Hillel's Many Colors

Soon after Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel was founded in 1944, William Lee Frost '47, one of its first members, wrote that he hoped the campus' primary Jewish organization would become "neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist, neither Orthodox nor Reform."

More than 50 years later, Hillel organizers say they are just as committed to inclusiveness in Harvard's Jewish community.

"We see ourselves as being a catalyst for Jewish life at Harvard," says Bernard Steinberg, Hillel's executive director. "We want to bring Jews of different groups together."

Home to Jewish students of various denominations--Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Resconstructionist among others--Hillel's Mt. Auburn Street building hosts several types of religious services, serves kosher meals and provides a variety of other cultural and social opportunities for students.

But part of its mission to accommodate as many people as possible means not taking stands on specific issues of Jewish law, says Michael Rosenberg '01, who chairs Hillel's student-run governing body.

And this commitment to inclusiveness, he admits, leads to some conflict between Jews who have different levels of observance.

"We ask how we can get the most people to participate," he says. "Sometimes not everyone can. There are certain situations where people disagree so much that they can't compromise without compromising their values."

A Diversity of Needs

Part of the difficulty of Hillel's task, many say, is that it must cater to a population whose religious needs vary dramatically.

Eli L. Diamond '01, for example, adheres to Orthodox law.

He follows rules of kashrut, which limit what and when Jews can eat, and does no work of any form on the Sabbath.

"Everyone has lines they will not cross, and for me, keeping the Sabbath is non-negotiable," Diamond says.

Andrew S. Obus '03, on the other hand, is a Reform Jew. He says attending the Sabbath services often loses out to other commitments.

"Sometimes plays and other events conflict....I usually opt for the plays," Obus says.

Both students, however, attend meals and functions at Hillel. Diamond says he eats dinner at Hillel about five times a week and frequently attends religious services there too.

Obus says he occasionally has meals at Hillel--less because it has kosher food, and more because he enjoys its atmosphere.

Although the idea of a large group of students eating in the same dining hall and praying in the same building does not seem particularly problematic, the intersection of very different religious backgrounds in those settings has presented a challenge for Hillel coordinators.

"People's expression of Judaism can be so different to the extent where there might be conflict," Rosenberg says.

On the broadest level, Hillel organizers have long sought to accommodate people of different religious backgrounds by offering separate religious services for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.

And by offering kosher meals, Hillel provides a place for dining that is open to all types of Jews.

But, as Rosenberg suggests, differences in observance can lead to controversy.

Recently, for example, some Hillel members have debated whether or not soda machines in the building should be left running during the Sabbath.

Others have argued over whether women should be allowed to lead the grace after the Sabbath dinner--a debate that some Hillel regulars say has been especially volatile lately.

The two practices run counter to more strict interpretations of Jewish law.

Orthodox Jews interpret Jewish law as obligating a man to perform grace after the Sabbath meal, for example.

If a woman were to lead the grace, according to Diamond, the men would not be fulfilling their Jewish obligations.

And if students were allowed to operate the soda machine during Friday night dinner, Rosenberg says, the dining hall would lose its kosher certification and, hence be unacceptable to many students who adhere to the laws of kashrut.

But Rosenberg says that since Hillel does not attempt to determine or interpret Jewish law on its own, it must defer to its members.

"Since a significant number of the people who attend Shabbat meals believe that [these practices run] counter to Jewish law, and therefore having women lead or turning the soda machines on would exclude them, we do not allow these practices at the current time," he says.

Rosenberg acknowledges that some Jews who would be characterized as "observant" believe that Jewish law does allow both the use of electricity on the Sabbath and women to lead, but says Hillel tries to remain neutral.

"Hillel does not take a stand on these issues of Jewish law--rather, it seeks to serve as many students as possible," he says. "There are always going to be disagreements over the way things are done in public places, but we've done a good job creating enough events we can do together."

The Path to Pluralism

Rosenberg says the key to managing the challenges is creating an environment that is pluralistic--that is, satisfying to the greatest number of people.

According to Rosenberg, Harvard's Hillel is unique in that it brings together all denominations--these groups stay separate on some other college campuses.

That the groups are able to interact at all, many agree, bodes well for the organization.

"Just the fact that there are debates is an incredible sign," Rosenberg says.

He says the group's governing body, known as the Coordinating Council, is set up to allow students to have their voices heard.

To become a voting member of the council, a student need only attend two meetings.

And although final authority over issues of ritual observances in public spaces rests with Steinberg, Hillel's executive director, the council is responsible for making many of the larger decisions that affect Hillel.

This form of governance, many say, makes it possible for Jews of different levels of observance to have a say in the group's day-to-day operations.

What's more, students who may have different views from those adopted by the overall organization can participate in a variety of groups and committees.

Some of the committees and groups--such as Hillel Arts and the Drama Society--are directly sponsored by the council.

Other "affiliated" groups are not directly sponsored--such as Jews for Conservative Politics, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Jewish Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Student Group--but often receive support from Hillel.

Hillel's legislative process and variety of organizations are designed to appeal to a majority of those who attend events at Hillel, religious services, meals and social functions.

But some students wonder if Hillel has been able to fulfill the goal of pluralism.

Russell Rivera '00, who calls himself a more secular Jew, says in his opinion, the group does not devote enough attention to the cultural aspects of the religion.

"Since Hillel must be a house of worship for the most religious of Jews, it necessarily must also cater to them, perhaps to the exclusion of those who are less religiously inclined," he says.

Rivera says his "disaffection" from Hillel is what led him to join Alpha Epsilon Pi, an international Jewish fraternity that started a Harvard chapter last year.

"It seems as if the common cultural and ideological aspects of Judaism are emphasized in this group," he says.

But Tamar Katz '01, an Orthodox Jew, says she believes in Hillel's goal of pluralism, which she says means "compromise."

"There is no perfect formula for meeting the needs of everyone involved," Katz says. "On a communal level, we adhere to the highest common denominator."

While the highest common denominator means, as Rivera notes, that Orthodox views have to be considered first, Katz points to the compromises that she says help maintain "a sense of cohesion" at Hillel.

"Services are scheduled to accommodate everyone," she says. "And the Orthodox wait to allow everyone to eat together afterward--sometimes two hours or more."

She says that members of the other denominations frequently wait for the Orthodox, as well.

Katz also says a compromise was reached regarding the issue of women leading the blessing after meals.

"Women say the grace before meals," she says.

And according to Kevin M. Elias '03, who describes his beliefs as an "eclectic mix of traditional and modern" Judaism, Hillel is run satisfactorily.

The compromises inherent in making the organization work, he says, are worth it.

"I feel that Hillel does an excellent job in creating a Jewish community wherein the primary goal is fostering a sense of identity," Elias says. "The compromises made by all groups in terms of religious observance are the costs of our struggle to unite ourselves in the spirit of a common heritage."