An Open Letter to Hillel of Colorado Parents, Supporters, and Interested Community Members

From Daniel W. Bennett, Hillel of Colorado Executive Director

Nowhere in Hillel of Colorado’s mission and vision statements do the words, “working to keep Jewish college students safe from harm,” appear.  Such a promise wasn’t needed – until now.  After a half century of legal and near-legal discrimination against Jews and other minorities (examples abounded in in all our communities such as housing and employment quotas, neighborhood covenants, enrollment quotas, and the like), the 1968 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson during the King assassination riots, finally ended legal discrimination based on race, religion or national origin.    


Institutional discrimination against Jews was over.  We had made it in America.  Perhaps ADL and the ACLU weren’t needed anymore. 


But we’ve watched the change brew.  You may recollect from blogs I wrote seven and eight months ago that for several years prior to October 7, 2023 our Hillel students were experiencing worse antisemitism on campus than at any time in the past fifty years.  Of course, that has escalated exponentially post-October 7th – to a climate where an ADL survey reports that nearly three-quarters of Jewish students have experienced or witnessed antisemitism on campus.  We may, indeed, now wonder if the past 70 years or so will go down as our Golden Age for the Jews in America. 


Is there any good news? 


Yes.  While the past months have been difficult at best for our 4,000 Jewish students, rest assured that Hillel is on the front lines working to combat campus antisemitism by partnering with university staff and faculty; influencing university policy; co-founding and leading the Colorado Task Force to Combat Campus Antisemitism; creating student antisemitism trainings and wellness seminars; and assisting students to file and follow through with Title VI complaints.  Together with university advocates and our broader Jewish community, Hillel works differently now than ever before to help keep students safe.


Yes. Record numbers of Jewish, Jew-ish, Jew-adjacent, and non-Jewish students have flocked to our Hillel programs.  They seek and find at Hillel the safety of being with each other and the consistency and joy of Hillel social and Jewish ritual settings.  They find young adults they call mentors, who support them to explore their ideas, challenges, thoughts, and feelings in safe spaces.  They discover paths to becoming their best selves as Jews who celebrate Jewish roots and values.  They learn skills to debate tough identity issues such as Zionism, Jewish identity and standing up to antisemitism – which we have now accepted will not quickly disappear.


Yes.  I experience the Presidents and Chancellors (different titles at different schools) at Hillel of Colorado’s flagship campuses to be true partners who want to get this right, who are serious about stepping up and working closely with us to keep Jewish students safe and thriving on their campuses.  I often communicate weekly with them, and they are doing well enforcing university rules that check student groups that behave contrary to university codes of conduct.  They are learning the reach and scope of overt and covert campus antisemitism, and on one campus even engaging outside consultants with a promise to act on their findings.  And, they have done very well ensuring campus security forces are trained and sufficiently deployed to keep all students physically safe. 


I have also received passionate requests from parents and community members that I insist our Chancellors and Presidents make statements condemning Hamas. The argument is rational: university leaders have used their voices to praise or condemn previous geopolitical events, so why stop now?  But, why would we think our universities, or their leaders should ever have opined on such things?   Neither their expertise nor their job is to share global or political insights, and from my conversations with them I know many agree.  So, Hillel will not call for such statements.  Instead, we have bigger and more appropriate asks of our universities, among them:

  1. engage faculty groups and academic departments in conversations about the limitations and responsibilities of academic freedom, not only its power and privilege.
  2. find ways to bring deeper antisemitism awareness to all university personnel: from residence hall advisors to those in highest leadership.
  • lead difficult discussions about free speech, assuring it is maintained on campus while avoiding the damaging effects of hate speech – which while legally protected creates divisions, threatens democracy, and halts productive discourse.

Our Hillel, with the help of Hillel International and our partner community agencies, stands ready to assist them.


Yes.  Over the past 120 days our staff and I have listened to advice and messages of support, and an outcry of a myriad of emotions from more community members and parents of Jewish college students in Colorado than ever.  The outcry has led us to re-examine our work at our core campuses to assure we are doing all we can to instill in our students the knowledge and Jewish pride they need become future Jewish communal leaders.  We do well – and we must step up our game. 


Meanwhile, that outcry has led us to expand Hillel’s reach past our “Hillel staffed campuses” to many smaller universities along Colorado’s Front Range.  Hillel already has a new, successful presence in partnership with the Golda Meir House at the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver.  I have had several discussions with Colorado College leadership, parents, alumni, and students directed toward student safety and increased support for Jewish student life on that campus.  Students from Colorado School of Mines in Golden have been attending DU Hillel programs weekly while we discuss a more robust Hillel presence there.  We hope we are working toward a time when Hillel will be there for all Jewish college students in our state, where all will be supported, safe and equipped to face present challenges and emerge as strong, proud guarantors of the Jewish future.


Finally, I’ve heard many say our universities, nationwide, are broken.  My response is: perhaps, but not irrevocably.  Their deep issues are largely reflections of  greater societal problems, ones that will take time and resolve to repair and cannot be addressed by university leadership, alone.  How many of Colorado’s Chancellors and Presidents – and how many of us, for that matter – honestly believe they have adequate training or can find easy or quick solutions to challenges such as:

  • failures in campus DEI systems that often do not serve Jewish students well.
  • how unwelcome Jewish students feel in social justice spaces (where they and most of us have lived out our Jewish values) where intersectionality often labels them as oppressors.
  • a cancel culture that ignores historical context and can shame, isolate, and can at times undermine academic rigor.
  • common misconceptions about what constitutes antisemitism vs. anti-Zionism, and the misuse of terminology such as colonialism, genocide, apartheid.
  • the rampant use of social media that often depersonalizes, spreads hate with no accountability, and marginalizes the contrary voices students need to hear in order to grow.


There are hundreds of independent Hillels at universities in North America, and the first Hillel’s 1920’s origin statement “to convey Jewish civilization to a new generation,” is no less applicable today than it was over nine decades ago.  Hillel the Elder was one of two noteworthy First Century Judean rabbis whose Jerusalem academies helped form the Judaism we know today.  Shammai, Hillel’s rabbinic contemporary, interpreted the Law strictly: ceremonies, study, and detail trumped all.  Legend goes that Shammai turned his back on a student who mocked him by insisting Shammai teach him all of Judaism while he stood on one foot.

Hillel’s response to that student was that all of Judaism is encapsulated by “what is hateful to you, don’t do to another.”  The student became a lifelong disciple and a great rabbi in his own right.  We are truly Hillel.  All are welcome, none are shamed.  We teach the learner above the subject matter.  We model and trust the value and integrity of every student we encounter.  To do so we now must, unfortunately, also work to assure Jewish students – and all students – are safe and feel safe during their years with us.


Shalom, Am Yisrael Chai.


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