Our Hillel continues to thrive despite hostility

Throughout my years as a student, I have been blessed to be part of a wonderful community at Boston University Hillel. BU ranks second in a list of the top 30 private universities by Jewish population. Students here enjoy all kinds of Jewish-oriented activities throughout the academic year. From social, political, and cultural groups to religious and academic circles, there is something for everyone.

But lately, we have been facing hostility from one student, Raphael Fils, who was not happy about a recent decision made at Hillel. That decision—to admit the BU chapter of J Street U—was made democratically by elected members of the student board after they spent nine months asking questions, going to the group’s events on campus, and listening to students on both sides of the issue, including Mr. Fils.

I have personally talked to many people who were opposed to the decision, and I empathize with their concerns. They also understand my concerns about what could happen if we exclude them, even if they are sometimes wrong. These conversations have taken place against a backdrop of increasing calls by anti-Israel students to start a BDS campaign on our campus. Liberal Zionist groups have played a crucial role in helping Hillels fight those campaigns at other colleges and universities, where liberal political attitudes tend to dominate.

At the inaugural Hillel Global Assembly last month, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut stated: “Students involved with AEPi, StandWithUs, CAMERA, Hasbara and the David Project are among the leaders on campus facing down BDS and anti-Jewish issues. We thank them for being with us here also at this Global Assembly. On many campuses, students from J Street U have also joined in the coalition against BDS.”

Above all, our Hillel needs to have more discussions in the future about how we can best support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and foster open dialogue in the Jewish community. Thoughtful people often disagree on what decisions are best, which makes these conversations essential. But there is no excuse—absolutely none—for Mr. Fils’ reprehensible acts, including insulting Hillel professionals, intimidating members of the student board, and misrepresenting the community.

It goes without saying that these things should not be happening at Hillel. While as members of the Jewish community we may not always agree, it is our duty to make each other feel welcome. Counterproductive actions by Mr. Fils, such as engaging in name-calling against Hillel professionals on social media, should be condemned.

And since the decision, Mr. Fils has decided to end contact not only with members of the board, but also staff members who were not even involved in the decision. What is more, he has sought to block donations to Hillel, which are needed in order to fund the programs and activities that enrich Jewish life on campus. On Twitter he boasted about how he is “proud” of his efforts “to prevent 100k+ of donations from going to BU Hillel.”

He has also claimed that “hundreds of students” support his campaign, called “Save BU Hillel.” Yet, he has ardently refused demands to show any proof for the numbers he quotes—questionable. Furthermore, he has been one of only a few BU students to actively promote it. The student board members and staff despise what he is doing—and it is not difficult to understand why. Quite obviously, his actions are damaging our community.

As the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies wrote: “The BU Florence & Chafetz Hillel House is alive and well, the Jewish community on the Boston University campus is diverse and flourishing. We have never enjoyed better or more lively relations between Hillel and Jewish Studies. Dissent is important. So is mutual respect.”

His contempt for our community and lack of respect for the democratic process were demonstrated recently by his blog post—in which he accused BU Hillel of becoming “irrelevant” and “one of the least respected Jewish organizations on campus.” He also alleged that BU has a “ruined” Jewish community. One of the reasons that he states for these accusations is that Hillel has worked to cultivate interfaith relations with non-Jewish groups on campus. Also, surprisingly, he claimed that the democratically-elected student board does not represent the interests of the community.

It is not clear what he wants done differently. He has offered no solutions or suggestions of his own on ways to improve Hillel. If he does not think that interfaith dialogue should be one of Hillel’s focus areas, in addition to offering a wide range of Jewish-oriented programs and activities, he could have chosen to talk to the community about why he thinks it is unimportant. In fact, it was not until his blog post that most people were even aware that he had this concern. Although the majority of Hillel members cherish interfaith dialogue and disagree with his opinion, our community is always ready to have these conversations.

Moreover, Mr. Fils’ strident allegations against the student board do not stand up to the facts. Electing a student board democratically is the best way to ensure that students’ interests are represented. With each decision, the board takes time to hear all sides on an issue before voting. The members of the board are invariably ready to listen to complaints from community members and make changes to the best of their ability.

It is vindictive for him to claim that these hardworking Jewish leaders are somehow not representative of the community that elected them. His complaint about some low event turnouts is unrealistic. As anyone who has ever planned events knows, many factors contribute to event turnouts, and they are often beyond anyone’s control. By suggesting, without a shred of evidence, that these problems are the fault of those who do all the hard work, he has defamed these dedicated people.

Strangely enough, Mr. Fils had never expressed any issues with the student board until his blog post was published. In fact, he was friends with all of them up until the decision was made—after which he turned on them and began his campaign of defamation. Several Jewish communal leaders have suggested that instead of hurling demeaning insults at Hillel leaders and taking hostile actions against the community, he should offer constructive feedback, suggest improvements, and help out with the work it takes to make Hillel great.

A Jewish communal professional, who works on campuses, including BU, put it this way: “I think students walk a fine line and have to be careful. There is the need to reform and improve. But Fils is focused so much on condemning and intimidating the community that you wonder what good will come of it for anyone. I think that energy would be better spent getting involved in the community and helping out.”

In addition, Hillel International spokesman David Eden shared a statement written by David Raphael, BU Hillel’s Interim Executive Director. The statement condemned Mr. Fils’ article as “disseminating half-truths and falsehoods” and called attention to “a number of misstatements, misunderstandings, and outright mistruths.”

The statement asserted: “If Mr. Fils believes that the Hillel Student Board ‘does not represent the interests of the BU Jewish community’ then he is welcome to become an active, constructive voice within the existing organized student leadership structure rather than disseminating half-truths and falsehoods.”

It went on to detail the developments that have taken place at Hillel, which were notably missing from Mr. Fils’ article. These include, but are not limited to, the following: planning and running 54 events; organizing three Alternative Spring Break trips; engaging over 1,500 student program participants; attracting Jewish educators to visit campus over Shabbat and teach weekly study groups; achieving a stronger partnership with MEOR; launching efforts to partner with the Jewish Campus Learning Initiative; and furthering pro-Israel activism by organizing activism training, hosting an international accelerator event for Israel advocacy entrepreneurs, and planning a multiple-day visit by Ken Stein, the Founder and President of the Center for Israel Education.

2014 was a year of improvements. BU Hillel will continue to flourish in 2015. Our community remains committed to open dialogue and inclusiveness. We encourage people to communicate and work productively with others.

About the Author
Holly Bicerano is a student in the BA/MA Program at Boston University. She is pursuing an MA in Economics and a BA with a double concentration in Economics and Middle East and North Africa Studies. Her foreign language studies include Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish. She has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.
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