Is Swarthmore Kehilah easy? No. Is it important?
“Why am I doing this?” I ask, and ask, and ask myself. I have a midterm, or two papers, or both due. We have been meeting for hours already. It is late enough. After this Israel-Palestine Programming Committee (IPPC) meeting, I have a Kehilah board meeting — who knows how long that will be. We are Jews and we talk. A lot. I do not have time. Certainly not for this. Look what I am planning: an event for those who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. I may be a liberal Zionist (leaning more left every day) but I vehemently oppose BDS. Why am I helping them reach our campus? What do I gain?
At my Jewish day school, I led our pro-Israel activism. I still feel that strong pull to what I have always known to be the Jewish Holy Land. Now I am here.
Questioning is an integral aspect of the Swarthmore Jewish community’s Israel-Palestine planning. We are not about having the correct answers. We are about asking the necessary questions.
When I become angry, as I often do, I do not consider why I am angry. Rather, I think about why my anger is meaningful.
So much of Open Hillel seems obvious. I painstakingly explain to my highly educated family, friends outside of Swarthmore, and to others about the basic tenets of human decency. Free speech good. Censorship bad. Community good. Selfishness bad. Diversity good. Bigotry bad. These are the principles that guided our decision to leave the exclusionary Hillel name. Even progressive pro-Israel movements, such as J Street, are systematically excluded under Hillel’s policy. With too many Jewish students ignored by an ultra-Zionist institution, we can no longer welcome these multitudes of Swarthmore students while implicitly endorsing their erasure.
I am not going to claim that our group Swarthmore Kehilah — Hebrew for “community” — is great. It is not. It definitely is not what I want it to be. We are small, intellectually-focused, and new to Israel-Palestine engagement. Nevertheless, Kehilah is not supposed to be what I want. Participating in a community necessarily requires sacrificing personal preferences for the sake of the whole.
My friend once remarked how awesome Kehilah’s IPPC is. A few college kids sitting around a table. That is all. So few students making such big waves in the American Jewish community. Awe-inspiring. I look around this tiny library, literally the size of my dorm room (I live right next to the Beit Midrash, in an identical Lodge), and I understand my friend’s wonder at how this very room has been featured in global news publications, including The New York Times. Here in this simple room, I study, spend time with friends, plan Jewish holiday events, and make national headlines.
Despite its drawbacks, great attention generates great debate. I love how many pieces there are surrounding Kehilah’s actions. How this tiny group of students can spark nationwide debate. That, in and of itself, is success. Just to get people talking, considering the Jewish people’s difficulties with political diversity, has such an exciting buzz. I especially love how many pieces disagree with us, both within Swarthmore College and without. I would be worried if we all thought the same. Easy conclusions? Fast agreements? That is not the Jewish community I know.
But the question remains: Did Swarthmore make a good decision by choosing to leave the Hillel name? The honest answer is, I don’t know. Leaving is the decision that feels right for this moment, for our kehilah. I have a lot of concerns with our path moving forward. Will we lose our ties with our greater Jewish communities? Will we alienate Zionist students like myself? What kind of legacy are we leaving for Swarthmore’s future? I am worried we made a mistake. However, I have trust my peers — in the dedication, thought, and care of a small yet awesome group of deeply passionate Jews — to continue this struggle. I believe in their intentional deliberation.
Of course, we will face tremendous challenges. We are Jews, after all. College-aged Jews, with a vast amount of competing opinions from what to serve for dinner at Shabbat to how to be best involved with one of the hottest hot-button issues of our time. We will make mistakes. We will fail. Most importantly, we will keep stretching, learning, and revising. We will keep going.
I remember attending religiously pluralist shabbatons, or weekend retreats to focus on Shabbat. Despite their supposed pluralism, these shabbatons always defaulted towards orthodoxy. My denomination of Judaism is conservative. Unlike orthodox Jews, I keep my own kind of kosher, use electronics on Shabbat, and pray without a mechitza, which divides men from women. Yet, I was still forced to observe traditional kosher laws, forego any electricity, and pray in a smaller, less formal service than my orthodox friends were granted. Did the shabbatons claim openness? Yes. Did I feel equally welcome? Never.
Hillel International only sanctions Zionist opinions as valid. Great for students such as myself, whose views are always included. Isolating for anyone else. I want to welcome my friends, not exclude them as I have been. I want to pray, celebrate holidays, and learn with them. My kehilah, my lifelong Jewish community, is open to anyone. No matter what.
To those who find issue with Kehilah’s programming (I know I do): We want to build a Jewish community, a kehilah, that includes you. Continue to critique. Be critical. Be close enough that you are able to see clearly where we need to improve. Attend our events, provide us with feedback, and help us learn. Join the planning efforts. Do not comment from afar, or comment and then leave. Be active. Help us learn.
Swarthmore Kehilah is not a group I always agree with, especially as I am at the heart of its planning. We make mistakes, we make decisions that I believe are mistakes but no one else does, and it is tough. I do not support this community because I love everything it does. I support its willingness to listen. I support its fight. I support its allowance of my dissent.
I am so thankful. And I am so, so proud.