These days, when Hillel houses on college campuses make the news, it’s usually due to some controversy over Israel discourse. It makes sense that the media hones in on Hillel when it comes to such a hot-button issue. After all, that’s what drives traffic and generates clicks among the general public. But as this week’s issue of Fifteen Minutes, the magazine insert of the Harvard Crimson, reminds us, debates over Israel are only a small fraction of what Hillel is actually about for the vast majority of students.
In a feature titled “Taking Pause: Shabbat at Harvard,” Crimson staff writer Ben Cort takes readers inside the Shabbat experience on campus, and particularly at Harvard Hillel. He opens with an anecdote that illustrates Hillel at its best:
It only takes a few moments of awkward loitering to catch the attention of Aaron J. Klein ’17. After a big hello, I’m ushered into a packed side room inside of Harvard Hillel, where a crowd is gathering before Shabbat dinner begins. After our mouths have been satisfactorily stuffed with cookies, Klein launches into a spirited explanation of the night’s services, but quickly stops himself. “Which of you are Jewish?” he asks.
One of my friends, here for the food, nervously speaks up. “I’m not,” she exhales. “I can leave if that’s a problem.”
Klein lets out a laugh and ushers her in for a hug. “I’m both amused and upset that you considered that,” he says. If Hillel is anything, it is open to all. As we move into the dining room we are swept up in the festivities and the sense of community. Klein plays the host, encouraging us to join the raucous singing and pointing out which foods we simply have to try. For us, it’s a fun evening highlighted by excellent cuisine. For others, it’s a time of greater significance.
Cort goes on to describe how observant and non-observant students navigate their Shabbat experience on campus–from communal get-togethers for all to special manual keys for religious students to access their electronically locked dorms.
Using Shabbat as a prism through which to explore Hillel life, Cort observes that the establishment means many different things to many different students. Hillel, he writes, “contains the dining hall and synagogue, but also has a library, study spaces, and a recording studio in the basement. It hosts speakers who come and discuss issues ranging from social, to political, to religious. For some it is a religious space, for some it is a social nexus, for some it is a source of identity. And for many, it is all three.”
Cort’s description underscores the fact that when journalists and activists, whether on the left or right, reduce Hillel to a debate about Israel, they paint a portrait that crops out most of what goes on inside. Israel is an important part of what happens at Hillel for some students. But it is far from the most important part. Indeed, just as the bonds of Hillel-forged relationships transcend denominational ties, they transcend political ones. In fact, one of the leaders of Open Hillel is now the elected student president of Harvard Hillel. All are welcome around the shared Shabbat table.
As Cort concludes:
Looking around the Hillel dining hall on Friday night, it’s easy to see how this community can become front and center in a student’s life. The singing is joyfully disorganized and off key, the chatter is loud and welcoming, and the food is by far the best I’ve ever had on campus. And, most importantly, a quiet but powerful sense of meaning underlies the current of the room.