Some angry as Stanford Hillel alters High Holy Day plan

A controversial change in Stanford's popular Hillel High Holy Day programming may leave thousands of Peninsula and South Bay Jews scrambling to find a place to pray.

Usually more than 4,000 people join Hillel to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Stanford each year, but only 2,650 will have a seat this September and October.

Hillel's board of directors has decided to eliminate one Liberal service from both its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lineups.

Additionally, while services will remain free for Stanford students, faculty and staff, the Jewish community at-large will be facing a $180 per-person minimum donation to attend the formerly free services.

The change, announced in a letter from board president Robert Rosenzweig dated July 28, has drawn an unpopular reaction from the South Bay community.

Rosenzweig himself has received several questioning e-mails "from people who are disappointed and angry." An advertisement in today's Bulletin on Page 9A addresses the subject with "an open letter to the community."

In an interview, Rosenzweig maintained that the change was necessary, stating the need for Hillel to re-steer its resources of time and money toward the Stanford student community.

"Staff that should be spending time bringing in new students during the fall is totally consumed for weeks with the management of the high holiday services," said Rosenzweig. "The students are being short-changed. People sometimes tend to forget Hillel is there for the students. Without the students it doesn't have any purpose."

He said the money saved by canceling one service as well as ticket revenues from the other two will go toward paying off the services and strengthening Hillel's year-long programming.

He also said Hillel will accommodate as many community members as it can — approximately 600 — but encourages them to seek out alternative venues.

"Since the 1960s, when Hillel first began offering services at Stanford…congregational resources have grown," he wrote in the letter that was mailed to community members. "All who wish to attend High Holiday services can find a place to do so."

Janice Weinstein, executive director of New Bridges, an umbrella organization of the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, agreed that many alternative resources exist — some free, some not.

Independent, Liberal Congregation Etz Chayim, for instance, led by former Hillel director Rabbi Ari Cartun, will offer a three-month trial membership to those who come to its services.

However, the man who led Stanford Hillel High Holy Day services for 21 years noted, "The majority of those who attend Hillel's High Holiday services are not in the market to affiliate. They see [Hillel] as a convenient option."

While Cartun expects at least 1,000 people displaced by the change, his congregation in Palo Alto can seat only 200 of them. Between the other Peninsula congregations he believes "we'll be able to absorb them all."

Weinstein is optimistic that the community will see Hillel's changes as an opportunity to explore other South Bay Jewish services.

However, she also fears many will take it as a slap in the face.

"Some people, sadly,…will just conclude this is, yet again, another example where it only comes down to money," she said. "People are outraged at the idea that they have to pay to pray. But their money is what keeps [Hillel] open."

As a resource for unaffiliated and unconnected South Bay Jews, New Bridges is attempting to help spread Hillel's message by providing information to the community on alternative High Holy Day venues. The group is creating flyers for more than 900 community members, some who belong to synagogues, some who do not.

"We are concerned that we are going to be deluged with calls from people asking, 'Where are we going to go?'" said Wendie Bernstein Lash, the New Bridges assistant director.

Lash, who has gone to the Hillel services in the past and donated money, did not receive Rosenzweig's letter and is worried that she is not the only oversight.

"We anticipate there are going to be people showing up at Hillel expecting to celebrate the High Holidays and not being able to," said Lash. "The question is, how do you get the message out to people who are not already connected to the Jewish community."

Palo Alto resident Joy Kellman, who has attended the Hillel services with her family since 1972, was also unaware of the change before being contacted by the Bulletin.

While she said she understood the reasoning, she believes it is a big mistake. A former member of the now defunct Jewish Community Building Network, she believes it will force much of the community to "do what many Jews do and not observe the holiday at all."

"Our family is caught," she said. "[Hillel's services] have always served my needs tremendously."

But after a short pause for deliberation she added: "I guess see their point. Hillel's not really about serving my needs."