You might think the head of a Hillel is thinking about Shabbat dinner, or the building, or the staff, or the dollars to pay for all of the above.
Maybe so, but at Madison Hillel, Greg Steinberger, president and CEO, is also deeply involved in issues of antisemitism. As the culture of schools nationwide has turned increasingly inhospitable for Jews, Steinberger has been addressing and learning from the problem.
He believes he can get to the promised land through the slow, hard work of relationships and discourse.
“We care deeply and want to be seen by the university as really an indispensable partner,” Steinberger said. “And we have to find a way to wake up every day, and interact and be seen as an important resource to them. So, how do we be firm? How do we interrogate their thinking around questions to make change?”
The mission keeps him busy: He’s leading the dean of arts of sciences on a tour of the Madison Hillel building. He’s on a Zoom with university staff. He’s calling an administrator about an allegation of antisemitism among students. He’s emailing a Jewish student out of the blue about an odd situation, offering to get coffee. He’s doing a presentation with two students, to the editorial board of the “Badger Herald.”
Or he’s at Bascom Hall, meeting with Michael Blumenfeld, executive director, Wisconsin Jewish Conference; the diversity officer for UW-Madison; and other school officials. Blumenfeld remembers that meeting as the first “face-to-face” in a series of contacts on what to do and how to have an ongoing process, with rising antisemitism and after the 2021 Rosh Hashanah scheduling conflict came to light.
“There’s a lot of players, which I might have to interact with, to elevate the change,” Steinberger said. The UW System is a big one and it’s divided up like a microcosm of American federalism, with autonomy for schools – to a point. There are UW System Administration officials. There are UW-Madison officials. There are officials at other schools.
One of the challenges, according to Steinberger and Blumenfeld, is that Jewish students don’t fit into an easy box. Is Judaism just a religion? Is it an ethnic group? What does it mean that many Jewish students are not observant but care deeply about their Judaism? The folds and nuances of Jewish culture can be confusing to non-Jews, even those who are professionals working specifically in diversity, equity and inclusion. Meanwhile, there are staff transitions and that can complicate matters and learning.
Steinberger is “on the campus. He’s in the weeds. He’s working with them at a different level,” said Blumenfeld.
The situation is not fixed, Steinberger said. He recalled one recent University-affiliated event that was in conflict with a major Jewish holiday; he got on the phone and worked it out.
“It hasn’t shown institutional learning, right? To be on offense to not make these offenses,” he said. “But there is institutional learning; when I call a vice chancellor and bring it up, they seem to be jumping on these issues.”
Steinberger said: “I’ve always had good relationships with administration. I certainly have many more now.”