A common phrase that used to be heard in Campus Hillel mission statements was: “To maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews.” Yet, as familiar as many of us may be with this formulation, it has today disappeared from nearly all Hillel websites and promotional materials (with a few exceptions). Why?
In 2007, Hillel published a monograph authored by its Director for Organizational Learning Beth Cousens, entitled Hillel’s Journey: Distinctively Jewish, Universally Human, which marked a shift in the project of the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The book outlined a new mission for Hillel that attempted to navigate increasing concerns that the organization was unhelpful and unconnected to a Jewish student body that had become more cosmopolitan and multicultural and was rejecting notions of Jewish exclusivity as tribal and closed-minded. At the same time, these Jewish students were becoming increasingly alienated from Judaism generally – today the majority of the Jewish student population on a campus might never set foot in a Hillel building or otherwise “Do Jewish” activities in any sense previously applied to the term.
In the past few years, Hillel’s mission statement has taken on a broader, more inclusive character: “To enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” As opposed to “doing Jewish,” “enrichment” doesn’t entail anything exclusive or sanctify any canon, while the inclusion of “the world” helps to alleviate concerns of Jewish students who identify more with their Catholic, Hindu, and atheist friends in their Psych 101 classes than they do to some picture of a brooding rabbi on the wall of their nearby Hillel. In this way, Hillel has displayed remarkable adaptability in meeting the changing needs of its target population.
There is, however, an obvious difficulty with this model – one that has bothered Hillel rabbis and educators since its introduction. The philosophical example of the Ship of Theseus is a good analogy for what might happen with Hillel’s mission: The ship was preserved by the Athenians for hundreds of years. Whenever a plank of the deck, or the masthead, or the rudder got too wormy and rotten, the Athenians would replace it, until, after a few hundred years, not a single plank remained of the original ship. Now – is it still the ship of Theseus or not? Nothing remains but the name. Is that important?
In the same way, if, in the most extreme case, the mission of Hillel International was merely to get Jews to do “stuff” with “people,” would we be able to look back in a hundred years, and say that we have fostered anything more than the name “Jewish” associated with things anyone would want to do at any time?
This problem was obvious even to the architects of the new order – in her monograph, Cousens addresses the issue by insisting on including in her five “guideposts” that “Judaism has power, meaning, and value. Its value is located in meaningful Jewish experiences for their own sake, and not only in its continuity.” Nevetheless what the power of Judaism entails is something that Jewish educators will be constantly struggling to articulate, if what they seek is to foster an authentic Judaism on campuses that Jewish college students will respond to and accept.