Friday, December 27, 2013

How Open Should Our Tent Be?

If you follow the Jewish news as avidly as I do, you may be aware of a controversy involving Swarthmore College Hillel and Hillel International. The Swarthmore affiliate recently declared that it would not be bound by Hillel International’s policy forbidding any Hillel chapter to host or sponsor activities with organizations that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” In response to this declaration, Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut, a former Ohio Congressman, warned Swarthmore Hillel that he expects all campus Hillels to follow these guidelines or lose the right to call itself “Hillel.”

It’s interesting that Swarthmore Hillel has not as yet actually violated these guidelines; it has merely asserted that it won’t be bound by them.

What precipitated this declaration? According to the Swarthmore Hillel student board, it was a recent incident where former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, an outspoken dove, was not permitted to give a speech at Harvard Hillel.

How on earth is it possible that a former speaker of Israel’s parliament -- who before that was chairman of the Jewish Agency -- could be prevented from speaking at a Hillel? The reality is a bit complicated, but it seems that the Palestine Solidarity Committee had agreed to co-sponsor the Burg speech along with Harvard Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Hillel affiliate, and even Harvard Students for Israel.  Harvard Hillel felt that allowing an event co-sponsored by the Palestine Solidarity Committee to take place in the Hillel building would violate the guidelines, but they also wanted to show hospitality to the former Knesset Speaker. So in a compromise that frankly reminds me of some of the mental gymnastics Conservative synagogues sometimes go through, an invitation-only dinner for Burg was held at Harvard Hillel. After dinner, everyone walked across the street to a university-owned building for the public lecture.

The Harvard/Burg debacle led to the creation of a group called “Open Hillel,” of which Swarthmore soon became the first (and so far only) institutional member.

I began my career as a Hillel director, well before these guidelines came into effect. As a Hillel director I tried to have as diverse a program as possible. When the “Palestine Solidarity Committee” and “Students for Israel” want to co-sponsor a speech by a former Knesset Speaker, and Hillel International’s guidelines prevent it, something is wrong. The ethos of the campus is to promote dialogue and  free inquiry; students learn from hearing a broad spectrum of opinions and having their pre-conceived notions challenged.

I would add that we at Kehilat Shalom have had a broad variety of speakers as well. Last year our Men’s Club sponsored talks by Eric Rozenman of CAMERA, which can fairly be characterized as a right-wing pro-Israeli group, as well as a Muslim leader. In previous years I am told that we have hosted diplomats from Arab countries. Hosting a talk by a particular individual does not imply endorsement of his or her perspectives or activities.

I think Hillel needs to cast its net as wide as possible. As we learned in our “Engaging Israel” course, being pro-Israel does not mean supporting every decision a particular Israeli government makes. Lots of American Jews are critical of certain Israeli policies -- be they on religious pluralism, women’s rights, or the Arab-Israeli conflict. The recent Pew Study showed that only 38 percent of American Jews believe that the current Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace, while 48 percent believe it is not sincere. (It should be added that 75 percent of American Jews -- me included -- believe that the Palestinian leadership is not making a sincere effort at peace either.) Younger Jews tend to be more dovish than the rest of the Jewish community, and the exclusion of dissenting voices from the Jewish campus umbrella will undoubtedly cause further alienation of young Jews from the organized community as they get older.

And yet -- advocates of the Hillel International policy point out that on the typical college campus there are any number of opportunities on a daily basis to hear from critics of Israel. Indeed, on many campuses pro-Israel students feel that they are constantly under siege. Is it wrong for Hillel to be the one place on campus where Jewish students can enjoy a respite from having to defend Israel? There is a certain merit to this perspective.

The same question can be asked about our synagogue, or indeed any synagogue. How broad do we want our tent to be? I recently attended a “Think Tank on Intermarriage” for Conservative rabbis, and it became clear to me that in the non-Orthodox Jewish community intermarriage is the “new normal.” Roughly half of young adults raised in the Conservative movement are going to marry someone of a different religious background -- and if we are going to retain them and their offspring, we are going to have to make some adjustments. At the same time, Conservative Judaism defines itself as a movement which adheres to halachic restrictions on Jewish status, on marriage and divorce, and the role of non-Jews in the synagogue. How much can we change and still be Conservative? How do we make our synagogue more comfortable for intermarried Jews and their families without at the same time making it less comfortable for our current members, especially those whose inclinations are more traditionalist?

To the credit of both Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut will soon sit down with the Swarthmore Hillel student board to begin a dialogue. Within Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue’s recent Centennial Convention was dubbed “The Conversation of the Century” and kicked off an honest and introspective discussion of the state of our own Movement and its future direction. We need to do the same at Kehilat Shalom. How big do we want our tent to be? What can we do to be more welcoming to those who are not currently a part of us, without alienating those who are already inside the tent?