A new student group, Penn Chavurah, aims to create a space for progressive Jews on campus outside of Penn Hillel.
The group plans to hold Shabbat dinners, celebrate Jewish holidays, and host other community building activities in accordance with public health guidelines. In the coming academic year, the group plans to start a food co-op in an off-campus house, partially modeled after the Bayit Jewish food co-ops at Columbia University and Wesleyan University. Penn Chavurah hosted its first meeting on Jan. 10 over Zoom, which was attended by about 15 students.
Students founded Penn Chavurah in large part to create a new space for building the Jewish community at Penn, according to College senior and Chavurah organizer Jay Falk.
“I just wanted this to be a space to really, literally, just have friends — have Jewish friends and be Jewish together,” Falk said.
Although progressive politics inform the character of Penn Chavurah, the organizers do not envision it as a center for progressive activism, College senior and Chavurah organizer Rachel Steinig said.
"We just want it to be a space where we can build Jewish community without it having to be politicized,” she said.
Penn Hillel has not embodied the level of inclusivity that Penn Chavurah aims to uphold, Steinig said. She added that most of the progressive Jews she knows at Penn have never felt comfortable in Hillel, despite Hillel's stated commitment to welcoming all students.
“We support a robust range of diverse and pluralistic students and student experiences across campus," Interim Director at Penn Hillel Gabe Greenberg wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "We welcome the opportunity to support all students, Jewish and non-Jewish, in their journeys towards fuller self-authorship and adulthood.”
College sophomore and Chavurah organizer Benjamin Moss-Horwitz, a former DP reporter, said that Hillel’s political commitment to Israel makes it an exclusionary space for those who do not share its political stances.
“Since the introduction of the word ‘Zionism’ as a concept, there were thousands and thousands of Jews who were not Zionists and who were anti-Zionists like me, and so the problem with Hillel is that they’re trying to simultaneously be a home for all Jews at Penn, and they’re also trying to be an Israeli advocacy organization,” Moss-Horwitz said.
Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines prohibit Penn Hillel from hosting groups or speakers that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” In years past, Hillel International has threatened legal action against Hillel chapters that ignore these guidelines.
Penn Chavurah is considering joining Judaism On Our Own Terms, formerly known as Open Hillel, for an alternate form of Jewish community and organization. JOOOT national organizer Rakhel Silverman, who spoke at Penn Chavurah's first meeting, said JOOOT works to connect independent Jewish communities on college campuses with rabbis or rabbinic students, funding for campus programming, and a network of other independent Jewish communities.
Unlike Hillel International, JOOOT does not require its chapters to limit the types of programming they organize, Silverman said.
Despite Penn Chavurah's goal of creating a Jewish community outside of Hillel, Falk, Steinig, and Moss-Horwitz said that Penn Hillel staff members have been remarkably supportive of Penn Chavurah.
“I applaud and support them in finding their Jewish voices and growing Jewishly, whatever that looks like to them," Greenberg said. "We’re here for them and we would love to support them more substantively and more robustly, however we can.”