Hillel Staffers’ Ouster at Wellesley Highlights Tender Situation for Jewish Students

 Tower Court at Wellesley College; photo by Jared and Corin via Wikimedia.Commons.
Tower Court at Wellesley College; photo by Jared and Corin via Wikimedia.Commons.

By Alina Dain Sharon

Jewish students at Wellesley College, a Boston-area school for women, fear that anti-Semitism is growing on their campus following what they call the school administration’s lax response to the anti-Israel activities of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Wellesley also decided to eliminate the staff positions of Hillel director and Jewish chaplain, a move some Jewish students describe as the removal of their support system.

Several posters have been plastered on walls around the Wellesley campus with images of Palestinian children who were killed or wounded during this summer’s war in Gaza. One poster in the student center asks, “What does Zionism mean to you?” Responses to that question that were subsequently written on the poster include “genocide,” “apartheid,” and “murder.” Haaretz reported that efforts by Jewish students to engage in dialogue have been rejected by SJP, which has a policy of “anti-normalization” of Jewish and pro-Israel groups.

Amid that backdrop of increased anti-Zionism, Wellesley fired Patti Scheinman, director of the school’s Hillel International chapter, and David Bernat, the Hillel-affiliated Jewish chaplain on campus. The school cited “restructuring” as the reason behind the move, and said an interim rabbi will be brought on before a permanent full-time rabbi is hired to perform the duties of both former part-time employees.

“Wellesley informed Hillels of New England on November 14 that it wanted to go in a new direction and replace the two part-time Hillel employees with a full-time rabbi in order to better serve its Jewish student population. Wellesley made the decision unilaterally to end the current relationship. The two Wellesley part-time employees, however, are still employed by Hillels of New England, but no longer serve Wellesley College,” David Eden, Hillel International’s chief administrative officer, told JNS.org.

About 10 percent of Wellesley’s student body of about 2,500 is Jewish. Some Jewish students said they had turned to the school’s Hillel branch for support in their fight against campus anti-Zionism – and its convergence with anti-Semitism – but that those efforts were undermined by the school’s decision to fire the two staff members.

“In a time when we really need that support, we don’t have it,” Wellesley senior Tali Marcus told the Boston Globe.

The events at Wellesley are demonstrative of a broader problem for Jewish students at U.S. campuses – not just the expression of views that are critical of the state of Israel or its policies by groups such as SJP, but the “delegitimization of the very notion of the existence of the Jewish state,” University of California, Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told JNS.org earlier this year.

Such activities by groups like SJP can also make Jewish students feel uncomfortable “about just expressing their Jewishness on their campus,” said Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative, an organization addressing campus anti-Semitism across the U.S.

Miriam Berkowitz Blue, who graduated from Wellesley in 2001, told Haaretz that she “didn’t feel comfortable putting an Israeli flag” in the school’s Hillel lounge even “during peacetime.”

The school has received significant criticism from Jewish donors and alums for the decision to fire Hillel staffers as well as the timing of the move.

“I am absolutely dismayed with the messages being sent out – the timing and the language – from the college. To my mind they are grossly inadequate and a poor attempt to placate the alumnae,” said Rachel Mann Gould, class of 2000, who decided to stop contributing to the school.

“That said, their terminations are not rooted in anti-Semitism, and attempting to link the two together is counter-productive,” she told Haaretz.

On Sunday, Wellesley Dean of Students Debra DeMeis, who had made the decision to fire the two Hillel employees, sent an email letter to Wellesley alums that was co-signed by Nancy Kolodny, an emerita chemistry professor. The letter said that the university was “committed to a vibrant community for our Jewish students – and an inclusive and respectful community for all our students.” When contacted by JNS.org, Wellesley would not comment on the issue beyond what was stated in the letter.

“We understand that without proper context and explanation, these administrative changes have raised some concerns. … The process of making staff changes is never easy and, as we are sure you are aware, can never be done with complete transparency. However, these changes have been made in the spirit of renewal,” the letter said.

Wellesley acknowledged that this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas “has contributed to a heightened sense of vulnerability among Jewish students, and others, and created a culture of fear and avoidance, rather than productive engagement.”

“In response to this dynamic, Wellesley is reaffirming our commitment to fostering an inclusive and respectful environment in which students of all backgrounds are able to engage in meaningful conversations that advance their learning,” said the letter, which did not describe any plans by the school to address the activities of SJP.

Hillel International’s Eden, meanwhile, said the Jewish campus umbrella is helping Wellesley in its search for a full-time rabbi to replace the fired part-time employees.

“When I learned about [the firings] on November 19, I discussed the situation with the person in charge of Hillels of New England and then had a conversation with the Dean of Students at Wellesley College,” Eden told JNS.org. “The dean reiterated that the college wants to hire a full-time rabbi to lead and improve Jewish life and Hillel on campus. It is unusual for a college the size of Wellesley to hire a full-time professional.”

“I have had many conversations with the Wellesley administration… and take them at their word that they want to upgrade and improve the Jewish experience on campus,” he added. “Hillel International also committed to send resources to Wellesley during this time of transition.”