Hillel’s choice

June 15, 2015

When I last wrote, the J Street U National Board was about to go into a meeting with the Hillel International Board – a meeting we requested after Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut pulled out of the J Street National Conference in March.

Right now, Hillel faces a choice. Will they align themselves with the students they seek to serve? Or will outside stakeholders define their agenda? Many American Jewish communal institutions face a similar choice, caught between a small but powerful group of donors with views that are significantly right-of-center, and the vast majority of their constituents who make up a large, moderate middle. What these institutions decide to do, who they decide to side with, and who they decide to serve, will define the very future of the American Jewish community.

In many ways, the meeting was productive. We discussed issues facing both our organizations, such as how to deal with an increasingly polarized campus environment and the need to engage with progressive students. We spoke at length about the wonderful relationships we have with many local Hillels across the country.

I told you that in the meeting we would ask Hillel International to take concrete actions to demonstrate that they are serious about a real relationship with J Street U, and with progressive students more broadly, in order to ensure that the center of our community remains strong. Specifically, we had hoped to come away with steps Hillel and J Street U could take together to change the dynamics that led Mr. Fingerhut to withdraw from the conference.

We asked to be put in touch with some of Hillel’s donors who might misunderstand who we are, so that we could make the case to them that engaging with J Street U students is vital to their mission. We asked to be given the opportunity to educate new Hillel staff at Hillel International’s training institute this summer. And finally, because we believe that Mr. Fingerhut’s withdrawal from the conference was not representative of the relationship our two organizations wish to have, we invited him to our next major gathering – the 125-student Summer Leadership Institute (SLI).

Though Hillel was open to considering all of these ideas, I am disappointed to report that we ultimately did not leave the meeting with any concrete commitments from them. Given the events in March, the J Street U National Board was especially surprised that Mr. Fingerhut did not take us up on our invitation to attend SLI. It is still hard to understand why speaking publicly to over one hundred pro-Israel student leaders would not be a Hillel priority.

For Hillel and for J Street U, there is a real opportunity – to work together to build a strong, pragmatic and progressive coalition on college campuses in support of peace and Israeli democracy. To support a two-state solution, to oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and to build a healthy and dynamic Jewish community — that is the work that we can and should share.

We have made plans to follow up with Hillel on all of our asks in the coming weeks. We hope they take us up on the opportunities to move forward together and look forward to hearing back about their decision.

Our mission now, as always, is to fight for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians, and to make sure that the passionate pro-Israel and pro-peace voices of college students have a central place in helping to create that future. We would love to have Hillel’s enthusiastic support in this work, and we, along with our entire community, would benefit from it. Either way, we will continue to provide a home and a voice on campus for those who need it – we will keep growing our strength and spreading our message.

Thanks for your support,

Benjy Cannon
President, J Street U National Student Board