Published in The Daily Free Press
After initially turning down J Street U as a Boston University Hillel student group in April, the Hillel student board voted Thursday to accept the group in order to promote open discussion of the situation in Israel and the Middle East, according to a Friday statement.
The decision came after months of conversation with community members and deliberation from the student board to cultivate a more open environment to talk about these issues, said Student Board President Rebecca Fleischer.
“It [the decision] was based on a majority vote,” said Fleischer, a senior in Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “We felt it was necessary for the community in Hillel to have more open conversations because right now, it is very conservative, and we felt that not everyone can have a say.”
J Street’s principle states, “We believe in the right of the Jewish people to a national homeland in Israel, in the Jewish and democratic values on which Israel was founded, and in the necessity of a two-state solution,” according to the national J Street website.
J Street President Solomon Tarlin said he is pleased with the group’s acceptance into Hillel because it will give students another way to learn about their Jewish identities and the situation in the Middle East.
“Once the members of the Hillel student board and the Hillel community in general [realized] what we really were, what we could do and how we could be such a positive force in the community, that’s what really created the situation that we can be accepted to Hillel,” said Tarlin, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.
J Street originally applied to join Hillel in the spring and has since fixed issues pointed out by the student board and changed its leadership to make the group stronger, Fleischer said.
“We turned down J Street for the first time for many reasons,” she said. “They were a new group at the time and didn’t know who they were going to be. We questioned the one event they had done because it didn’t follow the guidelines of J-Street.”
The decision to bring them into Hillel was made with the expectation that J Street will uphold the Israel standards of Hillel International, the parent organizations for Hillel’s on college campuses, and follow the same rules and regulations of other BU Hillel student groups, BU Hillel said in the statement.
“At the present time, it is critical for our students to set aside their differences and come together under the idea that we, in the end, are pro-Israel. We must be united for Israel, and Hillel must be the place to foster this kind of dialogue,” BU Hillel said in the statement. “We hope that all of us can find a way to see this change as a positive step for our community to grow for the future.”
While the inclusion of J Street reflects the board’s goal to make Hillel a place for “richer and more diverse conversations,” according to the statement, not all students welcome the change.
Raphael Fils, a member of Hillel and co-founder of the student-run committee Save BU Hillel, said the J Street vote was “the perfect time” to launch the group.
“The biggest [and] saddest part about the J Street vote is that it really alienates lots of students in the community and was against a majority of the community’s wishes, as well as donor’s wishes,” said Fils, a junior in CAS. “I know lots of money is going to be lost because of the decision, which is then affecting students that were alienated and the Jewish community as a whole at their expense.”
Twenty students serve on the committee, and the initiative has garnered approximately 300 signatures in support, Fils said.
The decision to accept J Street is just one of the many things that contributes to the lack of strength and unity within Hillel, Fils said. Two of Save BU Hillel’s largest goals are owning The Florence & Chafetz Hillel House at Boston University and finding a permanent rabbi.
“Save BU Hillel was actually started before the J Street vote. It’s been in the works for about two months,” he said. “Our focus is to bring back the hundreds of Jewish students that have been turned off by Hillel and don’t come to Hillel anymore to come back and reform Hillel to properly serve the Jewish community. Hillel, as it claims, is the center of Jewish campus life, and the majority of the Jewish community feels that it isn’t.”
Isaac Cohen, a member of Hillel who is part of the Orthodox Minyan Group, said he understands that some students are unhappy with J Street’s acceptance for political and class reasons, but not enough to mobilize.
“I can imagine extremely wealthy donors discontinuing their donations to BU Hillel,” said Cohen, a junior in CAS. “Many students have told me that they will not be participating in certain services because of this, yet there hasn’t been a decline in numbers at Hillel services.”
Hillel is not endorsing J Street’s politics, but rather acknowledging that the group adds a different perspective to the community, Tarlin said.
“As far as that goes, it’s pretty clear that J Street has a lot to offer the community, and for those who are interested in it, I don’t demand or desire that every student is the most affected person in our club or any club,” he said. “Beyond that, obviously Hillel has a much more religious community take, and we’re a very focused group with a very specific purpose.”
Like Hillel student board members, Tarlin said he remains hopeful about the future of J Street and its role in the BU Hillel community.
“A lot of the work J Street does on campus is really about getting the institutions of our community and eventually listen to perspectives that can be kind of difficult. It’s very rare to hear perspectives sometimes that are critical of the occupation and critical of some of the Israeli government,” he said. “The real benefit of J Street joining the community is being able to present this and open the community to these new perspectives.”
Sarah Poff and Sekar Krisnauli contributed to the reporting of this article.