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Hillel at the Crossroads: Feud Resolution or Escalation

Oct8

by: Edwin Black on October 8th, 2017 | No Comments »

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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Hillel at the Crossroads: Accusations of Intimidation in Boston

Oct1

by: Edwin Black on October 1st, 2017 | No Comments »

This article is the fourth in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

When one speaks to Eric Fingerhut, CEO of Hillel International, one hears a quiet voice speaking carefully and thoughtfully. Managing thousands of interconnected programs at more than 500 independent local Hillels, walking a tightrope between a spectrum of Jewish political and religious persuasions – all vying for primacy at the nation’s Jewish campus outposts, Fingerhut is accustomed to organizational tension and finding middle ground.

But when he had to answer open allegations that he and Hillel International were engaged in strong-arm tactics to dominate and control independent Hillels and their boards, it struck him deeply. The accusations included bullying, intimidation, threats of defamation suits, interference, whisper campaigns, and retaliation against critics that could include punishing innocent staffers.

Moreover, the charges were not whispered among a few disgruntled local Hillel personalities or partner organizations. They were being broadcast to hundreds of local Hillel directors, officials and their boards in open letters and emails calling for the removal of Fingerhut, demanding a cessation of what was termed “intimidation tactics.” The continuing J’Accuse comes from Sheldon Goldman, board chairman of the local Hillel at Northeastern Campus (NEU) in Boston.

Goldman says he has witnessed for more than a year what he called an administrative “inquisition” undermining NEU Hillel operations and staff.

After months of disagreement between NEU Hillel and Hillel International, things came to a head in December 2016. A dedicated NEU Hillel staffer was notified she would be receiving a prestigious Hillel International award for excellence at the Hillel International General Assembly in Orlando. But then the award was mysteriously withdrawn. After numerous protests, the award was ultimately bestowed upon her last March in Washington D.C. at the AIPAC Policy Conference. But that incident last December 2016 became the back-breaking straw that resulted in the chapter’s well-regarded director, Arinne Braverman, to resign on the spot in Orlando.

When Goldman tried to replace Braverman with a carefully-curated Israeli Hillel staffer, Hillel International only deepened the chasm between them, reminding Goldman that he could not hire a replacement without Eric Fingerhut’s personal involvement and approval, per a pre-existing procedure.

In a series of widely-distributed emails and letters, Goldman denounced Hillel International and Fingerhut for “fear-based tactics.” One such email decried, “Eric Fingerhut’s attempts to discredit me within the Boston community … and his threats of a defamation suit against me. These actions,” the missive continued, “shed further light on his character and are reasons why I believe he must be replaced as the leader of Hillel. This cannot be done quick enough as his character is leaching away whatever moral fiber remains at SIC [Schusterman International Center].”

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Hillel at the Crossroads: NEU Hillel Protests “Fear-Based Tactics”

Sep24

by: Edwin Black on September 24th, 2017 | No Comments »

This article is the third in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Sheldon Goldman was hesitant and uncertain about what to do next.

As board chairman of the Northeastern University (NEU) Hillel, Goldman had witnessed what he termed an administrative “inquisition” by Hillel International against his chapter, programs and staff. The chargeswere denied by Hillel International. But Goldmanhad reached his limit.

Goldman had come to the NEU chapter years ago, as a parent of a daughter at the school. He haddonated$36,000 per yearinpersonal funds and had led fundraising drives to buttress the NEU chapter’s programs, its physicalbuildingand its future sustainability.

In a January 14, 2017, letter to Hillel International board chair Tina Price, Goldman recited the following accomplishments:”We received an offer from the Northeastern University to become a University affiliate–with the University offering to fund the annual organizational budget. We have built bridges with University departments, faculty and student groups and organized successful campaigns to defeat BDS resolutions … three timesin two years. We neutralized the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] organization that was creating an environment of harassment and intimidation for Jewish students.”

Still, NEU Hillel’s relations withHillel Internationalhad been raw for a long time, says Goldman. Matters came to a climax after NEU Hillel’s Israel Fellow,who was slated to receive aprestigious award at theHillel International General Assembly held in Orlando, Florida, in December 2016, saw the honor mysteriously withdrawn, according to Goldman. While still at the Orlando assembly, NEU Hillel executive director Arinne Braverman decided to resign over what she called “politics.”

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Hillel at the Crossroads: How Things Broke Down in Boston

Sep17

by: Edwin Black on September 17th, 2017 | No Comments »

This article is the second in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Northeastern University Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman is incensed at the treatment that his Hillel chapter has received at the hands of Hillel International, and he lays the blame squarely on the organization’s CEO — Eric Fingerhut.

In an August 18, 2017, email, Goldman insisted that Fingerhut “must be replaced as the leader of Hillel. This cannot be done quick enough, as his character is leaching away whatever moral fiber remains at SIC [Schusterman International Center].”

In a recent interview on the subject, Goldman invoked Isaac Newton, who famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, continued Goldman, “Hillel International is not looking for giants. Instead, [CEO] Eric Fingerhut is looking for pygmies.”

Goldman has emerged as the nation’s single most vocal and antagonistic critic of Hillel International and Fingerhut. As such, Goldman is now focusing attention on the sometimes-contentious relationship between Hillel International and some of its 550 local affiliates, most of which are independently-incorporated foundations.

What are Hillel International’s rights and duties — and limits — when it comes to improving Jewish campus life? This question may well be decided at Northeastern University (NEU).

The troubles between NEU Hillel and Hillel International go back years, and cover a gamut of disputes — from conflicts over the kosher kitchen, to problems with NEU’s building, to interpersonal friction. The incidents also include NEU Hillel’s 2016 purge of student leaders whom the local board thought were disruptive and bullying other Jewish students — only to find that International was not supportive of that effort.

But things took a decidedly toxic turn late last year, when — according to Goldman — a beloved Israel Fellow at NEU Hillel was denied the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award.

Boundary Crossers: New Book Explores Jewish Spiritual Leaders in Non-Jewish Religions

Sep15

by: Matthew Gindin on September 15th, 2017 | No Comments »

When a Quaker becomes a Buddhist lama, or a Hindu becomes a Muslim Imam, the story is clearly one of conversion. When a Jew becomes a Wiccan priestess or a Catholic monk, the story is not so cut and dry. The nearly unique nature of Jewish identity-nearly, but not entirely, consider what happens if a Cherokee woman becomes a Buddhist nun- raises questions.

According to general views and to the Jewish tradition itself, the person remains a Jew. According to the Jewish religion, they remain bound by Jewish religious law and are simply in violation of it when they, say, leave an offering for the Great God Pan or eat a roast Ham at a Church dinner.

This unique set of cultural truths sets the backdrop for Allan Levin’s recent book Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. In this diverse book, which manages admirably to combine probing intelligence with a lack of judgmentalism, Levin interviews sixteen Jews who are leaders in other spiritual traditions. Levin himself grew up a non-religious Jew who became active in the radical left and then seriously pursued personal enlightenment, first with a neo-tantric community and then with First Nations spirituality, before returning to find meaning again in his Jewish identity and traditional Jewish values (although not Orthodox ones in his case).

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. It is a path trodden by many Jews after the Holocaust and the ascendancy of modernist, conformist Judaism left younger Jews without spiritual leadership or an alternative Jewish culture willing to be an escape from the cultural-political mainstream.

What sets Levin apart is his quest to follow up on the trajectories of his contemporaries who have settled in other religious traditionsHis list includes heavyweights like Krishna Das (the most popular yogic chant master alive, a ubiquitous presence in Yoga classes from Berkeley to Kensington Market); Sharon Salzberg (a founding teacher in the American Vipassana/Mindfulness movement); Starhawk (perhaps the most important crafter of feminist/politically engaged neo-paganism) and Ken Cohen (modern master of Chinese spirituality and Qigong who has had an outsize influence on western Daoism). Aside from those luminaries Levin also interviews a Catholic Priest, a Vedantic Nondualist, a Sufi, a Sikh, a Medicine Man, and others.

The fascinating roster Levin has gathered only brings to mind all the other names he could have included: Bhikkhu Bodhi (founder of Buddhist Global Relief and a leading English language scholar of Theravadin Buddhism), Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeild and John Kabat-Zinn (all pioneers in the Buddhist- inspired Mindfulness movement) and Norman Fischer (former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and leading interpreter of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West), or Jewish Buddhist teacher Jay Michaelson (a frequent contributor to the Forward), for example, and the list goes on and on. 

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Who’s Responsible for Hillel?

Sep10

by: Edwin Black on September 10th, 2017 | 10 Comments »

This article is the first in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

When Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut stands at the window of his curved corner office at the organization’s Washington, DC headquarters, he looks down on a streetscape dominated by Chinatown and its Friendship Arch. But Fingerhut’s domain extends far beyond anything the eye can see — to the four corners of North America, and beyond.

With 550 North American campus affiliates and 56 affiliates overseas, Hillel International is arguably one of America’s largest and most far-reaching Jewish organizations, dwarfing a combination of other major Jewish groups.

From its humble roots in 1920 at Texas A&M University, and then its formal creation in 1923 at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Hillel has risen to become the tip of the spear in the battle for Jewry’s future. That battle is now being waged at the frontline of the conflagration — the college campus, where the fractal of antisemitism and anti-Zionism morphs daily.

The name Hillel stands for one thing: the next generation. Yet, the organization, which sports a $126.4 million-dollar budget and is staffed by approximately 1,000 employees, is greatly misunderstood.

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A Spot at the Kotel Won’t Save Us: A Crisis in American Judaism

Sep6

by: Ben Lorber on September 6th, 2017 | 3 Comments »

 

“Remember the days of the world; understand the years of each generation” (Devarim, 32:7)

“…that [we] may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers” (Malachi, 3:24)

 

Last month, the eyes of the liberal American Jewish world were fixed on the Kotel. In a rare display of unity and resolve, leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements banded together to demand a mixed-gender space at the Western Wall, in a clear pushback against the institutional power of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel. So deep were we stung by this bitter betrayal, that for the first time in living memory, prominent liberal American Jews even threatened to boycott Netanyahu’s government over its refusal to recognize the liberal diaspora.

And yet, even as we are united in condemnation of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, the liberal American Jewish world remains more divided than ever. Day after day, the establishment sounds the alarms- rates of intermarriage are skyrocketing, and more and more American Jews are publicly opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many cease to identify with Zionism at all, as the rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry widens daily[1]. For the establishment, the idea that masses of Jews are embracing intermarriage and abandoning Israel rings the death-knell of Jewish peoplehood in America. Such gestures, according to common-sense logic, threaten to dissolve the very ties that make a Jew a Jew.

Liberal American Jewry is utterly transfixed by these crises. In the same week that the Kotel crisis made headlines, a leading Conservative rabbi shocked the Jewish world by announcing his intention to officiate at intermarriages[2], while a new report warned of a massive drop-off in support for Israel among American Jewish college students[3]. Prominent liberal columnist J.J. Goldberg evokes this creeping malaise in his recent piece, “The Rise and Fall of American Jewish Hope”, where he laments the “strange metamorphosis of the Jewish spirit over the past century, from hopeful optimism in the face of great suffering to bitterness and suspicion amid plenty…[if], for a half-century after 1917, the dominant mood among Jews in America and Israel alike was one of optimism…in the half-century since 1967, the mood has been increasingly gloomy and cynical.”[4]

My contention is that these crises signify not the end of liberal Jewish identity in America, but its new beginning. Put simply, we are in transition towards a future where our communal identity will not be defined by support for Israel, nor will it rest primarily upon markers of blood. This is progress- in fact, far from combatting assimilation, our decades-long fixation on Israel and endogamy has sapped American Jewish identity of the vitality and dynamism it needs to survive.

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Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part One

Aug20

by: on August 20th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Holding steady when the ground is moving is normally part of my stock-in-trade.People often ask me for something to help put their own fears into perspective. Usually I am willing and able to oblige. Mostly I try my best to see the bigger picture, and mostly that effort pays off.

But not now. I was staying more or less centered until a few days ago when something caught me off-guard. In the middle of a conference call, I got a text message carrying information that turned out not to be true, that the Barcelona terrorist who mowed down 13 lives like grass had been heading for a kosher restaurant on Las Ramblas, hard by the assassin’s abandoned car. It was an intense activation, hard to control despite my wish to hold to decorum, despite the fact that everyone on the call had been talking about their fears for their own communities’ and others, their responses to the nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville and the havoc they wreaked. When I rang off, a bit of research led me to conclude that the location of the car was likely a coincidence, that even though ISIS hates Jews, the attack did not target us directly.

Ashamed, I apologized to my colleagues for spreading false information, then gave myself a talking-to. Oh, crap! I’m triggered again, and not only that, but right now I am super-susceptible to recurrence.

I borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.

Do you want to know why I was so easily and massively triggered by a stray rumor?Let me suggest four readings. First: Eric Ward’s important essay “Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” This piece was written by a non-Jewish African American who has studied and worked against white supremacist movements for many years. He exposes in detail how “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism,” how it is the cornerstone of their racist ideology, and how this is often neither understood nor believed despite ample evidence.

I read Ward’s piece when it was first posted to Political Research Associates’ site at the end of June, six weeks before white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, VA, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” inspiring one of their number to use his automobile as a weapon, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring others,.

When you’re done with “Skin in The Game,” read “Jewish Fear, Love, & Solidarity in the Wake of Charlottesville” by Jonah S. Boyarin, published on the Jewschool site a few days after the events in Charlottesville. Among many other closely observed depictions of fear, love, and solidarity, Boyarin writes:

Jewish fear is the recurring silence from non-Jews about the explicitly, particularly antisemitic language and behavior of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. It is seeing, with rare exceptions, only Jewish friends of mine posting on social media when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized or when the Boston Holocaust memorial was destroyed this week for the second time this summer.

Jewish fear is if we bring up our struggle to non-Jewish comrades, we will be gaslighted and shamed into silence, because structural antisemitism functions by portraying us as conspiratorially, greedily powerful despite our repeated vulnerability to structural, white Christian male violence.

Third, read Michael Chabon’s and Ayelet Waldman’s “Open Letter to our Fellow Jews,” enacting our tradition and imperative to rebuke injustice within our community:

Among all the bleak and violent truths that found confirmation or came slouching into view amid the torchlight of Charlottesville is this: Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.

Finally, if you have the bandwidth for one more, read Danica Bornstein’s account of struggling to reconcile two identities, the provisional social category of whiteness and her lived experience as a Jew:

What I’m trying to say here is that the privilege that accrues during the good times is very much real, and I am not denying or hiding that. It is also true that the privilege is provisional, and can be revoked, and becomes the very thing that is used against us when the shoe finally drops.

It overwhelms me trying to explain this history and how both of these things live inside my body: the very real privilege but also the very real and repeated experiences of expulsion, scapegoating, genocide, and terror. I talk about the part that is easier, but then I end up feeling very alone.

None of these writers is identical to each other in approach, style, content, or the way they position themselves in the story, but they are all telling parts of a meta-story that has shaped my experience.

In the context of this big story of Jews in the USA, when I tell myself, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” I am reminding myself that despite the intense feelings I’m experiencing, I’m not truly in it alone. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone despite the fact that so many of my colleagues on the U.S. left are quite happy to hang a label reading “white” around my neck and never hear another word about why that might not sum up the experience of disbelonging for a first-generation American whose earliest memories were explanations in halting English of why I had so few living ancestors and so little knowledge of those who had survived, and of being chased home by Catholic kids when they got to the part in catechism about Jews killing Jesus, and whose recent memories are crowded with experiences of being an acceptable target, a handy “buffer group” for multiple racial categories.

I’m reminding myself that even if I am once again attacked from both right and left for having the audacity to take the space to tell this story and the willingness to risk this self-exposure, I am not alone.

And why must I remind myself so insistently of this truth? The trajectory of all traumatic activation is the same. The person who is triggered is propelled toward extreme isolation, often into an intolerable loneliness that obscures or precludes the actual antidote to white nationalism: connection, reciprocity, collaboration, respect, generosity across lines of difference.

From what I see, my story rhymes with much of the current state of things. The white nationalists gathering in Charlottesville, Boston, and many other places overwhelmingly share certain characteristics: pale skin, male gender, Christian heritage. None of these is intrinsically the generator of evil, but the giant chickens of power and domination their possessors have birthed have been marching home to roost for a long time, lusting to punish the rest of us for daring to live our freedom. In the face of this long march, so many people I know are displaying the signs of extreme reactivity grounded in trauma: believing the inner voice that says no one else can know my suffering, no one is truly on my side, I can’t trust anyone who fits different categories of race, religion, gender, orientation, even generation. So many are locked in just this combat with would-be allies: whose perspective matters? Who has earned the right to have a say? Who understands the urgency and seriousness of the threats? Who has the capacity or right to glimpse what it is to live inside my skin?

What do you do when elicited trauma pushes you into a dark corner? For me, many things can help in the moment. Music, a walk, or a distraction—anything that disrupts reactivity long enough to allow the fear chemicals to dissipate.

But you know what helps me the most? When compassion opens a door between my heart and another person’s; when neither of us needs to slot the other’s story into a hierarchy of oppressions, judging if it deserves equal dignity or goes on the dismissible pile. When we hear each others’ stories without turning away, when we open our arms to each other. When we join together to rebuke injustice and call in the beloved community.

I’ve been thinking about trauma a great deal over the past year because it is one of the subjects of my current book-in-progress. Even if it weren’t, I’d still be thinking about trauma today because laying fresh damage on the site of old wounds seems to be our national pastime. Every day, I have to remind myself to stay aware enough to say, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” because without that awareness, the past prevails.

When I am triggered, my capacity for rational thought is greatly diminished. This is bad news not only because of the immediate suffering it catalyzes, but because the thing that helps me most to release trauma-induced reactivity is staying aware that I am activated. Keeping part of my thinking mind free to be an observer allows me to begin distinguishing past from present. I begin to remember that the loud voice in my head—the one telling me I’m all alone in an uncaring world and they want to kill me—is not the voice of reality, the objective truth, but the over-amped voice of old pain.

My grip on my composure remains tenuous. In Shabbat services yesterday morning, we talked about the Torah portion for this week, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). A short way into the text, we read this exhortation about how to treat the conquered who worshipped false gods: “Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”

Aha, I thought, the Confederate statues! You get to a fresh start by wiping out the symbols of an abhorrent belief system. My mind reeled into the slam dance that’s been playing over and over on my inner soundtrack. But wait, that’s what ISIS leaders thought they were doing when they demolished the Bamyan Buddhas! (See this compendium of pictures and links for images of that and many more examples of monuments toppled). On the one hand crashes headlong into on the other hand. Both tumble into the mosh pit of my brain. I try to blink back the tears and steady my breathing, knowing that unless I can resolve this state of hyper-susceptibility, I will be cycling through that dance every day, perhaps every hour.

Coming next in the “Oh Crap! I’m Triggered” series: Free Speech Slamdance.

Odetta and Dr. John, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”

Tisha B’av does not have a happy ending

Jul31

by: Aryeh Cohen on July 31st, 2017 | 3 Comments »

Tisha B’av is not yom kippur. We are assured neither atonement nor redemption on Tisha B’av.

Tisha B’av is not the day that we beat our chests and promise to do better.

Tisha B’av is the day that we force ourselves to look into the heart of darkness, the darkness that we have created, the ways in which we are complicit in the evils of the world and we must be overwhelmed and distraught and paralyzed. There is no ray of hope on Tisha B’av.

Tisha B’av is the day of reckoning.

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Anti-Semitism is Back … and Won’t Go Away

Mar10

by: Michael Lerner on March 10th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Suddenly anti-Semitism is back. Over one hundred headstones in a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia were overturned in a hate act early Sunday February 26, a week after a similar assault on a Jewish cemetery in Missouri. Since the election of Donald Trump there have been hundreds of incidents of bomb threats to Jewish institutions, 20 more on Monday February 27th, along with college campuses reporting a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic graffiti.

 

President Trump is reported to have followed alt-Right conspiracy theorists in suggesting in an off-the-record briefing that these might be false flag operations coming from Jews who are seeking to build sympathy and reclaim our victim status.

 

Jewish leaders around the country are calling upon President Trump to order a full-scale investigation of this surge in acts designed to frighten Jews. Unfortunately, they have been facing some indifference from a media and public which have been overdosed with cries of anti-Semitism. When progressive Jews and some major Protestant denominations have dared to criticize Israel’s denial of human rights to Palestinians the Jewish establishment and many rabbis in synagogues around the U.S. have said that those people critiquing Israel’s denial of human rights to Palestinians are either anti-Semites or “self-hating Jews.” Just two weekends ago Congressman Keith Ellison lost his bid to be chair of the Democratic National Committee after Jewish organizations and fundraisers spread the rumor that he was an anti-Semite based on his mild criticisms of Israeli policies. After decades of mainstream Jewish organizations crying wolf by reviling young Jews who want the same rights for Palestinians that Jews correctly have sought for ourselves and many other oppressed groups, the Jewish establishment deserves some responsibility for weakening their own credibility and diminishing the American public’s concern when now our community is facing real anti-Semitism.


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