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Why A Ramah Counselor Spoke-Out About the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters Last Week

Nov17

by: Sylvie Rosen on November 17th, 2017 | 7 Comments »

Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters
Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters. Image courtesy of author.

Anyone who knows me knows that I grew up at Ramah. Without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Ramah is a holy community, a Kehilah Kedoshah, as we say. This summer, when a fire burned down our main building, people posted on Facebook, donated money, and reached out to me individually. I felt supported by the entire National Ramah movement.

But where is that same support, community, and strength in our conversations, actions, and education on Israel/Palestine? Although Ramah changes me and lifts me up in so many ways, it fails me every year in one way: by perpetuating lies about the Occupation.

Not once, in my combined ten years at Ramah in the Berkshires and Ramah in the Rockies, did anyone mention the Occupation. We don’t talk about it because we want to pretend it doesn’t exist every summer.

In my three summers on staff, none of our programming ever attempted to address the Occupation. Instead, on Yom Israel in 2016, staff instructed campers to build mock settlements as a fun competition that demonstrated how Jews built Israel from nothing. No one mentioned that people lived on that land before. In our dining tent, we have a map from The Nachshon Project showing where all the famous Biblical characters lived in Israel/Palestine — stealthily laying claim to the idea that only Jews have a historic right to the land. We have maps of Israel across the camp to emulate the Israel Trail, but not one of them outlines the Green Line. This past summer, during our staff training session on Israel, we talked about our feelings and relationship to Israel, but never about the Occupation. The unspoken agreement about the Occupation was: it’s complicated, difficult, and not appropriate for a summer camp.

This is an educational and moral disaster.

Rabbi Cohen responded in Haaretz to our campaign the day of the Speak-Out and Teach-In I participated in last week: “We [Ramah and IfNotNow] don’t differ on the importance of teaching our teens and staff about the difficulties of the occupation.”

But if that is true, then the attempts made have been at best inconsistent and inadequate. In the past I’ve made excuses for Ramah because I want it to be the leader in the American-Jewish community that it claims to be. I told myself that the rest of the work Ramah does outweighs these issues. I was scared to disagree with the place is so central to my identity.

But I can’t maintain this lie anymore, which is why I went to the Speak-Out and Teach-In outside the National Ramah Commission last Tuesday. I joined because I want to see systemic change, and I know our community can do better than individual private meetings that superficially deal with this issue. We have to hold Ramah accountable and we can’t do that in a private setting. We want change for this summer, and we need public support for that. This is why we have invited Rabbi Cohen, to a public forum to talk with alumni and members of the Jewish community.

When I return to Ramah this summer along with 11,000 other people, I want our work and community to truly be holy, Kedoshah, by truthfully and thoughtfully educating campers and staff about the realities of the occupation.

I also want to address how we should educate campers and staff on the Occupation this summer. We must acknowledge the reality that millions of Palestinians live under Israeli military rule. IfNotNow has compiled a list of some resources we can use to teach campers and staff how to think critically about Israel. But this is just a start, it shows that this kind of education is possible and that other Jewish educators are doing it.  We need to upend the idea that Israel education and all Jewish education cannot include discussions about the Occupation. For those at Ramah who are professional Jewish educators, addressing the Occupation is as part of their job as teaching campers how to lead shabbat services — and we must hold them responsible for that.

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Sylvie Rosen is an IfNotNow member and Ramah camp counselor.

This Week’s Torah Portion

Nov7

by: 2017-2018 T'ruah Israel Fellows on November 7th, 2017 | 5 Comments »

Note from Rabbi Lerner:

This week’s Torah portion to be read this Saturday in synagogues around the world tells of Abraham bargaining for a place to buy his wife Sarah. He finally succeeds in purchasing the spot which is now identified as the cave of machpelah in the center of Hebron. It became a holy site for Jews some 2200 years ago, and many Jews went on pilgramage to that site until the Roman imperialists forced Jews out of much of what the Romans named Palestine. When, some 1300 years ago, Muslims conquered the Holy Land, they constructed a mosque on top of this cave, and that became a holy site for Muslims as well who also believed that they, through Ishmael (Abraham’s first son, though not through his wife Sara but from her handmaiden Hagar) were descendents of Abraham. After the 1967 “Six Days War” Israel conquered the West Bank, a group called Gush Emunim, composed mostly of religious fanatics who believed that Jews had “the right” all of the West Bank and Gaza (and some even thinking that God had “given us” all the territory to the Euprhates river in Iraq) settled first nearby Hebron, then in Hebron next to the mosque where they could have immediate access to the supposed graves of our ancestors.They began displacing Arabs living near the cave and this caused friction between the over 100,000 Muslims who lived in this large West Bank city and the settlers. In 1994 a settler entered the mosque and murdered some 19 Muslims at prayer. In response, Israel sent in IDF (Israeli army) to protect the settlers from the anger of the (unarmed) Palestinians, and as more settler arrived and more Palestinians were displaced, anger grew, and so did the presence of the Israeli army, shutting down streets in central Hebron till it felt to many more like a prison than like the center of one of the biggest Palestinian cities.

Below is a note I received from a group of young people studying in Israel this year as the Truah Israel Fellows with the interdenominational organization Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights of which I am a member.  Please read it to understand better why Palestinians are so outraged at the Occupation.

– Rabbi Michael Lerner

 

A d’var Torah for Parashat Chayei Sarah by the 2017-2018 T’ruah Israel Fellows

 

Visiting Hebron, one of the first impressions that hits like a sucker-punch to the stomach is of a ghost town. Streets once bustling with thousands of Palestinians are now traversed almost exclusively by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Freedom of movement is squashed. Palestinian doors are welded shut and porches are caged in, ostensibly to protect them from the 800 settlers living in their midst. It’s hard to fathom what life is like when you cannot go out of your front door. This is occupation at its starkest.

But after this shock subsides, a more insidious, creeping form of occupation starts to draw one’s attention. Wherever we travel in the rest of Israel, we see street signs in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English. It’s a recognition of Arabic’s status as an official language and a nod to the kind of coexistence that, at least in theory, Israel strives for. But here in Hebron, a lot of work has gone into painting a different picture.

Here, the street names are in Hebrew and English. No Arabic. Road signs point to Jerusalem and the settlement of Neve Samuel but not to any of the Palestinian neighborhoods or villages. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to cloak the occupation, to erase anyone’s connection to this place but the Jews’.

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Photo Series, Part III: Ramsal

Nov7

by: Emily Monforte on November 7th, 2017 | No Comments »

This series of portraits paired with interview-based articles attempts to start a conversation about how change makers think about, communicate, and embody their identities; and how this relates to the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. The intention of the series is to explore our differences and what makes us individual so as to underline a common thread of desire for love, non-violence, generosity, peace, and caring about others that I happen to believe lies at the heart of all activist work. In particular this work attempts to focus on the idea that bringing your own story of how your identity interacts with your activism allows for those looking from the outside in to be touched on a human-to-human level, allowing them to feel compassion for you and the goal of the work at large.

Click here to read part I in the series, and here for part II. This is the final installment in the series.

Ramsal

Photo of Ramsal standing in closet wearing headphones

Photo courtesy of Ramsal

 

Ramsal grew up in New Jersey in an “Orthodox conservative insular Jewish community” as they describe it, and for a large portion of their life lived by the values they absorbed during that time. The one they focused on in our interview was the particular relationship they developed to God. “It took me up until about my last year of college to realize that I was interacting with a God that was masculine and domineering and judgmental and separate from me and the tangible accessible world. I realized that because I was viewing God as this separate other domineering judgmental entity, I was practicing my religion from a source of fear where I was scared that if I didn’t do what God asked me to do or what I believe God asked me to do that I would be punished.” This realization was the first step in their process of re-constructing their understanding of God’s relationship to themself and how God exists in the universe as a whole. Ramsal recognized the toxicity in a spiritual life driven by fear, their religion had become an obligation, they walked a careful line, doing as they thought God wanted, for they did not see God as forgiving or understanding of missteps, but as awaiting their mistakes ready to slap them on the wrists. “Finally I had this eureka moment, and I realized the entire universe is God. It’s not this separate entity that I am praying to. I think that words and the way we phrase things subconsciously end up dictating how we…interact with our world. When we constantly refer to our God as a He and as something that we are praying to, we tend to forget that we are part of God, that God is part of us and the universe as a whole, that is where the oneness of God exists… God is oneness, the universe is God. And when I started approaching religion from that space, God had a sex change for me.”

When Ramsal says God had a sex change for them, they do not mean in the way we have essentialized gender in our society today. What Ramsal means is that “God became this motherly loving figure. In Hebrew the world love translates to the word אהבה (Ah-ha-va) a four letter word, alef he et he, and the root of that word is hav, which means to give. So love to me means giving, and I received this life without having been asked for anything in return, so it’s this unconditional love and unconditional gift which I am eternally blessed and grateful to receive.” God came to embody this ever giving power which Ramsal sees as acutely akin to the type of giving that begins when a mother has a child. In many ways this association with God as feminine manifested itself for Ramsal during their time working on the floor as a nurse in a labor and delivery unit. “I was constantly surrounded by the essence of motherhood, and everyday was watching the intense love and giving that a mother gifts to her child from the moment they are born, just massive acts of giving.”

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Where Were You When Rabin Was Shot?

Nov2

by: Ethan Gologor on November 2nd, 2017 | 1 Comment »

As with those other infamous shots in the 60s that resound in our memories, frozen by the singular import of the tragic occasion, I have no trouble recalling the moment I learned of Rabin’s assassination. I was in the middle of teaching a three-hour introductory psychology class at my college in Crown Heights. We were just returning from our ten-minute break when one of my African-American students asked if I had heard. “Heard what?” “That Rabin had been shot.” For a minute, I didn’t understand. The ease with which his name emerged must have surprised me. Had the whole world really kept up? Did everyone, regardless of background or context, have at their fingertips the names of Peres, Shamir, Begin, Sharon, Dayan? And why was he making such a point of telling me? Did he somehow know that I’d have more than an average, passing interest?

Yes, I knew very well the name of Rabin. As the descendant of generations of Jews born in Jerusalem, as an adolescent who couldn’t help feeling a special kinship, even with Eva Marie Saint, after seeing Exodus, as a groom who took his marriage vows under a chupah on the beaches of Eilat, I took pride in many of his accomplishments. And while the well-celebrated peace efforts of his last two years seem to have vanished with him, I refer to those dramas that now seem so long ago–exploits of the Palmach before the country was formed, the efficient surgical strikes of an unparalleled air force, manifestations of prototypically Hebrew ethics, which originated somewhere between Genesis and Deuteronomy and which were continually on display between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, between Sinai and Golan, between dawn and dusk on six days in June in 1967. The generals who always led the charge across threatening territories, loaded with land mines. The precision bombing of the oil tankards, without an enemy life taken. The courage and ingenuity of the Entebbe invasion. Rabin, often the mastermind, symbolized the resolve by which the state of Israel was born and the care by which its values were nurtured. And even when he fell temporarily from grace with–scandal of scandals!–an attempt to preserve a few real dollars outside of his country that regularly devoured savings with 50 per cent inflation a year, I felt for him. Give of yourself but also take care of yourself. The shrewd coup where nobody really gets hurt. A victimless crime. How can I save a little here? (On my first trip to Israel, a well-to-do sabra asked my companion, as we were disembarking, if she’d mind wearing the mink she’d bought abroad till we all cleared customs. It would save her a few dollars. I liked that too.) However patriotic one is, the tax collector–well, that’s something else.

But while my personal history is known hardly to anyone, word of my “ethnicity,” as all my Jamaican and Trinidadian and Nigerian students are used to referring to it, had apparently gotten around. Without my becoming aware of it, I had become the campus Jew. Without applying for the position, I had become the authority, the arbiter, the representative on matters Jewish. (As the years went by, I would become in charge of bringing the menorah to the winter holiday table and certifying the authenticity of the latkes that somehow would find their place, adjacent to the collard greens and sweet potato pie and goat curry.) And however awkward I felt to be so chosen, I couldn’t help but appreciate the genuineness of the offer. When that three-hour class was over, three staff members, one African, one African-American and one Caribbean added their expressions of sympathy. And with those, I actually began to feel simultaneously as Jewish and as at home in this almost totally black environment as I ever had. They knew, they identified, they shared. We’ve had our own many centuries of this, thank you, so we all recognize the pain of sudden and violent and senseless death.

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Photo Series, Part II: Jacob Klein

Nov2

by: Emily Monforte on November 2nd, 2017 | No Comments »

This series of portraits paired with interview-based articles attempts to start a conversation about how change makers think about, communicate, and embody their identities; and how this relates to the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. The intention of the series is to explore our differences and what makes us individual so as to underline a common thread of desire for love, non-violence, generosity, peace, and caring about others that I happen to believe lies at the heart of all activist work. In particular this work attempts to focus on the idea that bringing your own story of how your identity interacts with your activism allows for those looking from the outside in to be touched on a human-to-human level, allowing them to feel compassion for you and the goal of the work at large.

Click here for part I in this series. Stay tuned for part III!

Jacob Klein

Jacob Klein in a chair in a room

Photo courtesy of Jacob Klein

 

Jacob Klein is a queer activist within the Jewish community, originating from San Diego and currently living in the Bay Area. Their activism for queer inclusion and acceptance within the Jewish community, as well as society overall, began at full speed after completing college at UCLA. Jacob remembers, “I moved up to Oakland about three years ago and that’s when I started working in the Jewish world and that’s also when my activism started coming together and flourishing.”

Jacob’s work highlights a fine line that emerges in identity based activism: how does one share themselves in a manner that is productive and creates empathy, while avoiding putting themself in a position where they may be hurt or drained of strength. As Jacob puts it, “I often struggle with how to contextualize my own identity within this work… For me it’s always a balance between the ways that I experience being an outsider and the ways that I have privilege in the world and I am afforded certain modes of power that other people aren’t.”

People are composed of multiple identities that are inextricable, but can indeed act separately to bring you either belonging or exclusion in different circumstances. “It’s always this careful negotiation between ways that I fit in…and can hopefully leverage that for change, and the ways in which I have never really felt like I’m a part of a lot of different aspects of society, and trying to really tap into that within myself when I’m doing work.” As a queer non-binary individual, Jacob has learned to surround themselves with similar-minded people who make them feel safe when they are not doing activist work. “In my personal life I tend to be very insular. My friends and community in the Bay Area particularly are all pretty much queer, and/or, Jewish Progressive. So then I know that I am putting myself into a space where I don’t have to deal with people who fundamentally disagree with me. Because for me that feels like a safety risk. For me when somebody disagrees with me on one of my political beliefs, if we want to be euphemistic, it often is actually an attack on one of my identities.” Although those incognizant of queer politics may come from a stance of genuine curiosity and the drive to feel compassion for queer people, often this means Jacob uses their own life as the site of teaching and explanation. Jacob is willing to do this work in certain environments, as they have prepared themselves for comments that directly criticize or comment on their body and experience, but this takes mental preparation and a lot of internal strength and, as one could imagine, it can be incredibly exhausting and draining to have to explain your own existence to others.

Thus, it is essential for Jacob to set boundaries for themselves, to have “sanctuary” type communities that re-charge them, reinforce them, pick them up and make them feel strong before they do their work with people who do not always make them feel accepted. Not only do friends provide this type of strength for them; Judaism, particularly in the Bay Area, has been a source of power for them. “I have been able to come to my Jewish spirituality as somebody who is able to find and reinterpret things as they work for me… there has already been such a history of predecessors and leaders and shakers and thinkers who have done so much work already to queer Torah and…activise Judaism, and make it a powerful political text…..but that unfortunately is not everywhere, that’s not all of the Jewish society, even in the so-called progressive Bay Area. There are still many spaces where I don’t feel comfortable, and where I don’t get to access the space in ways others do.”

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Photo Series, Part I: Hadar Cohen

Oct30

by: Emily Monforte on October 30th, 2017 | No Comments »

This series of portraits paired with interview-based articles attempts to start a conversation about how change makers think about, communicate, and embody their identities; and how this relates to the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. The intention of the series is to explore our differences and what makes us individual so as to underline a common threat of desire for love, non-violence, generosity, peace, and caring about others that I happen to believe lies at the heart of all activist work. In particular this work attempts to focus on the idea that bringing your own story of how your identity interacts with your activism allows for those looking from the outside in to be touched on a human-to-human level, allowing them to feel compassion for you and the goal of the work at large.

Stay tuned for parts II and III in this series!

Hadar Cohen

Photo of Hadar Cohen holding fruit

Image courtesy of Hadar Cohen

 

Hadar Cohen, a 25 year old feminist and spiritual activist living in Oakland, California began pivot to bloom, a company that works to transform tech companies into safe spaces for people of all genders, after graduating from Cooper Union with a degree in Engineering. Growing up in a particularly capitalistic family, the drive to “make it” deeply embedded itself in Hadar’s ideology in her own personal understanding of success and hard work. Working one’s way to the top of the corporate pyramid is a very linear and singular road, without room for community, or emotions, something she came to reject very recently, only after following it for the first 22 years of her life. “I think basically the crux of where I am right now stems from a lot of frustrations I had in engineering school that I am unpacking now. One big one was rejection of mysticism, that drove me off the walls, and with that, rejection of women.”

In Hadar’s view Cooper Union, like most educational institutions, and the Engineering school on its own leave very little room for non-linear thought and critique, particularly in regards to what academics consider “rational.” This particular consciousness is one that often completely disregards and dismisses the existence of God and religion as legitimate. At Cooper Union, “In the scientific community, people had a lot of God baggage, and instead would turn to science and would come out saying God sucks, Science is great. There was a lot of discomfort around how people were talking about God, and so I was confused about how I could express that part of myself.”

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Questioning Everything

Oct26

by: on October 26th, 2017 | No Comments »

Questioning Everything

by Madisyn Taylor

Being open-minded means that we are willing to question everything, including those things we take for granted.

A lot of people feel threatened if they feel they are being asked to question their cherished beliefs or their perception of reality. Yet questioning is what keeps our minds supple and strong. Simply settling on one way of seeing things and refusing to be open to other possibilities makes the mind rigid and generally creates a restrictive and uncomfortable atmosphere. We all know someone who refuses to budge on one or more issues, and we may have our own sacred cows that could use a little prodding. Being open-minded means that we are willing to question everything, including those things we take for granted.

A willingness to question everything, even things we are sure we are right about, can shake us out of complacency and reinvigorate our minds, opening us up to understanding people and perspectives that were alien to us before. This alone is good reason to remain inquisitive, no matter how much experience we have or how old we get. In the Zen tradition, this willingness to question is known as beginner’s mind, and it has a way of generating possibilities we couldn’t have seen from the point of view of knowing something with certainty. The willingness to question everything doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t believe in anything at all, and it doesn’t mean we have to question every single thing in the world every minute of the day. It just means that we are humble enough to acknowledge how little we actually know about the mysterious universe we call home.

Nearly every revolutionary change in the history of human progress came about because someone questioned some time-honored belief or tradition and in doing so revealed a new truth, a new way of doing things, or a new standard for ethical and moral behavior. Just so, a commitment to staying open and inquisitive in our own individual lives can lead us to new personal revolutions and truths, truths that we will hopefully, for the sake of our growth, remain open to questioning.

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Islam and anti-Semitism?

Oct25

by: Junaid Jahangir on October 25th, 2017 | No Comments »

Muslims must address ancient texts usurped for anti-Semitism.

 

I came across a swastika and a “Death to Israel” sign in my latest visit to Pakistan. This is not news to me, as I have heard Friday sermons depicting the yahud (Jews) as our enemies. I have also witnessed online comments by some Pakistanis that Hitler did not complete his job.

I was reminded of these observations as I read the Toronto Star article on the Toronto Imam, Ayman Elkasrawy, who was accused of preaching hate against Jews. The article shows that Elkasrawy’s Arabic prayer was mistranslated and that he did not intend for the annihilation of the Jewish community.

Going beyond mere apology, he visited a synagogue and learned about anti-racism, human rights laws, and human rights in Canada. He reached out to Bernie Farber, former head of a Jewish advocacy group.

Based on his interaction, Farber, who spent his life tackling anti-Semitism, expressed: “I really saw a young man who felt beaten down for something that he didn’t quite understand.”

This is concerning because there would be many others like Elkasrawy who do not intend hate but who reference ancient texts we have inherited that depict Jews in a negative light.

The ongoing situation in Israel and Palestine only compounds the issue as these texts are resuscitated to vent anger and frustration.

I am not sure if there is a solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. For a vast majority of Jews, Zionism means having a homeland of their own. Muslims view Zionism through the lens of colonialism.

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Jesus’s Message? It’s Tikkun Olam!

Oct12

by: Jim Vrettos on October 12th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor —- a new book by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, reviewed by Jim Vrettos

The Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Forward Together Moral Movement and Repairers of the Breach Movement often refers in his sermons to “standing at the gap and speaking a truth that has a moral focus — not merely a democratic version, a republican, or a liberal version, but a moral focus of what our government ought to be.“   As he puts it, “it’s time for people of faith to come out of the sanctuary and preach in the public square”. .. it’s time to uphold  higher ground moral values, preaching as King did, that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Increasingly, major voices on the progressive left have directed their attention toward taking these spiritual values seriously, advocating their use in their academic and political critiques.

Michelle Alexander, for example, author of the award winning The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2014) works to spread awareness about the crisis of mass incarceration Americans into a full-scale movement that embraces the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.  To win the battle against mass incarceration, Alexander insists that people of faith must wake up to the realities of systemic racism in our country, but also “need to be willing to tell this truth in our churches and places of worship.”

Raising consciousness won’t be enough, Alexander argues.  “We’re going to have to be willing to get to work,”…”and in my view that means being willing to build an underground railroad for people released from prison— an underground railroad for people who are trying to make a genuine break for real freedom… opening our homes, opening our hearts, opening our places of worship, opening our schools to people returning from prison who need help finding work, getting an education, finding housing, perhaps even getting access to food.”

The psychiatrist James Gilligan, in his more than thirty years of work with the most violent of our citizens in our prison systems, has called for an end to punishment in the prisons and establishment of therapeutic training hospitals in its place for violent inmates –almost all of whom have suffered unimaginable abuse, humiliation, shame and disrespect that that has left them as essentially “dead souls,” devoid of deep feelings of spiritual self-esteem and love.

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Feud Resolution or Escalation

Oct8

by: Edwin Black on October 8th, 2017 | Comments Off

This article is the fifth in a series. Click here for part one, part two, part three, or part four.

At about 5 AM on September 20, 2017, before the sun rose over the Boston skyline, Gilad Skolnick tumbled out of bed. He hadn’t slept much the night before—the sheer excitement of starting a major new phase of his life weighed on his mind. He dressed and then, as usual, stopped at the gym as the first order of business. By 8:30 AM, Skolnick had tucked his white shirt into his khaki pants, emerged from the gym filled with anticipation, and made his way to 70 Saint Stephen Street—Northeastern University Hillel [NEU Hillel].

Before he arrived that day to assume his post as the newly hired executive director, Skolnick knew that NEU Hillel had started a firestorm in the Jewish and campus community. The 33-year-old former director of campus programming at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the pro-Israel media watchdog group known as CAMERA, was accustomed to controversy. But this was something beyond that.

Weeks earlier, NEU Hillel had gained national media and collegiate attention as the local chapter that had vociferously rebelled against Hillel International over what NEU Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman termed “an inquisition” of interference, retaliation, threats, and strong-arm tactics. Goldman loudly blamed Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut and his senior staff. Fingerhut and other Hillel International personalities have either denied, or refused to answer various allegations.

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