Campus Communities and Their Conundrums

Most of the 400,000 Jewish college students on hundreds of campuses across North America have gone back to school. Some schools have large Jewish populations while others are smaller. But the two constants seem to be the presence of Hillel and Chabad, both of which provide students with Jewish engagement and enrichment opportunities while on campus.

This past week, our community was honored to host Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of Hillel International, and Tina Price, Chair of Hillel International Board of Directors. It is not often leaders of international Jewish organizations come to our community. In this case, they were here to learn more about (Jewish Federation funded partner agencies) Oregon Hillel (serving the University of Oregon and Oregon State University) and Greater Portland Hillel (serving Portland State University, Lewis and Clark College, and Reed College), as well as honor longtime community leader, Sharon Ungerleider for her family’s generous legacy gift to Oregon Hillel.

Eric spent two days meeting with the leadership of both Hillels, as well as with community leaders. He is an inspiring and articulate spokesperson for Hillel and his passion for Jewish college students is evident. Hillel is at the center of vibrant Jewish life on more than 550 campuses around the world, inspiring Jewish students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning, and Israel.

Juxtaposed with the upbeat tone shared by Eric, we also recognize/acknowledge that campus life for students today has its challenges – it certainly feels different than when I was in college 28 years ago.

I remember being dropped off at Emory University in Atlanta where probably 1/3 of the students were Jewish. My parents paid $36 for my four-year “membership” to Hillel and were excited to see AEPi on campus as the Jewish fraternity. They were delighted that my roommate from Dallas was Jewish as were the Resident Advisors (RAs) in my dorm and several other hall mates. My parents loved the idea of “all Jewish, all the time.” And as I reflect, it was probably my initial focus, as well. Yes, I was highly involved in Jewish activities on campus, but I also recognized college was my opportunity to “spread my wings” and experience new people and ideas.

What I encountered seems far different than what is happening on college campuses today. I do not remember battles over what is considered “free speech.” The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel did not exist. Words like “safe spaces,” “triggering,” "microaggressions" and even "microinvalidation" were not in our lexicon. I am not saying these challenges did not exist, since for many they are real, but it was not as “public” as it is today.

There were two interesting opinion pieces written by university presidents over the past two weeks. One by Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, and the other by Christina Paxson, President at Brown University. I found them quite intriguing and the points of view expressed similar to my conversations with my 15 year-old daughter.

Zimmer’s letter to incoming students warned that the university did not “support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Paxson wrote “Colleges and universities protect the rights of members of their communities to express a full range of ideas, however controversial. That is because freedom of expression is an essential component of academic freedom, which protects the ability of universities to fulfill their core mission of advancing knowledge…As scholars and students, our responsibility is to subject old truths to scrutiny and put forward new ideas to improve them.”

Eric Fingerhut recently wrote, “Hillel is not about “safe spaces” or shielding students from opinions they may find disagreeable. Hillel takes its commitment to academic freedom and the First Amendment very seriously. But campus codes of behavior routinely expect that students and faculty alike will work to ensure that the academic environment is open to constructive dialogue and free of coercion. Instead, what we see too often is intimidation – both physical and social – of Jewish students and professors.”

Jewish life on campus can feel quite threatening and debilitating. We hear about anti-Israel activity which has crossed the line into anti-Semitism, thus intimidating Jewish students and making them feel they must hide their Jewish identities. Israel-focused speakers are often shouted down. The BDS movement on campus crosses the line of legitimate criticism of Israeli policies while rejecting dialogue and real learning. This is the opposite of what universities are seeking to teach and model on campus.

I do not envy university administrators. They are entrusted with safeguarding their students. I do not envy Jewish students and professors where anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities occur.

I am just happy that Hillel, along with multiple other Jewish organizations, are on campus embracing and supporting these students, faculty and administrators. Hillel’s mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. It makes a lifelong impact on students worldwide via: Jewish identity building, leadership development, Jewish education, Israel engagement and experiences, and plain-old socialization. To Eric, Tina, Sharon, our local campus volunteer and professional leaders, and students, thank you for your tireless efforts! The Jewish Federation is proud to be your partner.

On a final note, it is hard to believe that Sunday will mark 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. We honor the memories of those who lost their lives in the attacks and the bravery of our first responders. With all the discussion about national anthems, the presidential election, global terrorism, etc., let’s always remember that we are fortunate to have our freedoms here in the United States of America.

Shabbat shalom.



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