Is Hillel Succeeding in Realizing Its Mission And Goals?

By Bill Narvey

From what I have gathered, the answer to this question is a troubling “no”.

If that is the right answer, then why not and what will Hillel do about it?

It may be trite, but so true that the future of the Jewish community and of Israel is bound up in our Jewish youth.

The main North American Hillel website has various statements pertaining to Hillel’s mission and goals, such as one by Hillel’s President, Wayne L. Firestone: ”Hillel’s commitment to pro-Israel advocacy and education on campus is deeply rooted in strengthening Jewish life and the opportunity to create meaningful Jewish experiences for students.”

A web search will reveal Hillel’s North American head office and Hillel chapter websites with numerous references to Hillel’s mission and goals aforesaid, seemingly bold, creative and even brilliant sounding initiatives and glowing reports of their successes.

What you will not find on the web however, are items and articles save for a few, that critically assess the results of Hillel’s efforts and which raise specific questions and concerns as to whether Hillel’s efforts are as successful as Hillel claims them to be.

Regardless how laudable Hillel’s mission and goals are and how seemingly brilliant its game plans to realize those goals, that organization must take a real hard look at whether their efforts are actually realizing the success they envision, hope for and claim they are achieving. If those successes claimed are not really there, Hillel like any other organization, owes a duty to itself and to Jewish university youth it is meant to serve, to adapt their game plan to the challenges it faces in order to better assure success.

This point is the focus of this piece.

Finding only a few web critiques of Hillel, I am primarily relying on my own knowledge gleaned from a number of American and Canadian media articles over the years in relation to Hillel’s educational programs and pro-Israel advocacy efforts, including its dealings with campus anti-Israel advocacy, my own experience with Hillel and similar experiences related to me by others across North America.

Those few critical analyses found on the web regarding Hillel, included:

A February 13, 2008 article I had written and since forgotten, Breathing Life and Vigor into Hillel’s Pro-Israel/Jewish Advocacy:

Articles posted on Israpundit dated February 4th ,2008 What Passes for Education; February 11th, 2008 Keeping up the good fight against Israel Apartheid Week: and March 9th, 2009, Hillel Student Leaders Participate in Israel Apartheid Week!

The information and media articles upon which these articles were based leads to the conclusion that Hillel’s goals are not being as effectively met as claimed and that Hillel and Jewish students are being intimidated and frightened by anti-Israel activists on many campuses across North America.

This situation persists to this day. A number of recent media reports and op-eds in the States and Canada deal with the matter, including my op-ed Fear trumps freedom of speech at York University published in the Jewish Tribune on March 2, 2010:

In February, 2008 following Belman’s article, What Passes for Education, I was included in an e mail discussion with one of the University of Toronto Hillel leaders, who invited questions. My questions relating to Hillel’s effectiveness were ignored even with the urging of discussion participants that my questions be answered. It was clear that only questions that afforded an opportunity to promote a positive Hillel image were being entertained.

Various letters raising concerns or questions bearing on Hillel’s effectiveness that I have sent over the years to Hillel and leading Jewish organizations , similarly have been ignored.

My personal experience also relates to the Hillel experience of two of my children, 13 years apart. Both attended Hillel and its programs at different times and at different universities, each having hundreds of Jewish students. Only a very small handful of Jewish students participated. They advised the vast majority of Jewish students had no interest in Hillel, that the programs did little to nothing to educate and inspire them and both ceased affiliation with Hillel after about a year, saying Hillel was a complete waste of their time.

Thirteen years is a lot of time for Hillel to get its act together, but in the case of my kids, Hillel appears to have stayed a getting nowhere fast course.

Recently two Hillel leaders advised me that only a handful of between 10 – 20 Jewish university students out of hundreds, had anything to do with Hillel at their respective campuses.

Both noted that most Jewish students coming into university, were as one said, “already damaged” in the sense they had little knowledge of Jewish and Israeli history, little connection with their Jewishness, were fairly well assimilated, many were largely left leaning, many had more sympathy for Palestinians then Israel and that their experience at university did not change that.

If these views do reflect a pervasive reality in campuses across North America, that reality indeed presents a great challenge for Hillel in trying to reach, educate and inspire Jewish university youth. It means however, that the effort to meet that challenge, must be that much greater.

Failure to rise to that challenge becomes an excuse for failure.

I am advised that Hillel chapters are funded by major Jewish national and local organizations, that Hillel’s pro-Israel advocacy guidelines are dictated by these organizations, which guidelines it is important to note, have been questioned by many, that the funding often has been inadequate and in some, if not many cases, does not provide for a full time Hillel director, staff or adequate, enticing and inspiring comprehensive programs, all of which mitigates of course against successful outreach to most Jewish students.

Though I trust at least some Hillel chapters can rightly claim success in their efforts, the foregoing information variously confirmed to me over the years by concerned parents and others across North America, suggests that such success is the exception, not the rule.

Recently and several years ago, I called the then local Hillel director to discuss volunteering my time to assist in reaching out to Jewish university students, in the context of both Hillel’s current programs and also offered some no cost program ideas . Twice, my offer and ideas were received with interest and enthusiasm. In both instances I was advised I would hear back to set something up, but heard nothing further.

It is a shame that Hillel and their funding organizations have ignored realities and have failed to adapt their game plan to better realize Hillel’s goals.

It is even more of a shame that Hillel and their funding organizations have left untapped, a vast little to no cost resource, to assist Hillel in achieving greater success.

That resource is caring members of every Jewish community who are reasonably informed and prepared to volunteer their time to assist Hillel in reaching far more Jewish university students, gaining far greater interest, support and participation and to assist Hillel in achieving its goals in the area of Jewish-Israel education and preparing Jewish university students to be far more ready, willing and unflinchingly able to advocate for Israel and to counter the anti-Israel activists.

As stated at the outset, the future of the Jewish community and Israel is bound up in our Jewish youth. It is they who carry our hopes and dreams for a bright future for our Jewish communities and for Israel . It therefore is they and our future that are at stake.

That stake is not looking nearly as promising as it should and could.

By my repeatedly bringing these concerns to the attention of Hillel and its funding organizations and being consistently ignored as I expect others have in that regard, it appears that Hillel and their funding and directing organizations choose to be willfully blind and unresponsive to concerns we raise and insufficiently responsive to concerns that reality itself raises, when reality hits them in the face.

Knowing that parents and grandparents care deeply about ours and Israel’s future, they simply cannot allow themselves to stand idly by, thinking they cannot fight the city halls of Hillel and their funding organizations to make a difference for the better.

Every Jewish grass roots parent and grandparent hopefully, for their children’s and grandchildren’s sake and the sake of our Jewish and Israel’s future, must realize that they already have the power and need only the will, to hold Hillel and their funding and directing organizations to account and to press them by phone, letter and meetings to do far better then they have thus far done.

I thus conclude with an appeal to parents and grandparents, to raise your questions and concerns with Hillel and their funding organizations and to not take being ignored for an answer.

June 17, 2010 | 2 Comments »

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  1. The question and one-word answer about Hillel is decades old. There must be an article submission delay glitch. 😉