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Ousted Hillel staff upsets Wellesley students

A Wellesley College student read a controversial poster on a bulletin board at the school’s campus center.
A Wellesley College student read a controversial poster on a bulletin board at the school’s campus center.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Wellesley College has abruptly removed its Hillel director and Jewish chaplain as part of a restructuring, angering Jewish students who say they feel abandoned by the administration amid tension with a campus Palestinian group.

The college eliminated the two part-time lay positions last week, leaving the Jewish campus group with only a part-time director for the remainder of the school year. The college plans to hire a rabbi, who will work full time, by the next academic year.

Students said they were stunned by the ousters, leaving them midsemester without a crucial network of support.

“The college’s handling of the situation was really bizarre and upsetting for the entire Jewish community,” said junior Jordan Hannink, who was copresident of Wellesley College Hillel last year. “We’re going from having tremendous support to having virtually none.”

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News of the removals was reported Friday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Many Jewish students at the women’s college say they have felt uneasy this semester due to a campaign by a pro-Palestinian activist group, Wellesley Students for Justice in Palestine, which has displayed pictures of Palestinian children killed in the conflict with Israel and a poster that asks “What does Zionism mean to you?”

On the poster, students have written that Israel is responsible for murder and apartheid, among other comments, which some say goes beyond political differences to overt anti-Semitism.

Given what several students describe as an uneasy climate on campus, the removal of two trusted staff members was particularly ill-timed, students and alumnae said.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Miriam Berkowitz Blue, president of the Hillel Alumnae Board. “It’s a time when they could really use the presence of staff.”

The board has maintained oversight of the two Hillel positions in partnership with the college, Blue said. But the college eliminated the positions without consulting them, she said.

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“To be left out of this very important decision was surprising,” she said.

In a letter sent Friday, college officials wrote, “We believe that it is time to return to having a Rabbi anchor Jewish life on campus.”

“Students will have a Jewish leader who can integrate Jewish wisdom and learning into their daily lives, and who can help them make meaning of the world in connection with Jewish values, ethics, rituals, texts, and observances,” they wrote. “Having one staff member will provide a consistent presence on campus to whom students can turn when they are seeking guidance.”

The letter, written by Debra DeMeis, dean of students, and a longtime faculty member active in Jewish life on campus, said “these are critical times for Jewish life on all college campuses.”

“Wellesley stands strong in its commitment to creating an environment in which all students feel comfortable participating in the open exchange of ideas and views,” it said.

In an interview, DeMeis said the restructuring was done with the “sole purpose of strengthening Jewish life,” and that the college would begin a search for a rabbi immediately.

The current tensions on campus “underscored the need” for a full-time rabbi, she said.

David Eden, chief administrative officer for Hillel International, praised the move, saying few small colleges go to the lengths of hiring a full-time rabbi to oversee a Hillel group.

“We see this as being a huge positive step going forward,” he said.

About 8 percent of Wellesley students are Jewish, and about half of those are active in Jewish campus life, students and administrators say. The Hillel group provides a lounge for students, which includes a Kosher kitchen. On Fridays, the group offers Shabbat services, followed by dinner.

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David Bernat, the Jewish chaplain, said he was shocked by his removal, particularly in the middle of the school year, and expressed concern for students.

“They are worrying about who is going to look after their spiritual needs,” he said. Many students have found the poster campaign “quite harrowing.”

“Given the nature of the tensions, that shock and feeling of abandonment have been magnified,” he said.

The Palestinian group, in a statement, denied that the campaign had anti-Semitic undertones.

“It is important to remember that to equate criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism is as absurd as calling criticism of the Iranian government anti-Persian,” the statement said.

But senior Tali Marcus, a Hillel member, said some students have been rattled by the campaign and feel somewhat adrift.

“In a time when we really need that support, we don’t have it,” she said.


Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.