My beloved Jewish family — we must talk!
Thanksgiving break offered me the reprieve to reflect on the most arduous two weeks of my 22-year Hillel career — the weeks prior to the BDS vote at the University of Maryland. I entered these weeks on a high: It was Sunday, Nov. 5, and Maryland Hillel had just pulled off the largest family weekend in our history. We served 2,100 meals and held multiple learning sessions; celebrated with a large-scale Jewish art showcase, including a sermon slam and performances by Hillel’s three a cappella groups and its Israeli dance troupe; and we welcomed a brand-new Torah, all in one weekend.
Little did I know, we were just getting warmed up. That Sunday night, we received word that a bill had been submitted to the University of Maryland Student Government Association calling for divestment from Israel. Working in partnership with our pro-Israel student coalition, which includes students from across the political spectrum, Maryland Hillel went into overdrive. Student, alumni, and faculty petitions were mounted. Members of Congress submitted a letter of protest. Support was offered and welcomed from Hillel International, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Academic Engagement Network, and UMD. Over 50 inspiring students testified before the Student Government Association. The many late nights paid dividends, and we defeated the resolution on Nov. 15.
Looking back on these events, I am so proud of our University of Maryland students. The student leadership on campus acted with a maturity and professionalism from which many elder leaders can learn. I must also acknowledge that proponents of this bill, who advocated positions I find unpalatable, unfounded, and unacceptable, did so with civility. I am deeply appreciative of the administration of the University of Maryland who, under the leadership of President Wallace Loh, has ensured this campus’s culture of openness and tolerance.
I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we received. Offers of assistance flowed in freely and unabated. All this is as it should be. The Jewish people have learned important historical lessons, and our defenses are now swift and strong.
Despite all this, I emerge from this experience most concerned. I know that this BDS bill was merely a round of battle in a protracted conflict — we cannot rest on our laurels. Even more concerning to me is the feeling that our community has a disproportionate focus: We are incredibly adept at mounting a defense, but what of our offense?
I am grateful for the resources and assistance we received during this crisis, but I find myself questioning why similar resources are so hard to secure at times when there is such positivity in Jewish life in College Park, Maryland.
My beloved Jewish family: It is futile erecting impenetrable fences around the garden if we are failing to tend to our crops. BDS and our vigilant response cannot and must not define the Jewish story. Accepting this to be the case depreciates the value of the Jewish narrative.
The Jewish people has so much good to sell and promote — Shabbat, social justice, Jewish learning, leadership development, Israel engagement, and the wisdom of our collective heritage have the power to enhance lives. Yes, we need walls and defensive strategies to drown out the noise of BDS and anti-Semitism. But the latter must not define who we are as a people — if we allow this to happen we concede victory to BDS proponents. I am relieved and reassured that I have many dear friends to turn to when the community and students I love dearly are put upon, when the reputation of the State of Israel is besmirched, and when things inevitably go awry; but more important is that others stand with us in crafting a Jewish world in which our students crave to be a part. Maryland Hillel, and Hillels around the country, are blessed to have some dear supporters who give tirelessly toward this aim, but we must do more!
We need to work collaboratively to elevate the positive. Imagine the impact on the Jewish and global world if every student leaves college having experienced a powerful Shabbat. Imagine a world where every student has been to Israel and frames the country through his or her own stories, not those of another. Imagine a Jewish world where students receive robust leadership training and are ready to dive into communal leadership roles.
We need to preserve the defensive muscle we have cultivated. However, this muscle is futile without promoting all of the positive things about Jewish life and learning that enlivens the imagination and inspires the dreams of our children.
By Rabbi Ari Israel
Rabbi Ari Israel is the executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland.