Our community has seen astonishing shifts around what kind of conversation is “allowed” when we talk about Israel. Last month, over 300 students gathered at the first ever J Street U Student Town Hall to discuss this shifting landscape. We invited Eric Fingerhut, Hillel International’s CEO, to join us. Though he originally committed to attending, he canceled due to scheduling issues.
The Town Hall was a missed opportunity for Fingerhut to engage with Jewish leaders of the next generation, many of whom also serve as Hillel student board members and participants. That meant he didn’t get the chance to address a primary concern of American Jewish students, no matter their political stripe or organizational affiliation. We are excluded from meaningful participation in the shaping of our communities, which has led many to turn away from the centers of Jewish life.
We needed Eric Fingerhut to demonstrate that there is an alternative to leaving Hillel altogether, as Jay Michaelson suggests, by providing students a serious seat at the table.
I am lucky. In Portland, Jewish students do not have to make the tough choice between participating in Jewish life and remaining committed to a more peaceful, secure and democratic future for Israelis and Palestinians. Jewish Federation of Greater Portland CEO Marc Blattner supported our work advocating for the two-state solution by generously funding J Street U Portland State students attending the Town Hall.
Due to the support of our Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, we also enjoy a fantastic relationship with our campus Hillel. Despite widespread communal hand-wringing about the future of traditional Jewish institutions, young Jews are partners in the conversation about the future of Jewish communities in Portland.
But I worry about my fellow students at other colleges, such as the University of Pennsylvania. Recently, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia (HGP) co-sponsored a screening of the anti-J Street smear film “The J Street Challenge” on Penn’s campus, despite the fact that J Street U Penn is housed under Penn’s Hillel umbrella.
No students were involved in HGP’s decision to participate in the screening. Not one. And in fact, there are no student members of the HGP board. But don’t misunderstand; young Jews want to have a stake in the affairs of their community. After hearing about HGP’s participation in the screening, the majority of Penn Hillel student group leaders – 21 student leaders in all – signed a petition opposing HGP’s participation in the screening. Despite this overwhelming opposition among their students, HGP refused to withdraw their support.
This difference between my community and the situation at Penn brings into sharp relief the need for serious, meaningful student representation in our institutions. We believe that Hillel International cares deeply about student leadership; they have assured us of that fact many times since the Open Hillel debate began late last year.
But students hold largely ceremonial positions in its governing bodies, and the small percentage that serve on the Hillel International Board are handpicked by professional leadership.
Hillel has the great opportunity to lead on this front. The fact is that as our community frets about how to engage young Jews, very few institutions represent us. Hillel is an organization meant to serve Jewish students on campus, and students, regardless of their political bent, should be a part of their decision-making processes.
Therefore, we are asking Hillel International to work with their vast and diverse student constituency to ensure that one year from now, students elected by their peers comprise one-third of the national Hillel board of directors. We will spend the next year advancing this goal. Until Jewish communal institutions demonstrate that students are at the center of organizations meant to serve them, Jewish communal leaders shouldn’t be surprised to see a mass exodus of young people from the Jewish community.
We hope Eric Fingerhut will join Mr. Blattner in Portland and the host of national leaders who attended our Town Hall in ensuring that young Jews are partners – with our generous communal donors – in the vital decision-making that impacts all members of our campuses and communities.
Gabriel T. Erbs is a senior in the English department at Portland State University, where he is co-chair of J Street U Portland State. Gabriel grew up in Portland’s Jewish community, and has also studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem and attended university in Istanbul. He last wrote for the national Jewish student magazine New Voices.