Right of reply: Higher education meets lower journalism

No, there was no Pessah Seder at Berkeley Hillel last year. This year, there will be several.

Pessah 88 (photo credit: )
Pessah 88
(photo credit: )
I was surprised and saddened to read in The Jerusalem Post an opinion piece entitled "Lacking the Purim Spirit at Berkeley Hillel" (March 11). The night before, Berkeley Hillel was alive with words of Torah and song: a traditional Megillah reading, circle dancing with Melting Point (an amazing Jewish music band), a talent show in which students sang their favorite Hebrew songs, introducing each with words of how they felt connected to Israel, and lots of handmade hamentaschen. No Purim spirit?! It is with a heavy heart that I write in response to this opinion piece and another negative story ("Orthodox, secular Jews wage Facebook war", February 27) concerning Berkeley Hillel. I would rather be teaching Torah. But it seems that this "Berkeley Hillel" I read about in The Jerusalem Post has taken on a life of its own, and unless this false portrayal is addressed, it can do real damage to Jewish student life here in Berkeley. This controversy started around a Facebook advertisement, so let's begin there. This was an event created and promoted by a student new to Jewish life and unaware of the implications that Jewish images can have for different sectors of our community. She made a mistake, and as soon as the first person complained, she removed the picture and offensive caption and sincerely apologized. Her friend, who had been the first to object, accepted her apology and went on to emcee the event. The story could have ended there. A mistake, to be sure, but an honest mistake swiftly corrected. Instead, The Jerusalem Post used the Facebook page to invent a story about a "war" between students, and most recently inspired the Op-Ed piece that incorrectly points to Berkeley Hillel as a symbol for all that is wrong with Judaism today. IT IS BEYOND the scope of this piece to detail all the inaccuracies and distortions that have been added to the story along the way. One indication of how poorly this story has been reported is that we at Berkeley Hillel were never contacted for details. Put simply, the image in the Post does not reflect the Berkeley Hillel I know. Berkeley Hillel is an inclusive home for our diverse Jewish population. On staff, we have two rabbis (Orthodox and Conservative), an IDF veteran Israel Fellow who develops effective Israel programming and advocacy on a challenging campus, and others deeply committed to providing a home away from home for Jewish students. One fact that neither piece in the Post mentioned is that the former Executive Director and Assistant Director of Berkeley Hillel resigned from the agency in January 2009. Some of the decisions they made will not be continued in the future. No, there was no Pessah Seder at Berkeley Hillel last year. This year, we are offering Pessah sedarim, a learning Seder before the holiday, several Pessah-themed programs, and many student-prepared communal meals in our kosher l'pessah kitchen. This year, for Yom HaShoah, we will feature an educational movie introduced by a campus professor, a presentation by a Shoah survivor, and a memorial service followed by a reading of Shoah victims' names. Currently, in our Hillel, we are showing an exhibit titled "Pictures of Resistance," recording one Jewish woman's heroic struggle against the Nazis, produced by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation. OUR CELEBRATIONS OF Purim have ended. We are now in the period of sheilah v'drisha b'hilchot pessah, a time of learning and teaching the laws of Passover. On Pessah (and every day of the year), we at Berkeley Hillel invite all four children described in the Hagadda to ask questions at our "table": the wise, the rebellious, the simple and the one who does not know enough to ask. We also work to reach the fifth child, the one who doesn't even know to come to a seder, doesn't know it's Passover, doesn't know there is a Jewish neshama (soul) within. As we seek to engage the members of our immediate community, so do we seek to engage those beyond Berkeley. The concern with which many responded to printed inaccuracies, I believe, comes from a genuine concern for klal yisrael. I look forward to continuing a dialogue based on accurate information and mutual respect. If you would like more information about what is happening at Berkeley Hillel, I encourage you to visit our website at www.berkeleyhillel.org, featuring a newsletter detailing our recent programs. Or feel free to contact me directly at drichman@berkeleyhillel.org. We are committed to providing and enriching meaningful Jewish experiences. I welcome your questions and your support. Rabbi Richman is Interim Executive Director and the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi in Residence at UC Berkeley Hillel.