Why I Left Hillel

Hillel was all that we had for Jewish students in Claremont to express their religious and spiritual sides of Judaism when I started as a freshman. Besides the High Holidays, Chanukah, Passover, and Friday evening Shabbat services, there was not much in terms of prayers and services that our Hillel offered. I was raised as a Conservative Jew, but the only time I felt more at home was when there were Conservative services on Friday nights, using the Siddur Sim Shalom I have used since as long as I can remember.

Nevertheless, I served on the Hillel’s executive board acting in the 2012 calendar year as the only position that suited me: the Israel Chair. Despite the successful year my board had, there were always two issues that startled me. When we were in the planning stages to host S. Bear Bergman, a trans-man who frequently spoke about the connection between Judaism and the LGBTQ community, the Queer Resource Center (QRC) was concerned about the co-sponsorship with Hillel given its stance on Israel. Because I was not in the planning stages of this particular event, I had no idea why the QRC was so adamant about their reservations toward Israel. As the Israel Chair, I had to email the president of the QRC, explaining Hillel’s stance on the Jewish state, which was along the lines of acknowledging its right to exist and that we focus our efforts on bringing in speakers who can talk about the State in a religious and cultural context. Most importantly, I had to say that we did not take a political stance.

This brings me to the second thing that bothered me. Why was our Hillel not taking a stand against the blatant bias that the QRC held on Israel? Israel has a much better track record for LGBTQ rights than the United States, it sets the gold standard for how a democracy should embrace individuals who have different sexual preferences and gender identities, and it stands out as the only Middle Eastern country that protects that community. Though I understood not getting political, I could not stomach the idea that this human issue could have been perceived as such when discussing Israel. This was the first time that I saw the predominant weakness of the Hillel movement and its defense of the only Jewish state. I thought to myself, “could it get any worse?”

This past academic year, a year after leaving the Hillel executive board, it certainly did. The Open Hillel movement cracked through the walls of Swarthmore and Vassar and opened the floodgates to allow Jewish students to spew anti-Israel rhetoric. Hillel should fundamentally be a safe place for Jewish students on increasingly anti-Zionist campuses, and by even remotely allowing some of their campus chapters to continue with these activities is disgraceful. In addition, Hillel money was used to sponsor a trip to see the grave of Yasser Arafat, the nefarious terrorist who spoke of peace in English and of genocide in Arabic, and Hillel did nothing to scold the organizers.

To me, that was unacceptable. How could I have been associated with an organization that allows such trips and such rhetoric to occur when Hillel’s mission, according to its website, is “to encourage students of all backgrounds to form deep, personal connections to Jewish life, learning and Israel, through Jewish exploration, leadership, and a sense of belonging.” Hard to have a bunch of Zionist Jews want to be associated with an organization that allows BDS and anti-Zionist rhetoric to enter their chapters. I am certainly one of them.

What is more atrocious to me is the growing relationship and alliance between Hillel International and J Street. What better organization for Hillel to align themselves with than an organization that claims to be pro-Israel but libels pro-Israel activists and demonizes Israel to a level that crosses the line. I understand how Hillel is trying to open up the idea of hearing new voices, but there is a line that one must cross within the Jewish community. The moment you libel other Jewish activists, the moment your student representatives co-sponsor events with SJP and take part in BDS, and when they start going after the strategic partnership between the United States and Israel by trying to hijack legislation to block Iran’s nuclear program, is the moment when you say “enough is enough.” Instead, Hillel has taken J Street’s side following the latter’s rejection into the Conference of Presidents. Even organizations that Hillel has close ties to, including AEPi, took note of the anti-Israel attitudes of J Street and rejected them on that basis. Hillel International now has a choice: they can remain on the sides of the true Zionist cause and reject the notions of J Street and Open Hillel for the safety of the majority of its attendees, or they can continue supporting those two organizations and turn college Hillels into extraordinarily unsafe places for Jewish students.

But none of these things happened in the Claremont’s Hillel, so why did I leave? My answer is simple. Starting two years ago, there was a push to start a Chabad to cater to the religious needs of more observant members of the Claremont community. The Hillel rabbi was adamantly against the idea, concerned that the Chabad movement would be proselytizing and that it would draw people away from Hillel, which has already acquired significant standing in the Claremont Colleges. When a Chabad finally came to campus this past academic year, many students tried to make it a registered club in the Claremont consortium, and the Hillel rabbi prevented it from succeeding for the longest time. What broke the camel’s back was when a few students met with the leaders of the Religious Life Center to discuss the Chabad and the rabbi continued to act disrespectful not only towards the idea, but also towards the students themselves.

In my opinion, I think the Rabbi’s refusal to help other members of the student body stood against everything that she promoted Hillel to be. The Jewish community is supposed to come together in times of crisis and need, and when there was a need, the Hillel refused to accommodate those needs. Tikkun Olam means to “repair the world,” and if the Hillel does not help other Jewish students have a better experience in college, then they are undoing the very things that the early Rabbinics have taught us for over a millennium. Therefore, due to what happened at my Hillel with the Chabad controversy, the continuation of Hillel International’s relationship with J Street, and the lack of a strong response to the Open Hillel movement have resulted in me deciding to sever my ties with Hillel and take a more active role in the Chabad on campus.

About the Author
Elliott Hamilton is a JD/MPH candidate at Boston College Law School and Tufts University School of Medicine. He was credited as a researcher in the 2016 film "Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus."
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