By Eric Fingerhut and Neil Rubin
Special to the Baltimore Jewish Times
At a national Hillel conference this week, talk kept returning to a potential Persian Gulf war.
When more than 400 Jewish college student activists came to Baltimore this week to hone their public policy skills and further activist agendas ranging from enhancing literacy at home to pushing human rights abroad, war in Iraq was a theme from which they could not escape.
"I'm against it. I don't think the evidence is there," said University of Pennsylvania senior Caryn Tamber, echoing the sentiments of many of the students. "I don't think the case has been made."
The conference, the Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer B'nai B'rith Hillel Spitzer Forum on Public Policy, also was a curtain call for Richard Joel as president of Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life. Mr. Joel, who spent the previous Shabbat as scholar-in-residence at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, is president-elect of Yeshiva University, a post he will assume in the spring.
He is widely credited with having used his 15-year tenure at Hillel's international office to turn a low-key program, loosely affiliated operation into a robust Jewish organization pushing campus student issues into the forefront of the American Jewish agenda.
"I learned something important here," Mr. Joel, 52, told the students at their opening session on Sunday, Feb. 23. "And that is that you are the most important connection for a Jewish future and to try to listen to you."
Setting the loose, engaging tone of the conference he peppered his audience with the sarcastic and ironic wisdom of comedian George Carlin. "The average life of a major-league baseball is seven pitches," he said. "That's kind of sad if you think about it." Another quip: "What should you do when you come upon an endangered animal eating an endangered plant?"
In his customary style, he used the lines as an entry to classical Jewish teachings. He noted "our corporate sponsor, Hillel haZaken" [Hillel the elder], said `Be as the students of Aaron, the first priests. Love Shalom, pursue Shalom. Love all creation and bring them close to our story and its values'," the Torah.
He added: "This stuff matters. It's the only thing that matters. Rights are great, but rights are simply the environment that creates opportunity to give us meaning."
The message seemed to sink in for the next few days as the students shared their struggles and victories on various campuses, learning about both strategies to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities and to promote black-Jewish relations and interfaith dialogue.
Alison Siegel of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was one of several students addressing a joint Hillel-Jewish Council for Public Affairs meeting, the latter being the parallel gathering of community relations professionals and activists.
At a session on freedom of speech, she talked about how anti-Israel students on her campus last spring greeted Israel Independence Day by dragging a coffin around campus. They finally stopped, put an Israeli flag on the ground and poured blood onto it.
She spoke of fellow Jewish students facing "verbal, literal and physical retaliation to anyone who supports Israel on campus. Many students even avoided pro-Israel demonstrations out of fear."
But informally in the hallways and inside the conference rooms of the Inner Harbor's Hyatt Hotel, talk of war was prominent. Initially, Hillel planners were going to stay away from the subject, said one Hillel staff member. "But it was the white elephant in the room; we had to do something on it," he said.
So on Sunday night, the students convened for a town hall meeting/teach-in entitled, "Countdown to Peace or War?" in which they studied Jewish values on war and peace and pondered how they applied to the contemporary crisis.
Echoing some national commentators, Greg Trif of Drew University in New Jersey said that other threats, such as North Korea, are more pressing than a new Gulf War.
Over at Wesleyan University, a traditionally liberal school, freshman Max Kates said one would be hard pressed to find a pro-war student.
Yet, he said he is probably on his campus's more conservative end because he believed that "force will be necessary. [But] I don't think Bush is approaching the situation with the poise needed with our allies. ... I'm against Bush's war, but not against force in the long term."