines also state that Hillel "welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community." In that spirit, and facing Jewish students' growing alienation from Israel, Hillel should strive to be more open, not less.

Israel glories in being a democratic country open to a multiplicity of viewpoints, from religious or nationalist extreme positions on the right to socialist parties on the left. Would it tolerate censorship or disenfranchisement of any of them? Of course not.

Moreover, the major problem of every Hillel director is that the vast majority of Jewish students on campus are indifferent to any and all programs that Hillel sponsors, no matter how attractive they may be. The students are busy with their studies, their social lives, their finances, university athletics, planning their careers, and a myriad of other things. Israel is not among their major priorities. So those Jewish students on American campuses who do want to be involved in Israel should be encouraged – even if they disagree with the Israeli government's official positions. That is, in my view, what Open Hillel should be.

Although I am – and have always been – an active Zionist as an expression of my Jewish orientation, I doubt if I would have chosen to become a Hillel director if the current guidelines were binding then.

Jewish students at Berkeley demonstrating at the San Francisco Jewish Welfare Federation in the early 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Biale)

We had a very diverse and active Jewish life on campus for the two years that I was there. Hillel flourished like a bicycle wheel with all the spokes independent of each other, yet connected to the hub. This was our concept of an “open Hillel.” The two major groups were the RJU (Radical Jewish Union) and the ISO (Israel Student Organization), along with many others, formal and informal. Periodically they cooperated with each other. Generally they each did their own thing.

The first day in my new position there was a meeting with the Hillel Student Council. The chairman introduced me to the students and then said that there was one item on the agenda – the dissolution of the Hillel Student Council. There was virtually no discussion and the motion passed unanimously. I remember saying, “What a minute! I have a job to do!” I thought that this was the end before I'd even begun. The students present told me not to worry, that Jewish life will flourish on campus regardless. And it did.

A week after I arrived on campus I received a phone call from Richard Levy, the veteran Hillel director at UCLA. He said that Abba Eban, then-Israeli foreign minister, was coming to California to present then-governor Ronald Reagan with the Medallion of Valor Award. The students at UCLA, he said, were planning to picket the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles where there was a dinner scheduled for the event. Hillel had also planned a meeting with Eban to express their objections to Reagan, who trampled on many social values that are basic in the Jewish tradition.

Jewish students at Berkeley demonstrating at the San Francisco Jewish Welfare Federation in the early 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Biale)

Levy asked me what we at UC Berkeley had planned to do. I called a meeting of the students whom I knew, they discussed a plan of action, and decided to have a picket line around the Israel Counsel General offices on Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco, where they would present the Counsel General of Israel with a “distinguished” Golden Calf Award! This was for me, a neophyte Hillel director, a ”baptism by fire” into the realia of my new position.

But I had already seen the value of openness at Hillel during my own student days, years earlier.

In the 1950s I was a student both in the Hebrew Theological College (the only yeshiva in Chicago at the time and the University of Chicago. At the university, I was introduced to Maurice Pekarsky, the director of Hillel on campus. Abram (Abe) Sachar, who was chairman of the National Hillel Commission before he became the president of Brandeis University, wrote about Pekarsky that he “had an inner fire that warmed without burning, that glowed without searing He understood and had compassion for the ‘Canaanite’ in many of us.”

His reference to Canaanites alludes to a small-yet-provocative, radical movement in pre-state Palestine and the early days of the state of Israel, which both rejected religion and classical Zionism. It was a cultural and ideological movement that impacted the course of Israeli art, literature and spiritual and political thought.

I question whether they would have met Fingerhut’s Guidelines.

As a typical Yeshiva bochur at the time, I was intrigued – both conflicted and fascinated – by Pekarsky’s openness in confronting the question of “What does it mean to be a Jew in 20th century America?”

When I became director of Hillel in Berkeley in 1971, what guided me was the compassion for, or openness to, the Canaanites among the students of Berkeley - the Canaanites about whom I had heard from Pekarsky, and whom Sachar appreciated.

After two years on the Berkeley campus, my family immigrated to Israel.

Paul S. Laderman was ordained in 1960 by Yeshiva University New York. He was a United States Air Force chaplain from 1960 to 1962, the rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation Oakland, California from 1964 to 1971 and director of the Hillel Foundation at UC Berkeley from 1971 to 1973. He made aliya in 1973 and has resided in Jerusalem since then.