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Who Funds Religious Life on College Campuses?

An “external group with its big political [agenda] that isn’t accountable to the university is managing our religious student life,” says Jacob Zionts, a student at George Washington University. The organization he’s referring to is Hillel.

Although institutions of higher education increasingly tout their commitment to diversity, religious life seems to slip through the cracks. Schools like mine then depend on well-funded outside organizations like Hillel for further resources, and are vulnerable to their political agendas.

I learned this the hard way early on in my college career. It may sound cliche, but when I visited Bryn Mawr, a traditionally women’s college outside of Philadelphia, I fell in love: the castle-like buildings, unique traditions, and strong academics seemed like a dream come true. However, my expectations for religious life fell short. I realized that there was no such thing as a perfect institution and I would have to make sacrifices. I tried to justify Bryn Mawr’s lack of religious resources to my family. “So what if we only have a rabbinic advisor for 10-15 hours a week? Who cares if the dining halls have no kosher options? It isn’t like I’m going to Brandeis—I have to have reasonable expectations.” I accepted the harsh reality that I would have to decide between my dream school and faith practice. I chose my dream school.

Over the past four years, I have used my position as a Hillel board member, and now board President, at Bryn Mawr to try to create change within our administration. In meetings with the Board of Trustees, Associate Director of Dining Services, and Undergraduate Dean of the College, they repeatedly told me that the college does not have the means to allocate funding for religious life. At first, the community organizer in me became fired up. We could gather alumni to donate! Make a GoFundMe! Yet Bryn Mawr’s administration shut down each idea. They told me that donations cannot be designated to religious life; even if alumni gave a million dollars in the name of endowing a full-time rabbi, the college could allocate the funds elsewhere. Bryn Mawr’s administration decides which departments are priorities and religious life does not seem to be one.

This lack of institutional support doesn’t just impact Jewish students. The kosher and halal kitchens are not sustainable; observers of either practice have no choice but to live off campus for dietary reasons. Each kitchen is on the opposite end of campus and too small to accommodate those keeping a strict practice; students are also not compensated for the ingredients they must purchase in addition to being on the required meal plan; and the new religion building, which is slated to open in 2-3 years, will not even have a halal kitchen. Religious groups do not receive enough funding to pay for advisors, which results in groups such as the Muslim Student and Dharmic Student Associations, being unable to afford religious advisors. They and students of minority faiths that lack organized groups, such as Sikh and Mormon students, are further deprived of an interfaith chaplain.

Religious groups that do have advisors can afford them because of financial dependencies on outside organizations like Hillel International. This isn’t just an issue at Bryn Mawr. Zionts explains that his school “has abdicated responsibility for fostering, paying for, and cultivating religious life on campus. At a school with 18,000 people, faith groups have little cubbies in a 300 square foot room in a multicultural space. We don’t even have a board of chaplains. And because of that, organizations like Hillel have filled that void.”

In order to gain this professional support, religious student groups too often have to sacrifice their autonomy, and even their values. For example, many Christian students experience tension with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because of its anti-LGBTQ stance. In 2016, InterVarsity released a “doctrine on human sexuality” condemning homosexual relations and clarifying that they will fire staff who theologically support marriage equality. This doctrine has had real-world implications for religious students: for example, at Haverford College, an InterVarsity advisor asked a student leader to resign from the student board after the student came out as queer.

Similarly, Hillel chapters are controlled by their parent organization’s politics, as they are bound by the Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, which bar students from hosting or cosponsoring events that are too critical of Israel. For example, my Hillel was not allowed to co-sponsor an event on anti-Semitism, Christianophobia, and Islamophobia because the Palestinian speaker supported BDS.

Hillel International’s politics also alienate students. Last year they endorsed Trump’s nominee for the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, despite his opposition to key Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault, immigrants, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students.

Many students are also uncomfortable with Hillel’s partners and major donors. One student at the University of Southern Carolina, who wishes to remain anonymous, discovered that her Hillel Peer Engagement Internship is funded by one of Hillel International’s major partners, Mosaic United. “I was extremely angry when I found out and I wanted to quit,” she said. “Mosaic United is funded by a right-wing Knesset member who has openly said that Jewish communities should not recognize gay marriage as legitimate, and has said some pretty racist things about Palestinians...I felt a little bit like I was lied to and information was hidden from me, information that would have made me decide not to do this in the first place.”

Students at George Washington University, including Zionts, faced a similar issue when they discovered their Hillel chapter’s ties to the Israel on Campus Coalition. “The ICC was running anonymous websites calling students who criticize Israel anti-Semitic. Our Hillel specifically works with the ICC and it is well documented, and our executive director has privately acknowledged to us that she gave them permission to do that,” explained Zionts. Yet because Hillel is an outside organization, they cannot be held accountable by the university. “The university’s response was that they can’t do anything because they don’t have oversight over Hillel...They chose that they aren’t going to fund and pay for religious life on this campus...So we end up with a situation [where] the group funding Jewish life uses its resources to attack Jewish students.”

Due to Hillel’s practices, many, including Zionists, feel censored, alienated, and uncomfortable engaging with Hillel. As Zionts explains, “It’s a hostile environment for Jewish Voice for Peace students like myself. For the High Holidays this fall, instead of going to GW’s Rosh Hashanah service, I ended up watching the telecast of my synagogue service from back home because I didn’t feel comfortable going to a service run by Hillel.”

During my time at Bryn Mawr, I’ve seen these issues play out around me time and time again. Last year, the school’s Jewish population held a series of heated discussions about Hillel’s role on campus. They resulted in the conclusion that disaffiliation from Hillel International is unviable. Without their funding, we would lose our beloved rabbinic advisor. This is why my peers and I have launched a petition to demonstrate to our administration that past and present Jewish students want religious life to be an institutional priority.

In the face of growing bigotry against religious groups, it is astonishing that the needs of the marginalized, like Muslim and Jewish students, are ignored by universities. When they have no choice but to rely on outside funders with their own agendas, progressive religious students are left in the dust.

Topics: Activism, Religion
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How to cite this page

Silverman, Rachel. "Who Funds Religious Life on College Campuses?." 13 February 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/who-funds-religious-life-on-college-campuses>.

Open Hillel Protest in NYC. Photo Credit: Gili Getz.

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