By Noah J. Silverman
In 1924, Norman De Nosaquo, a Jewish student at the University of Wisconsin, wrote a letter to the editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle in which he observed, “It is only through organised groups [that one can] accomplish anything of good for the advancement of the knowledge of the Jewish people.” The occasion of the letter was the recent establishment of a new institution at the University of Illinois – the first of its kind – dedicated to proactively helping Jewish students maintain and strengthen their Jewish identity.
De Nosaquo called for Jewish leaders in Wisconsin to “launch a state-wide campaign for a community house for the Jewish students” at the University of Wisconsin as well. The name of this nascent Jewish student organisation was Hillel. The word “Hillel” derives from the name of a rabbinic sage from the first century, now famous for the ethic of reciprocity: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” A few months later, Hillel expanded to the University of Wisconsin. Nearly 100 years later, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life serves students at over 500 college and university campuses across North America.
The story of Hillel’s creation, growth and success is not only one of the major accomplishments of the Jewish community in America in the 20th century, it is also a distinctly American story of which citizens of all religious backgrounds should be proud. As President Obama noted in his inaugural address, “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.”
It is also a story that is now repeating itself with the American Muslim community.
Earlier this year, the University of Michigan welcomed the first endowed Muslim chaplain at a public university. Mohammed Tayysir Safi, a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan and a University of Michigan alumnus, reflected that without institutionalised leadership, “There’s not a solid environment where a Muslim feels . . . safe – as in they feel safe and at home in being able to express themselves and who they are.” Safi is looking forward to serving both the Muslim and non-Muslim population as a counsellor, advocate and general resource on Islam on campus.
As an American and as a Jew, I was thrilled to hear this news, not least because I know first-hand the importance of strong religious leadership and institutions for college-aged youth. The establishment of organised Jewish campus life over the course of the 20th century had a profound and existential impact on my life: my parents met on the steps of the Hillel building at the University of Pennsylvania. When I attended Connecticut College, I served as president of our local Hillel chapter.
There was no Hillel building on our campus, however, and the other Jewish students and I held our meetings in the basement of the chapel. To my surprise, those most distressed by this fact were not members of Hillel, but rather of the newly-founded and loosely organised Muslim Students Association (MSA). Usman Sheikh, the president of the MSA, approached me shortly after my election to ask whether I would help him establish a kosher dining hall on campus. The Muslim students were growing tired of eating vegetarian food and desired halal meat. Not having a professional advisor, a group of supportive alumni, or the recourse to funds from a national organisation, they turned to the Jewish community in the hope that we could use our comparatively larger resources to establish a kosher dining hall, which would implicitly meet the Muslim religious dietary standards for halal meat.
My ensuing friendship with Sheikh gave me a profound appreciation for the importance of institutions and leadership. Within the Hillel community at Connecticut College, I found the “safe space” Safi describes, and it allowed me to explore what it meant to be both Jewish and American, to carry with me both particular and universal concerns and loyalties, and to hold the two in balance.
In a retrospective written in 2002, Hillel’s then Director of Communications, Jeff Rubin, noted that the “breakthrough innovation, the birth of the Hillel concept, was to provide a structure that brought together a variety of student-run opportunities on a permanent basis under the guidance of a professional.” It was this structure during my collegiate years that fostered me on my path to a career in religiously grounded civic engagement.
This is the opportunity and the moment that our sisters and brothers in the Muslim community are now experiencing and, as a Jewish American, I couldn’t be happier.
Noah Silverman is Associate Director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.