No Muslim Prayer Room at U-M Hillel

From the Detroit Jewish News
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman

After much discussion and a bit of dissension, there will be no Reflection Room in the University of Michigan Hillel building in Ann Arbor.

After learning that the university was seeking a place for students of all religious denominations to use for prayer and meditation, Hillel staff began discussing the possibility of offering space in their large building.

“When we heard about the search, Michael Brooks, our executive director floated the idea to Hillel’s governing board, said Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director at Hillel. “We decided if there were students looking for a meditation room we would consider publicly supporting them in that endeavor — not necessarily in our building, but generally.”

There is already one Reflection Room on campus, but it is often crowded. Since it is primarily used by Muslim students, one of their student groups requested the additional room.

When the thought was mentioned to members of Hillel’s governing board, their discussion led to a motion suggesting that if a room was opened, it be offered to Muslim students only, since they were the group in search of space.

“The resolution that was voted on was to extend an invitation to Muslim students to use the upstairs classroom at Hillel on a temporary and space-available basis,” said Monica Woll, 20, of West Bloomfield, who serves as chair of the board.

The resolution passed “by a slim majority,” according to Rabbi Miller.

As chair, Woll did not have a vote on the issue, but said, “I would have voted against it because I do not personally believe it is in line with the mission statement of Hillel.

“The room allotted to the Muslim students would have been placed alongside the rooms designated for the purposes of prayer and Torah study and therefore could have potentially prevented Jewish students from participating in these activities due to a feeling of discomfort. Because our building is funded and exists for Jewish students, in my opinion it is not right to pass a motion which could potentially prevent Jewish students from participating in said activities. The motion crossed the line if it makes even one student feel out of place.”

And it did. “Allowing Muslim students to pray in Hillel would cause many Jewish students to feel uncomfortable,” said Robert Weisenfeld, 19, a U-M sophomore from Westchester, NY.

“I believe that people in SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality), MSA (Muslim Students Association) and many other organizations hostile towards Israel — and thus Jews — would use the room for prayer,” he said. (SAFE sponsored the 2002 Second National Student Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement on the U-M campus as well as a campaign to urge U-M to divest funds from Israel.)

Weisenfeld said this issue – coupled with others – led to his resignation last week from his position as treasurer of the Hillel board of governors.

“If Hillel wants to make Jewish students comfortable, it is certainly not a good idea to attempt a religious mixer with the Muslim students at a Jewish center,” he wrote in his letter of resignation to the board. “Interaction with all kinds of people is wonderful but at a center for Jews, the idea of bringing in a contentious element of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish perspective is genuinely off kilter.

“A Jewish center should be for Jews and Jewish prayer, not a place of refuge for Muslim students to pray to their god.”

Before any further decisions could be made regarding the resolution, Woll said Susan Eklund, U-M’s interim dean of students informed her that space was designated on Central campus for the Reflection Room.

During a discussion following the announcement, Woll said, “A lot of people who voted “yes” apologized upon realizing this was not a good move for Hillel.”

Rabbi Miller said, “In theory this was a nice gesture, but in theory only. We were reaching out, offering an olive branch, trying to be neighborly to Muslim and other religious groups on campus,” he said. “Not all Muslims are bad or terrorists. There’s even a Muslim prayer room at the Knesset. But when it came down to it, in practice it was decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea. No invitation was ever sent out — or ever will be.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |