It is hard for me to believe that 25 years ago today I graduated from Emory University. I remember the ceremony like it was yesterday. It was a sunny, 90+ degree, 100% humidity day in Atlanta when graduation started at 10:00 a.m.. Our commencement speaker was Mikhail Gorbachev, who delivered his 30 minute speech in Russian followed by 30 minutes from a translator. People were melting. It was miserable, despite the expected joy of graduating. And then the roll call began for students to walk across the stage and receive their diploma. Thank goodness my last name starts with a “B” since I was able to get out before I lost another 10 pounds under my black robe.
When I went to Emory, the student body was about 30% Jewish (probably still is today). It was a diverse campus with an active Greek Life, multiple clubs and activities, plenty of involved and apathetic students, athletic programs, and an incredible array of Jewish studies classes (we should be very proud of our own local campuses and their offerings). It was a relatively quiet campus with few issues and confrontations.
Unfortunately, the college experience seems to have changed. Sadly, students continue to report a rise in hate speech and bigotry on campus — ethnic and racial minorities mocked, swastikas painted on buildings, speakers shouted down and other hateful incidents. While Jews are not the only group that has been targeted, many of these incidents have in fact been directed at Jewish students.
Eric Fingerhut, President of Hillel International, recently wrote, “Today, old hatreds are taking new forms. One is the increasingly violent and abusive tactics of the anti-Israel movement. In particular, we have been aggressively calling attention to a new form of bigotry, where some in the anti-Israel movement want to bar Jewish students from social-justice coalitions unless they condemn the Jewish state’s mere existence. Another is the presence of white nationalists disseminating racist and bigoted rhetoric on college campuses.”
There is no room for hatred on campus, no matter where it comes from, and no matter the cause.
It is important that incoming college students be aware of what's happening on campuses so they can be prepared with possible solutions to problems they might encounter. Presenters one may agree/disagree with should have the opportunity to speak. Given today's environment students must understand that not everyone shares the same feelings, whether for certain issues or even Israel. Yet, the openness and willingness to allow “others” to share their perspective is of great importance.
One of our community’s goals is for students to feel good about being Jewish and about Israel. They can be educated through our synagogue supplementary school programs and via Jewish youth groups and camps prior to college. They need to know accurate information about the history of Israel and its ongoing commitment to and pursuit of an ultimate peace and security solution. Nothing should prevent them from being a proud Jew and supporter of Israel in their own way on campus.
Building a strong Jewish community on campus is the first step. This is not something that only happens during the academic school year. Federation’s partner agencies Oregon Hillel (serving University of Oregon and Oregon State University), Chabad at Reed College, and Greater Portland Hillel (serving Portland State University, Lewis and Clark, and Reed College) are working year-round to build stronger communities on campus, in coalition with other student groups and in partnership with the university administrations.
When we do this work with Jewish students we are in fact doing it on behalf of everyone on campus — not just Jewish students — because intolerance against one group on campus is related to a broader problem of respect for any group. And we know that we must speak up and stand up for tolerance and inclusivity for all students. This is a Jewish value – as Hillel said, “If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?”
For the Jewish Federation, Hillel, Chabad, Jewish fraternities and sororities, Jewish faculty, and other programs on campus, the responsibility of ensuring a safe and welcoming Jewish community at universities is a sacred responsibility.
For those graduating high school seniors who are finalizing their college selections and preparing for their freshmen year ahead, we hope you utilize the Jewish resources and opportunities on campus. Be proud of being Jewish. Be active on your campus. And I hope you have as positive experience as I did 25 years ago.
On a different note, last week I shared information about the Countdown to the 6 Day War Project, a weekly and then daily series of videos using archival footage to show how the dramatic and suspenseful events of 1967 transformed the State of Israel.
In this first of 12 videos, you will learn about the regional atmosphere in 1967, and the events that precipitated the breakout of war.
I also want to share that in a major win for Jewish advocacy and Israel, ALL 50 United States Governors and the Mayor of Washington, DC have signed on to the American Jewish Committee’s Governors United Against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). This is a major blow to those calling for a boycott of the Jewish state and demonstrates that support for Israel transcends partisan politics and that leaders from across America continue to stand with the State of Israel.
Last call…this is a special weekend for young adults in our community. If you are between the ages of 22-40 please join us for the Hackathon! A Shabbat dinner will be from 6:00 - 8:30 p.m. this evening and Sunday will be a day of innovation and design thinking culminating in a project pitch and the chance to receive seed funding for winning projects. Both events will be held at the MJCC. Please contact Rachel Nelson for more information.