Lex Rofes

J Street U Supporters: Don’t Leave Hillel

The Jewish community was recently treated to some disappointing news. One of the most important figures in the American Jewish community – Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut made a decision that quickly took Jewish publications by storm.

A week ago, J Street announced that President Fingerhut would be speaking at the J Street Conference, as part of the student session hosted by J Street U (the campus arm of J Street). I was incredibly pleased to hear this would be happening, as a former board member of Hillel International and supporter of J Street U, and I even thought about ways that I, as a non-student, might be able to obtain permission to head to the student session and hear him speak.

1,000 students attending the J Street conference were going to have the chance to hear from Hillel’s CEO, and simultaneously Hillel’s CEO was going to get the chance to interact with many of his own constituents from campuses around the country.

But a couple days ago, I saw the JTA headline – “Hillel’s Eric Fingerhut Withdraws from J Street Conference.”

The reason? His decision to back out was, according to Hillel, due to the presence of Saeb Erekat at the conference (not in Fingerhut’s session, but merely due to Erekat’s presence in a session occurring elsewhere during the event). The leader of the largest Jewish student organization in the world was skipping out on a chance to interact with 1,000 of his constituents because Erekat, a prominent Palestinian who played an important role in the Oslo Accords, would be speaking as well.

This deeply upset me, and I immediately jumped to facebook and twitter to see how people were reacting. Sure enough, I found dozens of posts and tweets – even a widely circulated hashtag (#HillelPriorities).

To be honest, I joined in myself. I posted on facebook, favorited and re-tweeted a wide variety of tweets, and asked my friends what they thought of this situation. The vast majority, including Rabbis and Hillel professionals I know, were stunned and upset by this withdrawal.

But the point of this blog post is not primarily to discuss my disappointment with Eric Fingerhut. The reason I am writing is because many students I know who are involved with J Street U feel abandoned. Many are deeply embedded in their campus Hillels, serving in leadership roles or frequently participating in Hillel events, and they feel that an organization they love has cast them aside.

From a few friends, I have heard that they feel that they can no longer participate in Hillel programming. They feel that this decision by Hillel’s CEO to shun 1,000 students is not something they can forgive. If you are one of these students, I understand where you’re coming from. But I’m writing to ask you – to implore you – not to leave Hillel.

Leaving achieves nothing. It may give us some closure, but it doesn’t change Fingerhut’s decision. In fact, it means that there is one fewer progressive Jew actively making their presence felt within Hillel, making the organization more likely — not less — to continue with misguided decision-making like this.

We have to be able to take our anger and direct it towards positive change. If you are a J Street supporter and you feel abandoned, shunned, or mistreated by Hillel – that’s because you were. You have two options. Option one is to peace out. You can decide that Hillel has lost its right to your involvement. I know many people who have chosen this option in the past and many who are considering it in the future. I can’t say the thought of choosing it myself never crossed my mind while a student. But I never did.

That’s because the second option is to stay. Loudly. Stay involved in your Hillel – heck, become more involved – and explain to your local professionals why this decision is so detrimental to our communities (I’ll let you in on a secret – many will agree with you and tell you so!). Connect with leaders of Open Hillel (full disclosure: I am one), and strategize about ways you can create precisely the kinds of conversations in your campus Hillel that President Fingerhut wants to be shunned. Don’t let his misguided decision set the tone for your campus. Be the change.

As liberal Zionists, J Street has crafted an entire organization based on the premise that, despite Israel’s flaws, it is crucial to stay invested in its future. J Street, and thousands of its supporters, know that, despite Israel’s major policy errors, it is not acceptable for us to simply write it off as a lost cause. So take that philosophy to heart and apply it to Hillel.

Don’t leave. Stay involved, and work for a better future for Jewish life on campus. The time has come for progressives to take full ownership of Hillel and their place within it. After all, as a Jewish student, it is yours to own.

About the Author
Lex Rofes is a Jewish educator from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He graduated in 2013 from Brown University with a degree in Judaic Studies, and he now lives and works in Jackson, Mississippi.
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