Tensions in Orange County Jewish Community Erupt

Wolf argues that Sterling’s reputation was slandered in the letter that mischaracterized her intentions. He said he feels Sterling’s position needs to be heard and that vilification will fracture the community. Wolf has called upon the president of Hillel, Matan Lurey, to address the inclusion of students who had not seen the letter, suggesting that he believes Lurey acted intentionally.

Lurey, however, insists the inclusion of names was innocent and argues that the incident has been blown out of proportion.

“Using both the contact lists in my phone, and my friends, who run two other large Jewish groups at UC Irvine, we compiled a list of students we would contact to get their approval for the response letter,” said Lurey. “Unfortunately, due to the frenzied environment ... the letter was accidentally sent out to the mailing list, where it was copied to a blog and forwarded along several other sources.”

Lurey adds that a few in the community have made inappropriate claims about his intentions and integrity, which he has found stressful.

Beyond the letter, the source of tension is the ostensible association of Hillel with the Olive Tree Initiative. Hillel denies granting any funding to the Olive Tree Initiative, but several Hillel students are involved with OTI. Further, the Rose Project, which is an initiative within the Jewish Federation of Orange County, provides funding to OTI. However, that funding is specifically for covering the trips of four to five students to Israel on the OTI trip each year.

“The Rose Project does in fact provide a nominal level of funding to support Jewish student participation in Olive Tree Initiative trips to Israel,” said Jeff Margolis, co-chair of the Rose Project. “We feel it’s important to have a Jewish presence in the OTI."

Students involved with OTI and Hillel believe the trip is a positive, life-changing experience.

“Olive Tree is a diverse learning programming where we meet with hardcore advocates on both side of the political spectrum. I do not endorse Rishmawi personally [and] neither does the Jewish community,” said Matan Lurey. “That being said, he is still a voice, and we need to listen to all voices when forwarding our own education.”

Margolis argues that providing support to students who would go on the OTI trip with or without the Rose Project’s aid makes sense. “We have confidence that they emerge from these interactions not only with their Jewish identity intact, but they are far more capable of anticipating and forming types of arguments or debates that will be necessary to adult Jewish leaders,” said Margolis.

Sterling and others, however, argue that OTI’s involvement with the International Solidarity Movement is enough to warrant the Federation to cut ties with the organization. They argue an inordinate amount of time is spent in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Despite her opposition to OTI, Sterling said her intention is not to strip Hillel of funds or a boycott of the Jewish Federation.

“I was not asking people to take their money out of Hillel. I was clear that I expect the Federation to disassociate from the OTI,” she said.

Sterling argues that Hillel and the Jewish Federation, instead of looking into her concerns, have taken up a campaign against her while sweeping the issue of OTI’s connections to the ISM under the proverbial rug.

Wolf agrees and has aired his views in a meeting with the executive director of Hillel.

“I met with Jordan Fruchtman, executive director of OC Hillel, for over an hour on Tuesday afternoon to voice my frustration and other students' frustrations with the outcome of the Monday night meeting,” said Wolf. “In this Tuesday meeting Mr. Fruchtman stated that although it would rectify the situation with the improper use of student names, sending out a retraction letter over the two listservs would hurt the credibility of the Federation and OC Hillel, and therefore it will not be done.”

In a series of private emails, individuals have suggested that the Federation and Hillel acted inappropriately with their email. Several, moreover, agree with Sterling that there is justification for cutting ties with OTI. Meanwhile, the Federation insists that it is impossible to remove students from anti-Semitic or anti-Israel points of views, and that their presence within OTI strengthens their own debate abilities and gives different sides of an argument a say within OTI.