UC Berkeley Jewish community members express mixed opinions on Berkeley Hillel

Aura Barrera/Staff

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Update 5/8/2019: This article has been updated to include additional comments from Executive Director of the UC Berkeley Hillel Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman.

Once the construction and scaffolding at 2736 Bancroft Way cleared in December 2018, Berkeley Hillel’s newly renovated building officially reopened to serve the Jewish communities on campus. While many Jewish students think of Hillel as a welcoming community space, some have expressed discontent with the way Berkeley Hillel represents their community.

Hillel is an international organization, and according to its website, the “largest Jewish student organization in the world,” with locations at more than 550 colleges and universities. Berkeley Hillel was founded in 1927 and was the fifth Hillel branch to open its doors at a university.

At UC Berkeley, Hillel serves as a community center for Jewish students, offering study spaces, snacks, small classes, social events, community service, cultural opportunities and religious programming.

Many student members of the organization describe Hillel as a “home away from home.” Campus senior Sophia Gluck said it is a space that helps people “explore and strengthen their Jewish identities.”

Jewish students make up 8 percent of the undergraduate population and 5 percent of the graduate student population at UC Berkeley, according to the Hillel International website. Campus junior and Berkeley Hillel Student Board President Samantha Rubinstein said that although Jewish students represent a minority on campus, the community is still strong.

Campus sophomore Camron King, who co-created and now heads the Jews of Color Collective within Hillel, said the collective is a safe space where people who identify as Jewish students and persons of color can come to together and discuss that intersection.

“I think Hillel’s staff has been really supportive in offering resources for us,” King said. “Whether that be space or money for events, Shabbat, or standing in solidarity with the members of the collective.”

According to campus sophomore Shelby Weiss, a member of the Hillel Student Board and a former ASUC senator-elect, because Hillel cannot access demographic information about students, outreach can be a challenge.

King also mentioned that an important part of outreach is directed at non-Jewish students and creating allies for the Jewish community.

Despite its support of most campus Jewish clubs and organizations on campus, there are some members of the Jewish student community who do not feel that their views are welcome at Hillel. On Friday, a Jewish American student movement called IfNotNow staged a sit-in at Berkeley Hillel, asking it to cut ties with the Birthright Israel program and to acknowledge the current occupation in Palestine.

“(Some) organizations … wish that there were more Palestinian voices uplifted (by Hillel),” King said. “I think that’s a place where Hillel could grow.”

Iris Morrell, a campus junior and member of IfNotNow, said she “didn’t feel safe showing up to Hillel where (my) politics were not welcome and not accepted.” She added that IfNotNow wants to create a new Jewish community, hopefully supported by Hillel, that is open to individuals across the political spectrum.

Eliza Hollingsworth — a campus sophomore and member of the UC Berkeley chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is a Jewish American organization advocating for Palestinian rights — explained that Hillel has a national policy in support of Israel. Because of “this unflinchingly supportive position of Israel,” Hollingsworth said she found it hard to imagine herself being involved with Hillel.

“I think it would be a shame for this space to remain narrow, to remain one perspective,” said Ella Parker, a campus sophomore and IfNotNow member. “They’re progressive on so many other fronts: on LGBTQ issues, on issues like immigration. … I think it would be such a shame for Hillel to deny pluralism from its community.”

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, Executive Director of the UC Berkeley Hillel explained in an email how the Hillel “prides itself on being a campus partner to other student groups on campus,” as well as “serving Jewish students’ social, emotional, communal and spiritual needs.”

“Berkeley Hillel is a thriving and vibrant Jewish community built on the foundations of pluralism and welcoming,” said Naftalin-Kelman.

Jewish Education Chair of the Berkeley Hillel Student Board and campus junior Gaby Ostrove said in an email that she “cannot speak to the way Berkeley Hillel is perceived by other Jewish groups.” She emphasized that no one organization can represent all Jewish people because diversity in the Jewish population spans a wide range of culture, religious practice and political opinions.

“Diversity among the Jewish community is a strength, not a weakness,” Ostrove said in her email.

Contact Marlena Tavernier-Fine at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MarlenaTF_DC.