George Washington University’s Hillel is in the process of selecting a new student president. It seeks candidates who possess a “strong sense of Jewish Self” and are “willing to support others in building their own sense of Jewish self-confidence” – sensible traits for a potential Hillel president. Unfortunately, the Biden administration appears poised to repeal federal rules that ensure that religious groups like Hillel have the right to choose leaders possessing such characteristics.
As they currently stand, federal regulations prohibit federally funded colleges from penalizing religious student groups for having “leadership standards” that are “informed by sincerely held religious beliefs.” In other words, such colleges may not derecognize, or in any way penalize, religious student groups for exclusively selecting leaders who embody the principles of that group’s faith. In fact, prior to these rules, various universities – among them Indiana University, Southeast Missouri State University, and the University of Northern Colorado – did just that, determining that their anti-discrimination policies prohibited student groups from requiring their leaders to practice the group’s faith.
These existing federal regulations provide important protections for the unique religious character of student groups and enable them to thrive. That is no small matter. Religious student groups help students practice their faith, maintain a religious community on campus, diminish feelings of isolation for members of religious minorities, and combat scourges such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Sadly, those protections might be about to disappear. On February 22, the Biden administration proposed eliminating the protective regulations. This would allow colleges to prohibit religious student groups from adopting religious leadership criteria. If that happens, religious students’ only option would be to bring lengthy and expensive lawsuits attempting to challenge such prohibitions as unconstitutional. The current federal regulations offer a valuable additional layer of protection.
Some of those who support revoking the existing regulations claim that religious student groups set leadership criteria to discriminate against unpopular minorities. This suggestion is ignorant and, quite frankly, absurd. Religious student groups prefer religious leaders simply because they are uniquely well-suited to perform such roles.
To better understand why that is true, consider the activities of Jewish student groups in the New York area. According to its webpage, the Queens College Hillel Club’s “student leaders work with [Queen College] Hillel staff to create robust programming including Shabbatons, free Friday night dinners, learning opportunities, holiday celebrations, and more.” NYU’s Bronfman Center similarly advertises “vibrant student-led services” and “warm Shabbat dinners full of ruach.” They “also offer celebratory services and meals for every holiday.”
Anyone familiar with the intricacy and complexity of running a minyan on Shabbos and Yom Tov, or preparing kosher food for a Shabbos dinner, will understand why a Jewish religious student group would prefer leaders who have proven that they have the knowledge and dedication to do so successfully – to the satisfaction of its religious members. No matter how well-meaning, a Christian student serving as a Hillel president would face substantial challenges that a practicing Jewish student would not.
But the benefits of religious leadership go much deeper than that. Fully appreciating Judaism requires experiencing it firsthand. One could read a book about observing Shabbos, doing teshuvah on Yom Kippur, or reenacting the Jewish national origin story on Pesach, but that would not truly prepare him to lead a Jewish community through those practices. One must participate in those practices as a member of the community to truly internalize them; all the more so when it comes to modeling them for others. If a religious Jewish club wants to create a true Jewish community on campus, and to educate its fellow students about the meaning of Judaism, it is essential that the club be led by practicing Jewish students.
The existing rules allow Muslim and Christian clubs to exclude Jewish leaders just as surely as they protect a Jewish club’s right to exclude leaders of other faiths. This is not troublesome in the least. Indeed, the rules preserve the unique religious character – the very identity – of each group and protect them from becoming homogenized replicas of the student body at large. Campuses are far richer for having a thriving, diverse religious life.
Recently, NYU Law School’s Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA) brought a Holocaust survivor to campus as part of programming related to Yom HaShoah. Unfortunately, the group scheduled this event for one of the days of Pesach, when it was impossible for all (or very nearly all) Orthodox students to attend. This was by no means an intentional slight, and no one is demanding that JLSA should be required to have Orthodox leaders so that it can cater to Orthodox practices. Far from it. JLSA should be allowed to have whatever leaders it likes. However, if JLSA did want to prioritize having an observant Jewish leader to avoid making similar mistakes in the future, it should be allowed to do so without facing repercussions from the university. Religious student groups should have the ability to choose leaders who reflect their respective missions. Regulations that protect their ability to do so are essential to their success, and the Biden administration should reconsider its plan to revoke those regulations.
Elisheva Marcus is a law student at NYU School of Law and a Tikvah legal fellow. Howard Slugh is general counsel of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.