Jewish students sought and achieved student governance over Hillel at Loyola Marymount University after the Jesuit institution removed the group’s adviser last summer and hired another without consulting its student leaders or membership.
“The students who were passionate about keeping Hillel student run were not consulted, so it was jarring to get back to school and be told, ‘Hey, here’s your new rabbi,’” said junior Madeline Lau, LMU Hillel’s vice president.
Students protested the removal of Rabbi Michael Barclay, who had served as LMU Hillel adviser for six years, and the subsequent hiring of Rabbi Carrie Benveniste. Hillel members successfully petitioned to have the Jewish club moved into the university’s Student Affairs administration, where it functions as an autonomous student-run organization rather than as a religious group under the auspices of the university’s Campus Ministry.
But the Hillel shake-up has not ushered in Barclay’s return. Instead, LMU Hillel now has two rabbis, who are sorting out their respective roles.
For Benveniste, the situation has been surprising.
“When I was first hired, I was contacted by the outside Hillel world, and they suggested I get in contact with [former Hillel adviser Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer],” Benveniste said. “I called him, and he gave me background and told me there was going to be this conflict. I didn’t really know what to do about that. I didn’t know the specifics of Barclay’s departure, but I felt for the students. People reluctantly told me more details about the situation as time went on.”
LMU Hillel was established 30 years ago by Gross-Schaefer — currently chair of ethics and business law in the university’s business school — as a safe place for Jewish students. The rabbi put the program under the auspices of the Office of Campus Ministry, a sector of LMU assigned to promote spiritual growth and faith on campus, which afforded Hillel direct funding from the university that otherwise might not have been available.
In 2003 Gross-Schaefer passed the reins to Barclay, but he continued to be actively involved with Hillel.
Despite the small number of Jews on campus — 300 among an undergraduate population of more than 5,700 — LMU’s Hillel program drew significant crowds to its events throughout the 2008-09 school year.
“We would do Shabbat dinners once a month and had 70 to 150 people show up to each event,” said senior Natalie Farahan, Hillel’s president. “We also had over 200 people at our Passover seder. Then this fall it was different. Under the new adviser, I believe there were two events, and only about four or five people at each.”
According to Benveniste, the drop in attendance can be attributed to the students’ strong desire to be removed from the jurisdiction of Campus Ministry.
“What I was told by [Hillel’s student leaders] was that they didn’t want to come to programs if they were under the auspices of Campus Ministry,” Benveniste said. “I offered money to help with [the programs they were organizing on their own] and they said that if the money came from Campus Ministry, they didn’t feel comfortable taking it. We never really got into a deep conversation about why, but I totally respect that.”
Farahan and Lau, who disagreed with the direction Campus Ministry was taking Hillel, especially concerning decisions about the group’s adviser, created a petition requesting that Hillel be moved out of Campus Ministry and into Student Affairs.
“My concern was that Hillel was not being able to be run as we wanted,” Lau said. “We want to be an autonomous student organization, free to choose our own adviser and schedule our own events.”
More than 270 students signed the petition, which was written in early October.
In December, Farahan and Lau took the petition and their concerns to Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Lane Bove and eventually to Father Robert B. Lawton, LMU’s president.
During the meeting, Lawton told the students some changes would be made, according to Farahan.
“Upon returning to school for the spring, I was told that one of our requests had been met, and that Hillel had been moved out of Campus Ministry and into Student Affairs,” Farahan said. “However, I was disappointed to learn that Rabbi Benveniste was still our adviser.”
Benveniste said she empathizes with the students who started the petition, who were told they were unable to continue working with Barclay.
Barclay, who is continuing to teach as a professor in the department of theological studies, declined to comment for this article.
“I very much wanted to work with them,” Benveniste said. “I would feel the same way if someone just popped in, and I was told I had to work with her. At the same time, I felt like if I couldn’t successfully reach out to them, I had to continue to reach out to other Jewish students. I tried as often as possible to share resources so it wouldn’t feel as divided as it turned out to be.”
On Jan. 19, Hillel President Farahan wrote LMU President Lawton an e-mail saying that the group wanted Gross-Schaefer to return as adviser.
“Once again, the needs of the Jewish students are not being met,” the e-mail stated. “We demand change now, and, once again, let us be free to practice Judaism on this campus comfortably and as we please.”
When Lawton moved Hillel to Student Affairs, where it now sits under the Division of Ethnic and Intercultural Services, he also moved the Hillel budget of $35,000, the majority of which is typically used for an adviser’s salary.
According to Bove, Gross-Schaefer has been brought back as Hillel adviser, and Benveniste will serve as an administrator for the group.
“Hillel, as a student group, has chosen [Gross-Schaefer] to fill that position. Rabbi Benveniste, at this point, is Hillel rabbi, in that she has oversight because Hillel is an organization that reports up,” Bove said.
Marshall Sauceda, associate vice president of Intercultural Affairs, said Benveniste’s job includes reaching out to Gross-Schaefer and Hillel’s student leaders to work collaboratively to serve Hillel as well as the larger Jewish community at the school.
“Could it all have been done differently and better? Yes,” Bove said. “There could have been much better communication from all circles. We made the change, it was effective a few days ago, and I am looking forward to a new semester.”
Benveniste will also continue to serve as a rabbi-minister for all Jewish students on campus, she said.
“Recently [Sauceda and I] met with Gross-Schaefer and the student leaders of Hillel to figure out who will do what. Gross-Schaefer will be the adviser, and I will be the Hillel rabbi as well as the Jewish student services coordinator. They have planned out a Hillel schedule for the spring, and I will just support them and do footwork for them. I will try to bring as many of the freshman who weren’t involved in Hillel, and I look forward to working with them.”