Ari Guass is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class XIII. Ari is the Executive Director of North Carolina Hillel in Chapel Hill, NC. He can be reached at 

When I was 24 and in my first stint working for Hillel – before taking a nine-year hiatus and returning to the organization eighteen months ago – my boss, the Hillel director, was known as a maverick and a bit of a madman.  A phenomenal teacher, of whom a colleague once said, “His brain is on fire,” he reveled in the educational power of the unexpected.

One night in early October, at a student board planning meeting, one student suggested that Hillel should arrange for students to take advantage of Halloween’s door-to-door culture and collect canned food instead of candy, then donate it to a nearby food pantry.  Another student protested vehemently: “It’s a pagan holiday, and I’m deeply uncomfortable with Hillel acknowledging Halloween in any way.”

The next day, I relayed this interaction to the Hillel director.  Apoplectic, he blurted, “He’s uncomfortable?  UNCOMFORTABLE?  Since when is Judaism about being comfortable?”

That lesson has stayed with me today, a vivid reminder as my colleagues, board and I craft an educational vision for the Hillel I direct.  We try to do a tricky dance, working to create spaces and communities that are warm, welcoming, and non-judgmental, yet don’t accept complacency with the status quo. 

A handful of historical figures have spoken in different contexts about the importance of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” – regarding the newspapers, the church and the labor movement at the turn of the 20th century.  And while I wouldn’t use the term “affliction” in conversation with a student, this language nonetheless highlights my old boss’s point: we can find ourselves focusing so much on comfort that we lose sight of the value of discomfort.  We need to know when to embrace and when to nudge.  If we can create Jewish organizations that strike the right balance between comfort and discomfort, we can inspire those in our communities to grow.