WASHINGTON — Members of J Street U’s National Student Board walked away “disappointed” after a lengthy on-the-record meeting with representatives from Hillel International.
Four student board members of J Street U, which is affiliated with the liberal pro-Israel organization J Street, accompanied by J Street U Director Sarah Turbow, sat down with Hillel International’s CEO Eric Fingerhut; the organization’s board chair, Sidney Pertnoy, and other representatives at a four-and-a-half-hour meeting on June 10 at Hillel’s headquarters on 8th Street in downtown Washington.
It was a markedly different reception from the last time J Street U members stood before the Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center.
In March, after Fingerhut canceled a scheduled talk at J Street’s annual conference over objections to the inclusion of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, several hundred of the estimated 1,100 student attendees marched from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to Hillel headquarters, where they delivered letters requesting a meeting with Fingerhut.
Less than 24 hours after the protest, Fingerhut responded to Benjy Cannon, president of J Street U, in a message, writing, “I would be happy to arrange an on-the-record meeting between the J Street U National Student Board and members of the Hillel International Board of Directors.”
Though Fingerhut did not address the J Street U conference attendees, representatives from campus Hillels were present at the conference, a point acknowledged by both organizations.
According to Turbow, at the long anticipated sit-down, the board members of both organizations introduced themselves to each other, Hillel gave insights to its strategic plan and Cannon sought to dispel myths about J Street U and progressive students on campus.
“Then, we dove into a conversation about the items that were on the agenda,” said Turbow.
As outlined in an email credited to Cannon, which was sent to J Street supporters June 15, the student board members’ agenda boiled down to a request to be put in touch with some of Hillel’s donors and an opportunity to “educate” Hillel staff at Hillel International’s summer training institute. J Street U also extended an invitation to Fingerhut to address its own 125-student Summer Leadership Institute.
“Though Hillel was open to considering all of these ideas, I am disappointed to report that we ultimately did not leave the meeting with any concrete commitments from them,” wrote Cannon. “Given the events in March, the J Street U National Board was especially surprised that Mr. Fingerhut did not take us up on our invitation to attend SLI. It is still hard to understand why speaking publicly to over 100 pro-Israel student leaders would not be a Hillel priority.”
According to a source present at the meeting, both organizations reached an understanding that Hillel would be given several weeks to review the commitments J Street U continues to seek.
Cannon’s email ran counter to that agreement, the source, speaking on background, stated.
Hillel International spokesman Matthew Berger said in a statement, “At the request of J Street U, Hillel International’s lay and professional leadership met with J Street U’s leaders for a wide-ranging conversation that lasted several hours. The discussion covered every topic that the J Street U leaders raised. We will continue to work with them, as we do with other organizations that engage Jewish students on campus.”
Catie Stewart, Northeast representative to J Street U’s national student board, said the organization wanted more from Hillel than just a conversation.
“They were kind of hoping to take the opportunity to get to know J Street U a little better, [and] we were kind of hoping for a conversation that would further the relationship, which isn’t to say the conversation wasn’t productive,” said Stewart, who graduated from Brandeis University this spring. “I think that, unfortunately, we didn’t leave the meeting with any kind of commitment to action, which I thought would be a no-brainer at this point.”
Melissa Apter writes for Washington Jewish Week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.