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  • Daniella Shear

A Meeting With Slifka's Board of Directors

Earlier this spring, members of Slifka’s Board of Directors joined nine students for a Zoom discussion about Israel-Palestine. These students were members of many organizations under the nebulous Slifka umbrella, including the Egalitarian Minyan, Young Israel House at Yale, J Street U, Yale Friends of Israel, and AEPi. A few of us in Slifka’s new Israel-Palestine working group wanted to speak to board members as part of an effort to broaden the conversation on Israel-Palestine that we had started. Luckily, many board members were interested in being part of these conversations with us, too.

The members of J Street U wanted to talk to board members about standards of partnership, Hillel International’s Israel guidelines for event sponsorship and collaboration. As of now, Slifka does not have its own standards of partnership, nor does Yale Hillel, which places decisions regarding speakers and events in the hands of staff and board members. We are working towards a clearly defined and inclusive statement of values that both board members and a diverse coalition of Jewish students craft and can point to so that events are no longer judged simply on an ad hoc basis. We realize that the request to create rather than abolish standards of partnership differs from what many progressive Jewish students are calling for on their campuses. But in our experience, the absence of guidelines has presented challenges time and time again for progressive student leaders at Slifka. Standards of partnership were not central to the discussion during our meeting in March, but I am hopeful that our initial conversation successfully set the groundwork for further meetings and student-driven partnership guidelines.

I am deeply invested in the collaborative, student-centered development of standards of partnership for Slifka and for Yale Hillel, and not just because of my work with J Street U or membership in the Israel-Palestine working group. Previously, I served as the social justice chair for Hillel Student Board. In my role, I worked with students and organizations both under and outside of Slifka’s umbrella. This work was often challenging, in part because many Jewish students feel uncomfortable at Slifka.

The Israeli flag hanging above Slifka’s door contributes immediately to the sense that progressive voices on Israel and Palestine are unwelcome, and more so that anti-Zionist voices are unwelcome both during programming and more generally within the community. Mainstream Jewish organizations that students have likely been in contact with before arriving at Yale have likely done nothing to dispel these notions. And, Slifka houses Yale Friends of Israel and J Street U which host Israel programming throughout the year, runs regular Birthright trips to Israel, and receives money from pro-Israel donors, some of whom have endowed travel scholarships to Israel. I am lucky to have found a home on campus at Slifka. So I can not speak for those who have felt excluded or unwelcome at Slifka. But I understand, from conversations and published writing, that many of these realities of Slifka’s relationship to Israel cause discomfort among pro-Palestine Jews.

Many of these same students who feel unwelcome because of Israel feel deeply called to justice work because of their Jewish identities. This is unsurprising considering the long history of Jewish justice advocates, and the plethora of texts that, through study, inform justice work. It saddens me that many progressive Jews do not realize that Slifka wants to give them a space to engage Jewishly with activism and advocacy.

Additionally, Israel politics can complicate efforts to support specific domestic issues. For instance, last summer, Hillel Student Board members did not sign on to a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement because of BLM’s relationship to BDS even though the board members support the broad aims of the movement.

I believe we can and should consider how we can change to address these concerns while maintaining a safe space at Slifka for the community we currently serve. I do not have all the answers, but I am unwilling to give up on a future at Slifka that includes the anti-Zionist Jews who yearn for a Jewish home on campus. At the same time, I want my Zionist friends to continue to feel at home at Slifka.

Slifka aspires to be the Center for Jewish life at Yale, giving name not just to our building but to a centralized model for Jewish life on campus. Prior to 1995, in the absence of a building, Yale’s Jewish organizations were entirely decentralized. This lack of infrastructure presented challenges, but it also came with many freedoms. Now that Slifka exists, we have the challenge of ensuring that everyone feels comfortable in one building. We can see the incredible pluralism that this produces in religious and cultural programming, but there is still more work to be done. We need to extend our notion of pluralism to Israel and Palestine in recognition of the fact that our differences can strengthen us, especially if we are willing to talk about them.

The March board meeting lasted an hour. We split into three breakout rooms; the one to which I was assigned hosted one other student, three members of the board, and a Slifka staff member. To begin our discussion, the students were asked to speak about how Israel and Palestine impact Jewish life on campus and at Slifka. I shared much of what I have already written here. The other student in my group spoke about his family’s background as Mizrachim who found safety in Israel after facing violent persecution in their former country. This, he said, contributed to his strong support for Israel. He also spoke about efforts he had seen (and led) to convene meaningful & respectful community discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to emphasize sectors of Israeli society that have historically been neglected, such as Jews of Color, in ongoing conversation.

One of the questions board members asked was how conversations about Israel manifest outside Slifka, particularly in classrooms. We answered honestly and to the best of our ability: outside of the Hebrew language program, we have had few conversations about Israel and Palestine at Yale. The board member did not explain why he was asking us this question, but it likely reflected a common concern about Israel on campus and Jewish students’ safety. I hope it was reassuring for him to hear that neither of us had felt unsafe or discriminated against on campus because of our Jewish identities or support of Israel.

The board members I spoke to were also very concerned with whether or not we feel Slifka is “inclusive.” This question gave me a chance to bring up my concerns about the failure to include progressive and anti-Zionist Jews in Jewish communal spaces at Yale.

When we reconvened as a larger group on Zoom, members of each breakout room reflected on the conversations they had had. The consensus that seemed to emerge from this portion of the call was that students and board know very little about the other group and that more dialogue is needed to lessen this divide.

On the student side, many of us find the internal structure of Slifka endlessly confusing. Even among undergraduates who know that Hillel and Slifka are not one and the same, the relationship between the two organizations is mysterious. For many of us, myself included, “Slifka” is a moniker for anything having to do with Jewish life on campus. Again, this presents both opportunities and challenges, but it is clear we are not meeting every challenge when there is a critical mass of Jewish students at Yale who do not feel a sense of belonging in our Jewish communal space.

It was difficult to know what to expect from a conversation with the executive board of a Jewish organization about Israel, but I thought it went very well. I feel that the fact that they were willing to speak with us — and more importantly, listen to us — says a lot about the strength and character of our institution.

To those reading this who have not felt welcomed or heard by the board and larger Slifka community, I am so sorry. I have sometimes felt uncomfortable in Jewish spaces because of my position on Israel, which, as a liberal Zionist, I imagine is too far to the right for you and too far to the left for many in Slifka. Despite this, I have found Slifka to be a place where I can express my views, participate in respectful and compassionate dialogue, and engage in religious and cultural programming that I have grown to love. I know that as an institution we have a lot of work ahead of us in creating a wholly inclusive community center, and I am doing everything I can to work towards this end. I also believe that this work will be strengthened by you taking part in it, and I hope you will join us in it.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the violence in Israel-Palestine, which was intensifying since I began writing this piece. I am feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, and scared, emotions I imagine many of you are feeling right now, too. I know that it is difficult to have substantive and respectful conversations right now when tensions are high and so much remains unknown in the region and on campus. But I also believe that dialogue is the best tool we have, and that it is more important now than ever. The culture of silence around Israel and Palestine which has existed on Yale’s campus up until this point benefits no one. Discussion develops deeper content knowledge and greater understanding of other points of view. Additionally, working to move our Jewish institutions to the left on Israel and away from the historical policy of blanket pro-Israel support is a powerful tool in the fight for an end to military occupation of the West Bank, an end to Israeli settlement construction, and peace, security, and sovereignty for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Daniella Shear is a rising Sophomore in Saybrook College from Pittsburgh, PA. She has served as Hillel Student Board Social Justice Chair, and is currently a leader of the JStreet U chapter on campus.

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