How Hillel at UCLA Moved beyond Tolerance to Embrace Difference

November 29, 2022

By Julie Mokarsh Gadinsky and Rabbi Aaron Lerner (’13) for eJewishPhilanthropy

There is exactly one home-away-from-home for all Jewish students at UCLA: Hillel. That sounds beautiful, and it is. We often buck the trend of political division and hyperpolarization with hundreds of students from every perspective and identity “doing Jewish” together.

But it’s certainly not Kumbaya all the time. Our community engages in impassioned arguments, and students increasingly experience hurt and alienation when opposing sides collide.For many years, we aimed to provide a much-needed meeting ground in the highly polarized campus space that was compatible with Judaism’s educational imperative to explore divergent viewpoints. The result was that both left-leaning and right-leaning students were unhappy some of the time, but no one felt alienated all the time.

Over the past decade, however, we began to feel like more was possible, and even necessary. Shouldn’t we aspire to reach beyond mere tolerance? Could our community be strengthened by learning to appreciate difference, even if we still disagree?

With that goal in mind, we reached out to the team at Resetting the Table (RTT), an organization that seeks to foster “sacred disagreement” across political differences within and across communities. Our work together started in the student community, bringing together undergraduates with a wide range of perspectives in a “town square” style format. The goals were to strengthen our students’ relationships with each other and their ability to work together productively in the face of real differences, rather than give in to tension or avoidance.

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