Repair of the World

by George Bogden:

Posters cover the thick oak doors of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. As on other university buildings, the signs advertise guest speakers, trips abroad, and service opportunities. But, in fact, the center’s modest facade on Wall Street hides one of Yale’s most prominent forums for discussing and addressing social ills.

The center, which houses the Yale Hillel and the Young Israel House at Yale, is the home of Jewish culture on campus. Its mission, however, has grown over time to be more than just religious. As members of the center have become interested in service work and social action, the center has devoted resources to their causes. Today, the Slifka Center is not just the hub of Jewish life, but also a unique gathering place for groups organizing social action.

A classroom building on Yale's campus. (Courtesy Manning)

The Slifka Center has empowered students to lead social justice initiatives. Beginning last year, a new budgeting process has put resource allocation in the hands of a student board. Lauren Jacobson, co-founder of STAND, as well as a Jews for Justice organizer and former Hillel board member, recounted to the Globalist that “in the past, the staff did this entirely.” Today, she said, students are starting their own projects and asking for staff support, whereas in previous years only the center’s staff initiated projects.

The Slifka Center is not the primary center for social action organizing at Yale. Dwight Hall, which houses the majority of charitable causes and activist groups on campus, has a long history. Yet the Slifka Center is unique among Yale’s religious centers in its support for many diverse social action groups. Organizations like STAND raise awareness, collect relief funds, and advocate for political action, while organizations like DESK—the center’s downtown evening soup kitchen—act locally on a regular basis.

In this diverse and socially-engaged atmosphere, Yale students address even politically sensitive topics. Jews for Justice, whose members are described on the Slifka Center’s website as caring about “social, economic, and environmental justice,” has been showing a controversial film series called Land of the Settlers. The series advocates peace through the dismantlement of Israeli settlements. Although it was too contentious to air on Israel’s public television station, it continues to be shown through the center with few objections.

Student leaders credit dialogue and respect among members of different denominations for sustaining student involvement in the many social causes supported by the center. As Eli Bildner, vice president for social action of the Yale Hillel, explained, “It’s a very accepting community, so there’s not a lot of outcry about politics.”

Student organizers at the center acknowledge that Judaism’s textual call for community service plays a role. According to Jacobson, “In a lot of Jewish institutions and synagogues, Tikkun Olam—repair of the world—is harked back to.”

Centuries of scholarship have woven rich interpretation and often divergent analysis of the Tikkum Olam concept. And many students agree that it does not completely explain the large social action following at the center. Jacobson added, “For other people, like me, being involved in social action is the way I connect with the Jewish community.”

Bildner went further, saying, “The Jewish community, for whatever reason, is very committed and caring. I do social action because it makes me happy.”

The center’s social action initiatives continue to expand. Bildner expressed excitement about next year: “I just met with Rabbi Lina and someone from the Red Cross, and it sounds like next year we’ll be running disaster-preparedness training.” It is clear that students can expect new and diverse opportunities for taking part in social justice through the center. And while it will remain first and foremost a gathering place for Yale’s Jewish community, its members will continue to call for social justice in New Haven and the world beyond.