Normally, Jews otherwise divided by politics and religion unite during “rally around the flag” moments, such as when Israel goes to war—but those moments are what this group is rebelling against anyway: Hillel International’s statement during Operation Protective Edge that the “support, solidarity and prayers of the entire Hillel family are with…the nation of Israel as they defend themselves,” was, to Open Hillel’s mind, too “exclusivist” of Jewish students who apparently did not have support, solidarity, or prayers for Israel as it was bombarded with rockets by a genocidal terrorist organization.
At the conference, Cohen explained to me that, in his view, any sort of Jewish communal engagement, especially Israel engagement, is helpful in ensuring that the next generation maintains Jewish identity, affiliation, and continuity. This includes Birthright, whose participants are 45 percent more likely than nonparticipants to marry someone Jewish. This also includes fluffier stuff like Jewish and Israeli film festivals. But it can also include events that are critical of Israeli policies. Jewish communal organizations have the obligation to determine what topics of conversation are helpful and healthy for their constituents to engage in and which are not; but they must make that choice with the awareness that placing a topic on the blacklist will eliminate a possible avenue of engagement for a young Jew who wants to be involved in communal life.
Developments within the past decade have shown that young American Jews are more than capable of building new institutions themselves when they feel like they don’t fully fit in the structures they grew up in—partnership minyanim are the most obvious example, and Open Hillel falls into this group as well. But entrenched organizations assuming that young Jews will automatically find an alternative like-minded community to build a Jewish life around, rather than just dropping out, are placing a very risky bet.
Nonetheless, one of the key challenges for American Jewish life in the next few decades will be for Jewish communal institutions to grapple with engaging those Jews for whom criticism of Israel has become a central component to their Jewish identity—if for no other reason than to neutralize the forces that are currently pushing them into the arms of organized radical groups like Open Hillel, JVP, and #IfNotNow.
This generation of Jews is so accepting of diverse viewpoints that nearly 40 percent of them think that believing that Jesus was the messiah does not prevent someone from being Jewish. Doing things like cancelling a play because it is perceived to be anti-Israel, while probably well-meaning, only serve to mark institutions as closed-minded, which is the death-knell for any group seeking Millennial engagement. But open-mindedness must be accompanied by clear statements explaining why, specifically, some ideologies, such as the drive to materially harm the state that houses and protects the world’s largest Jewish population, are not going to be promoted by Jewish institutions.
At the beginning of the conference, one of the organizers told me that the Open Hillel conference was a demonstration of machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of Heaven. The Talmud says that such disputes, like the debates over Jewish law between the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai, are “destined to endure.” But other disputes, like the biblical Korach’s rebellion against Moses’s leadership, are not for the sake of Heaven, and will fade away in time.
It seems to me that Open Hillel has more to do with challenging leadership than it does with facilitating debate—with pushing Jewish institutions in a direction that is harmful and sometimes hateful, rather than fostering a genuine dialogue about the issues of greatest contention among young Jews. But if they are a growing force, it is because many students are looking for such a dialogue, having found it wanting in the existing frameworks. And in many cases, their own questions are of the type that are likely to endure for many years to come.