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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Photograph of Rabbi Aaron Lerner with Surfboard. Image of a man, from the knees up, turned to the right with head facing the camera and appears to be middle aged. He has a beaming smile, half-closed eyes, and pinkish tan skin. He has thick black hair that is greying on the sides, seems to be clean shaven and is wearing a navy blue sweater with a white button down shirt underneath and blue jeans. He is carrying a surfboard horizontally at a slight upwards angle under one arm. The surfboard is depicting a city-like map grid with the land mass being being yellow with broad white grid lines criss crossing throughout. There are a few splotches of green on the map and on the top left section of the map is blue representing a body of water with 2 smaller rivulets going into the city on the right vertically and on the left horizontally. Slightly past the half-way point, to the right, are 4 navy blue, circle logos. The one furthest to the right has the white silhouette of a bear. Side by side, with the top one just below the bear, is a white city logo with the abstracted images of 4apartment buildings with windows, and a logo which looks like an overlapping "" forming a shape similar to a Magen David. The last logo, to the left of the previously mentioned one, looks like a white Roman helmet with a visor and a horse-like mane/ crest. On the far left side of the surfboard are the words "ללכת עם הזרם" (the letters are on their sides because the surfboard is being held horizontally) with a white wavy pattern to the left and a navy blue section to the left of that. Behind Rabbi Lerner are 2 tall bookshelves filled with Jewish books in various colors and sizes and to the left of the shelves is a grey wall.Finance, rabbinics and practical experience fuel L.A. Jewish community foundation’s new top exec