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BU Hillel Is Being Reinvented, and It’s a Mitzvah

Embracing diversity, integrating with campus life

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During the summer months, BU Today is revisiting some of the past year’s favorite stories. This week, we feature life and happenings on the Charles River Campus.

At a recent Shabbat dinner at BU’s Florence & Chafetz Hillel House, the dining room was filled to overflowing when Yehoshua Dovid Schwartz, Hillel’s newly arrived rabbi from the Orthodox Union Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, climbed on a chair to greet the assembled students and professors with a stentorian “Shabbat shalom” that would have registered on the Richter scale. The crowd had filed through the door in laughing clusters, arms linked, after attending one of three separate services—Orthodox, Conservative, or a Reform service led by a guitar-strumming songstress with a quick wit and a flair for arranging Hebrew prayers in rounds. As they dined on matzoh ball soup, potato kugel, and brisket, the group was entertained by Kol Echad, a student Jewish a cappella group. Among those enjoying the meal, and one of the Charles River Campus’ best river views, free and open to all, were students from China, a visiting professor from Jerusalem and his family, and a Muslim engineering student from Egypt.

This is not your mother’s Hillel.

Nor is it, for that matter, your older sister’s Hillel. Across the United States, the priorities, backgrounds, and passions of Jewish college students are changing. But Hillel at BU, with the second largest Jewish student population in a private university in America (exceeded only by New York University), had until very recently been slow to acknowledge this sea change in a century-old organization that stands for far more than its enduring ties to Israel.

Hillel is now reinventing itself in hopes of becoming more fully integrated into the fabric of campus life. No longer does Hillel House, on Bay State Road near the Castle, check student IDs at the reception desk, and newcomers are greeted warmly. Hillel’s eclectic calendar includes a Moroccan sukkah night with belly dancers and nicotine-free hookah pipes, “Jewmba” fitness classes, charity-focused Mitzvah Days volunteering at homeless shelters, free yoga, cooking demonstrations, its own SNL (Saturday Night Learning Torah discussions), Challah for Hunger drives, Rhett’s Bark Mitzvah, a Hanukah “Latkepalooza,” and active partnerships with Marsh Chapel and the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground.

This is a Hillel that also hosts a national LGBT Jewish retreat and recently cosponsored a discussion about race, power, and privilege at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Hall. The kosher cafeteria serves up one of the best lunches on campus for under $10, and staff and members have put the word out to Muslim students that these meals are halal as well, and they are welcome to dine there. At last year’s Passover Seder, students supplemented the traditional Haggadah with a reading from the African American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who just won the National Book Award for his nonfiction work Between the World and Me.

Jewyness in all its forms

The new Hillel vigorously embraces what comic Sarah Silverman would call “Jewyness” in all its forms. “There are a plethora of ways to live Jewishly,” says executive director David Raphael. At a Hillel event, or at prayer services at one of its three chapels, one is likely to encounter not only practicing and secular students of Jewish parentage, but also those born to mixed marriages and blended traditions—one Alaskan student active in Hillel has a Jewish father and a Native American mother. Also, to paraphrase the classic Levy’s Real Jewish Rye ad, you don’t have to be Jewish for Hillel to be a home away from home on a sprawling campus where it’s easy to feel lost, says Raphael. In fact, a good number of the students attending events, and a growing percentage of those joining Hillel-sponsored alternative spring break trips and Birthright tours of Israel, are non-Jews.

Ethan Sobel, Hillel director of student life, and student board chair Erin Miller (CAS’17).

Ethan Sobel (COM’13), Hillel director of student life, and Erin Miller.

But it took a concerted push and some outside muscle to get here. As recently as last year, BU Hillel (which is owned by the University and has a largely donor-driven operating budget) was not a happy place. While such figures are estimates at best, BU’s undergraduate Jewish population is believed to be about 4,500, with about 500 Jewish graduate students and an estimated 85,000 Jewish alumni. Orthodox students have long been drawn to Chabad House, at 491 Comm Ave, for prayer, adherence to traditional gender roles, and Torah study. Although Hillel has begun only recently to monitor metrics, interest in what it had to offer at BU was clearly fading and its role on campus increasingly misunderstood, says Ethan Sobel (COM’13), Hillel director of student life, recalling the sparsely attended events and difficulty getting minyans (the quorum of at least 10 men, and in Reform groups, women, over the age of 13 required for public Jewish worship) for prayer.

A year ago Hillel’s concerned international leadership put the BU foundation, once a jewel in Hillel’s crown, in a kind of receivership, bringing in what one observer called a “fixer of broken Hillels” to revive a sense of enthusiasm and belonging, and attract an energetic rabbi to replace Michael Beyo, who resigned after just a year at BU. (That rabbi is Schwartz, who came to Boston this past summer after a stint at the University of Illinois.) And that fixer is the upbeat Raphael, director of campus services for Hillel International. A self-proclaimed “old hippie” and Israel-loving, Woody Allen-Lenny Bruce-schooled repository of Jewish humor, Raphael displays a knack for bringing out the best in students. He and Sobel are joined at the hip as they navigate the tightrope Hillel occasionally walks when it comes to Middle East politics and student diversity. (Sobel is a longtime LGBT activist working in good-natured harmony with the new rabbi, whose orthodoxy does not embrace homosexuality.)

In bureaucratic parlance, Raphael is “a senior-level field consultant charged with strategic planning, board and professional development and governance, and fiscal, fundraising, and staffing guidance and support to Hillel Foundations” across the nation. During the 2012–2013 school year, he was the interim executive director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale (Yale’s Hillel). His role is taken very seriously (Hillel’s leadership is watching BU closely), but he is not above goofy mischief, bestowing “Pirate Hillel Certificates of Arrrrrpreciation.”

The four questions

Through student focus groups, board meetings, and gatherings of campus leaders, Raphael hopes to address a series of questions: How do we empower Jewish students to become leaders on campus, nationally and globally? How do we become a pluralistic and welcoming home for all students? How do we help students nourish healthy minds, bodies, and souls and build a caring community? And how can BU Hillel inspire and embrace thoughtful, respectful dialogues about difficult issues such as Israel and the Middle East, racism, and anti-Semitism?

Raphael boosted Sobel’s efforts as a campus recruiter, dispatching him with the message that Hillel is more than an in loco parentis dispenser of Shabbat chicken soup, although Schwartz and his wife, Chava, who works alongside him as a lay rabbi, cook up a storm in their own home for students yearning for kosher family meals. “The students’ moms call me to check up on their kids,” says Chava. “If a student gets sick, they’ll need my homemade chicken soup. We love having an open home; our own kids are very social beings.” Their two young children roam the Hillel lobby, where students can often be seen kidding around with them. The Schwartzes’ office is open to all, with tea and candy.

But one of the biggest ongoing challenges is how to get students to Hillel House in the first place. “We have to meet students where they are,” says Sobel. “Our new calling is to place equal emphasis on culture and faith.” Yet it also must, without heavy-handed proselytizing, reach out to the growing number of young people gravitating back to an affiliated Judaism that seems to some elders to have skipped a generation.

Rabbi Y. D. (Yehoshua Dovid) Schwartz and his wife, Chava, Hillel’s new rabbinical couple in residence, arrived this past summer. 

Rabbi Y. D. (Yehoshua Dovid) Schwartz. He and his wife, Chava, Hillel’s new rabbinical couple in residence, arrived this past summer.

The 2013 Pew Research Organization study A Portrait of Jewish Americans found that 22 percent, nearly one in five, of Jews now describe themselves as having no religion. Yet the survey also suggested that a rising percentage of the children of intermarriages are practicing Jews in adulthood. Among Americans age 65 and older who say they had one Jewish parent, 25 percent are Jewish today. By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, 59 percent are Jewish today. In this sense, intermarriage may be transmitting Jewish identity to a growing number of Americans.

But these are students who are as likely to read the website Heeb, the “New Jew review,” as they are to check out The Forward, the Jewish newspaper launched in 1897 as a Yiddish-language publication and whose contributors have included 1978 Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

One of Hillel’s strengths is that “anyone can come here,” says Hillel board member Karen Jacobs (SAR’79), a Sargent College clinical professor of occupational therapy. “We want to make it the place to be on campus, a destination,” says Raphael. “We want to make the building homier.” Hillel doesn’t want to be a club, he says, but rather a connection, with the organization’s direction shaped by students themselves.

Hillel’s 13-member student board is headed by Erin Miller (CAS’17), a psychology major with a strong interest in Jewish ethics and a senior research assistant for BU’s Project on Medicine and the Holocaust, founded by Michael Grodin, a professor at both the School of Public Health and the School of Medicine. Others on the student board fill roles in outreach, public relations, social action, and fundraising. In one of its outreach campaigns, Faces of Hillel, students post testimonials that include comments about finding friends and catching up with them over Shabbat dinners. As part of Hillel’s international Drive to Excellence initiative, Sobel is working to measure BU Hillel’s strides in numbers.

Unabashed support for Israel

Hillel’s redesign has been a sometimes delicate dance with donors, marked by frank conversations about what Hillel International chairman of the board Sidney Pertnoy described during a recent visit to BU as Hillel’s “unabashed support for Israel.” That support has been a main pillar of the organization since it was founded in 1923. (Established by the 173-year-old B’nai B’rith, the first Hillel was based at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.)

Hillel has an official policy and guidelines on Israel: “Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Yet BU Hillel raised eyebrows and angered some donors in December 2014, when its student board approved J Street U as an affiliate group, reversing an earlier decision. J Street U is the student-organizing arm of J Street, which calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although its student board found that J Street U fell under the national guidelines, the ensuing controversy cast a shadow over BU Hillel, divided students, and drew coverage in The Forward.

David Raphael, executive director of campus services at Hillel, a “fixer of broken Hillels,” was signed on to diversify and enliven Hillel and attract Jewish students from a broad range of traditions.

David Raphael, executive director of campus services at Hillel, a “fixer of broken Hillels,” was signed on to diversify and enliven Hillel and attract Jewish students from a broad range of traditions.

According to Raphael, the decision cost Hillel a few donors and several students. The Hillel student board has subsequently done away with all student-affiliated groups, instead moving to a “program-based model,” where student groups can apply to use the building and for funding based on individual programs, he says. “This gives us greater flexibility to review individual programs and engage previously uninvolved students.” But in a way the J Street tumult reaped longer-term benefits; BU Hillel was by all accounts due for a makeover. Schwartz, whose salary is shared by BU Hillel and the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, which helps Orthodox students navigate the college environment, describes BU’s Hillel as “not so much a broken wheel as one that might need some air in the tire.”

So far, the BU chapter seems to be deftly navigating the Middle East debate. “Students have to realize that if they’re not speaking out, they’re not part of the conversation,” says Sobel. “If you’re silent, you’re letting other people run your community, your life, and that’s certainly not what BU is about.” Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work; its goal, says Pertnoy, is to inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel and to Israelis. Every year, through its Birthright Israel program, BU Hillel sends 100 students to Israel, with a goal of increasing that number to 250 through Birthright and other programs.

The trip includes spending time at a military base with Israeli Defense Forces, whose members are likely to be a lot like American college students, since military service in Israel is mandatory for young men and women. Yet their time in Israel “lets them have a personal connection, see that the Israeli army are just folks,” says Raphael, who has led many Birthright trips. “I think students are going to struggle with what Israel means to them, so we say, go experience it and figure it out.” Last spring he took 10 students, half of them not Jewish, to Israel. “We didn’t do any kind of advocacy work; we just said, here it is. And they fell in love,” he says. “They saw how vibrant and rich and wonderful Israel is. While volunteering for five days on an Israeli army base, they met Israeli soldiers and realized that they’re human.” With this foundation, he says, students can better respond in discussions or debates. They can say, about Israel, “I was there, and that’s not what I saw.”

Welcomed with open arms

Theater major Shawna M. James (CFA’18), an aspiring actor from California, leads Hillel’s Reform service with the help of an acoustic guitar. “My mom was raised Jewish and my dad was raised Catholic,” says James. “We celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, read Buddhist scripture, the Torah, and Koran. I come from a lot of knowledge about spirituality and religion and people who are hearty good souls.” After a few months at BU, rarely straying from CFA, James felt stressed out, and missed her Reform Jewish community—“people who sing the same melodies.” Hillel, she says, welcomed her “with wide open arms.” The Reform minyan was touch and go at the time—more people showed up just for the Friday evening feast. But James’ Reform service, held in the smallest Hillel chapel, is building a steady following.

“I’m a very questioning Jew,” she says. “I take my Jewish identity very seriously, but I was always encouraged to ask questions and not follow the status quo. I think respect is a bottom line. We are all following the same truth at its core, so there’s no reason to have conflict, and I think Hillel exists so fluidly because we give people the space, we’re not forcing Orthodox people to come and listen to me sing, we try to respect what students need.”

She describes Schwartz’s presence as a gift. When the two first met, Schwartz wouldn’t shake her hand, and it took a few beats before James remembered that Orthodox Jewish men don’t make physical contact with women outside their families. She was fine with that. “He’s still a kind person, and he’s able to do his job”—a job that extends beyond his work with Orthodox students. “I’m working on having more of my non-Jewish friends come,” James says, “letting more people in CFA know” about Hillel. “We’re trying to break the stigma that Hillel is a serious building with only serious things,” and her Reform service “is serious fun.”

Raphael, whose contract was extended for the 2015–2016 academic year, is heartened by the liveliness he’s seeing at Hillel these days. Even small touches, like serving Shabbat dessert in the lobby instead of the dining room, fuels community, he says. “Here’s this fabulous space and it wasn’t consistent with the energy of the University. Now we’re doing all these funky things, but we still hold services twice a day and advance Jewish learning.”

5 Comments

5 Comments on BU Hillel Is Being Reinvented, and It’s a Mitzvah

  • Michael Zank on 12.04.2015 at 9:14 am

    Great exposition. And good work, David Raphael and Ethan Sobel. A shoutout to Susan Sloane, who is not mentioned here and will be leaving the Hillel at the end of the year, but her many years of professional service as the chief administrator of our Hillel are appreciated by everyone who had the opportunity to work with her. We will miss her!

  • Concerned parent on 12.06.2015 at 9:03 am

    It’s great to hear all the good work that’s been done, but not checking ID’s?? Ok, so it’s not a student residence hall or FitRec or a bag check at Agganis, but many public buildings (including hospitals) request that ID’s be on display. That’s just irresponsible in today’s world.

  • Stacy Godnick on 12.06.2015 at 9:11 am

    Thank you for a very informative article. Well done.

  • Is this really reinvention? on 12.09.2015 at 4:59 pm

    Some of these advancements sound lovely, but I personally don’t understand how the reshaping of a Hillel as relatable and welcoming to college students can involve a rabbi who “does not embrace homosexuality.” Birthright programming also doesn’t sound to me like an adept or inventive addressing of Israel-Palestine. All of this communicates to me that Hillel still isn’t even close to becoming a place I’m welcome, or will feel comfortable, as a Jew.

  • Concerned student on 12.14.2015 at 10:54 pm

    As a student who has been involved in Hillel, I know this article misrepresents the truth. In fact, a majority of the executive board did not feel like this article represents Hillel or the current state of Hillel. Instead, this article confuses events that happened in the past with happening today, and glorifies the staff which a large amount of students who frequent Hillel do not feel comfortable with. It’s a shame that the Jewish community of BU is being run like this, and by Staff who decided they wanted to switch models in order to disaffiliate from J Street. They have made mistakes in the part few years which have led them to lose a vast number of donations, however, the lies in the article and the blatant disrespect David and Ethan show toward J Steeet will not help them with their financial crisis. And neither will their attempt to pay Facebook to sponsor this article.

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