Northwestern University, home to about 1,300 undergraduate Jewish students, has been dubbed an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel “hotspot” by a 2016 Brandeis University study. While the study results were drawn from student responses, many Northwestern leaders challenged the credibility of the findings. But what is happening on campus today? In order to get an up-close picture of Jewish life at Northwestern University, The View From Campus’ Amanda Gordon spoke with Michael Simon, executive director of the school’s Hillel about his work and the political climate on campus. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amanda Gordon: What are some of your primary responsibilities and how do you balance them?
Michael Simon: My primary responsibility is to enrich the lives of Jewish students so they may enrich the Northwestern campus, the Jewish community and the greater world.
I do wonder, are we really achieving this mission of inspiring every Jewish student? I know that not only are we not inspiring every Jewish student, we’re not even reaching everybody. Part of my role is to worry about that.
I think the work really matters, and I think Northwestern students are extraordinary. There’s kind of a sweet spot with Northwestern students in that they are smart and they want to explore important things in the world, but they’re also socially engaged; they’re active in their community and they want to be involved.
We’re trying to model for others what you could be as a Jewish citizen in the Northwestern community. For me that means showing up for things that are being put together and put on by Hillel students. Beyond that, it’s also showing up to things that it matters for Hillel to be [present] at, such as interfaith gatherings and certain speaker events on campus. … It’s important as a Jewish community for us to be involved in as many facets of the broader Northwestern community as we can be because it just lends itself to us being a positive part of the community.
Since coming to Northwestern in 2010, how have you tried to make Hillel and the overall Jewish community more inclusive for students?
I think Hillel operates on the assumption that [the Jewish community] is stronger through our diversity. We’re strengthened by a diversity of thought, and that ties into the strength of our overall community. For me, it’s less about particular programs and initiative, although I can talk about the fact that we’re one of 10 campuses piloting having a new social justice fellow. …
For us, it’s really important to try to be a continually questioning, learning and evolving organization and thinking about, are we being inclusive enough and are we catering to the needs of all Jewish students on campus? I don’t want students to just feel welcome, I want them to feel invested and I want them to know that this is their community.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has become more prominent on Northwestern’s campus in recent years, particularly in 2014 and 2015, when the student government passed a NU Divest resolution. Given the tension surrounding such resolutions, how has Hillel tried to facilitate a dialogue both within Northwestern’s Jewish community and with other student groups, both secular and religious?
Israel is a very, very complicated environment politically, and the North American Jewish community has a very diverse relationship [with Israel], and there’s a generational shift. It’s related to the politics here and the ongoing reality in Gaza and the West Bank, whether you call it the settlement project or occupation. I think that most students, and even many Jewish students, either are not particularly interested or don’t feel equipped or don’t feel connected to the conversation. I want to make sure that we’re actually encouraging students to engage with the conversation.
Three years ago, there was a divestment campaign on campus. In our case, Wildcats for Israel, J Street U, other students at Hillel and students that were not involved in any particular organization did come together to try to defeat the divestment resolution that was in ASG (Associated Student Government). It passed by one vote.
Every year we would have a big barbecue celebration for Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We were doing a real assessment; do we scrap the celebration because we don’t want to be provocative at a time when the campus has come through this intense thing? But on the other hand, there’s a lot of students who feel a need to celebrate their connection to Israel. But what about those who want to critique Israel both within and outside of the Jewish community? Can’t we provide a platform that is not divisive but is instead a forum? So, it turned into Israel Week. It was a celebration of Israel, but it was a week of celebration and reflection, and the reflection piece was really important to the student organizers. That’s been sort of the framework that has continued for the following three years.
Before the divestment vote, for Yom HaShoah, multiple student groups on campus joined us in commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day. We worked with students from FMO (For Members Only) and other students from the black community to do a freedom seder every year. What’s been challenging after the vote has been trying to rebuild that relationship. I think there’s been really tremendous and meaningful relationship building happening on a micro-level between specific student leaders. For example, we had an opportunity to show up in response to [President Trump’s] travel ban and to show solidarity with the Muslim community. It was really important from my perspective and from others involved in Hillel that we be there, even knowing that there might be some anti-Israel sentiment.
You’ve also served on the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative Advisory Board. What have you learned from this experience, and how have you tried to apply it to what you do at Northwestern?
It’s been a lovely experience, particularly when there have been opportunities to be at public events that are really demonstrating the goodwill and partnership between these communities, but for me what’s really been more meaningful is the relationship with Tahera Ahmad, who is the Muslim chaplain at Northwestern. She’s a tremendous partner in the work that we’re doing. She’s also the director of Interfaith Engagement at Northwestern, so we’ve created what I believe is a really meaningful bond.
What I think is challenging is understanding and recognizing the limits of that kind of a partnership and knowing that we can model what we imagine to be a beloved community through a relationship that’s really respectful and collegial, but that doesn’t automatically translate into strong, layered communal relationships between students that are involved in Hillel and students that are involved in the Muslim community or any other community on campus. We can show up and we can express what our values are, but it is also incumbent upon students to make those relationships happen. One of my huge hopes for the new year is to see more of those relationships not only take hold but blossom and become regular and constructive.
Amanda Gordon is a sophomore at Northwestern University.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.