Jewish Culture Alive and Kickin' at Hillel House
Organization has prescence at State since 1928
April 20, 2005 6:04 PM
Hillel the Elder was a first century B.C.E. prophet and teacher who is credited as the man who developed the Judeo-Christian “golden rule.”
When a disbeliever of his teachings tried to embarrass Hillel by asking him to describe the Torah in one sentence, he responded, “What is hateful to you, do not unto your neighbor; this is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary; go and study it.”
This guiding principle has since been reworded, but the message stays the same, and the organization that adopted the Hillel name seeks to continue the social work and education that brought such notoriety to the ancient sage.
“We want to show that there is something particularly Jewish about wanting to fix the world,” said San Francisco Hillel Executive Director Seth Brysk.
Hillel is an international organization that arose out of the need for Jewish students to have a safe place to study and interact during a period of heightened American anti-Semitism in the 1920s.
According to Fred Astren, director of the Jewish studies program, universities implemented quotas and
Hillel had a presence on the SF State campus even before the school became a state university. Funded by private donations, the organization began renting a house on Banbury Drive (off 19th Avenue) nearly 20 years ago, allowing it to reach out to more students.
“We would no longer say Jews are a persecuted minority,” said Astren. He added that a new goal of Hillel is reaching out to the many Jewish students who do not closely identify with the religion.
Biology major Dash Harwood, 23, is of Jewish ancestry but said that he has never had an interest in participating in a program centered around Judaism.
“I’m not a Jewish Jew,” Harwood said.
Astren said that of the roughly six million Jewish people living in the United States, nearly half of them are unaffiliated with the religion.
“Hillel can offer them exposure they've never had before,” said Astren. “Their lack of knowledge (of Judaism) could be an interesting thing.”
SF Hillel is, however, much more than a place to learn and study about religion. The house has become “a place for cultural connections,” according to Brysk, as well as “an umbrella" for any activities that Jewish students want to do.
Hillel members have also helped form Tikkun Olam, or “Fixing the World,” a social action group; Yachad, a gay and lesbian support group; and Nefish Nafshi, a women’s support group.
With all of the recent controversy and conflicts on campus about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a challenge for Hillel has been to keep people from perceiving it as a political organization.
To try and keep all Israeli issues separate from the Hillel organization, the Israel Coalition was formed in order to give interested students a platform on which to discuss the topic.
To coincide with the current peace process, the Israel Coalition brought Mohammed Darawshe, an Israeli Arab, to speak on campus. Darawshe runs Givat Haviva in Israel - a dialogue center focused on easing the culturally embedded stereotypes between Palestinians and Israelis in the region.
“We try to cater to all views,” said Sasha Soyfertis, co-chair of the Israel Coalition. Soyfertis also said she believes Zionism has been largely misdefined on campus.
“It’s not about kicking anyone out,” she said. “It’s about seeing the Jewish people as having a valid culture and history and having a right to a sovereign and safe state.”
The Hillel House on Banbury is unique in that it now serves 13 Bay Area campuses. When Hillel’s downtown San Francisco office closed several yeas ago, the house expanded to serve schools such as
There are bi-monthly Friday Chabat dinners and regular religious observances. On-campus events are commonly scheduled for Jewish holidays and days of reflection. Upcoming events are Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on May 6 and Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) on May 12.
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