Open Hillel held its first conference, “If Not Now, When?”, last week at Harvard University. Running from October 11-13, the conference featured panel discussions, breakout sessions, and addresses from speakers including Judith Butler and David Harris-Gershon. More than 350 people registered for the conference, with more arriving at the door.
Open Hillel made headlines at Swarthmore, The New York Times and in other national media after Swarthmore Hillel declared themselves last year. So far, three colleges – Swarthmore, Vassar, and Wesleyan – have declared themselves Open Hillels, announcing that they will no longer abide by Hillel International’s restrictions regarding speakers who ““delegitimize” Israel. Open Hillel’s website says that their goal is to build a community where “vigorous discussion, respectful debate, and free discourse are the norm,” and this conference is a model of what that community might look like.
Amelia Dornbush ‘15, Open Hillel’s finance coordinator, was one of the students who organized the conference. Dornbush had a number of roles at the conference, from arranging travel stipends for students attending the conference to facilitating a panel between two former IDF soldiers.
Dornbush said that “it can feel very isolating to have politics that don’t conform with what the established Jewish community thinks your politics should conform with.” She also said that being in a space with people who share your politics, or are willing to listen to your views even if they disagree, “was something that was new and was really powerful for people.” This conference, according to one attendee, created space where attendees could “be Jewish without having to check your political values at the door.”
Due to Hillel International’s policies, Dornbush said, students who have differing views often feel “not as welcome or not as Jewish.” Open Hillel, on the other hand, is able to create a space “where you can have a conversation without red lines.”
Joshua Wolfsun ‘16, Swarthmore Hillel’s Israel and Palestine Programming Coordinator, attended the conference as both a speaker and a guest. He co-led a panel and a workshop on Open Hillel, speaking about his experiences with Swarthmore Hillel. The panel, titled “What It’s Like to be in Open Hillel,” walked conference attendees through the process of becoming an Open Hillel, and what has happened at Swarthmore since.
In the conference program, Open Hillel stated that the speakers present represent a “wide diversity of political perspectives,” but went on to note that “not every point of view is represented,” partially due to the fact that every right-wing speaker and organizer who was invited declined.
When asked about this limited spectrum of viewpoints, Dornbush said she was not surprised by the right wing community’s lack of response: “The established Jewish community’s reaction to us right now is to ignore us and to ridicule us. Soon it will be to fight us; then we’ll win.”
Wolfsun said that the political spectrum of the conference ranged from “center left to left. Very, very, very left.” The closest the conference came to a right-wing view, he said, was liberal Zionists. Nonetheless, Wolfsun said the conference facilitated “a lot of really fascinating discussions. […] It wasn’t everybody going ‘Yes, you’re right.’” Wolfsun stressed that Open Hillel is willing to include views from the right end of the spectrum: “When we say we’re going open, it’s not just open-left. It’s open. Period.”
There is not yet an official plan to hold another Open Hillel conference according to Dornbush, who shared that she currently finds the idea of planning another conference daunting. “We definitely want to be able to find ways to take that energy and the atmosphere we had all across the country, and be present regularly.” This goal may manifest itself, Dornbush said, in having more conferences, having more campus Hillels declare themselves open, or organizing more speaking events.
“Our goal for the next year is to […] support students on campuses who want to break guidelines,” said Dornbush. She added that every campus Hillel structure is different, but Open Hillel wants Hillel to be for students, by students, and is working to create that system as best they can.
Both Wolfun and Dornbush are hopeful about Open Hillel’s future. Both hope Hillel International will respond to Open Hillel by reconsidering its policies of exclusion. Dornbush shared that after working hard on the conference, “it’s nice to feel like we have momentum. And that we’re winning.”