You’ve probably seen our campus even if you’ve never visited. Here at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the heart of Manhattan, the cast and crew of Law & Order SVU filming in our atrium and conference rooms is a common sight. When I became Director of Hillel at John Jay this year, little did I know that our experience would resemble that popular police drama, tensions punctuated by an anti-Semitic crime and ending with a made-for-TV moment. We owe our success to four “Tenets of Success” developed in consultation with other Hillel professionals and Hillel International. Like the real cops turned out by John Jay’s renowned criminal justice program—and the TV detectives played by Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T—we worked as a team and built a solid case for the growth of our Hillel. And like any feel-good ending, the good guys (in this case, everyone) won.
In October, two John Jay students called me. A group on campus was staging a protest that afternoon, and members of Hillel—then a small club run by these two students—felt marginalized and targeted by the protestors’ rhetoric. They interpreted this as just the latest of several suspected anti-Semitic acts on campus. That cultural and political divisions pervade our campus life is inevitable. John Jay is one of the most diverse colleges in the world: Not including English, our students speak 115 different native languages. For that 23% not including the United States, our students come from 157 different countries. Yet, as the semester continued, tensions rose. Protests escalated to include hateful and anti-Semitic language, and Jewish students, who were left to fend largely for themselves without a dedicated Hillel professional on campus, were understandably reactive instead of proactive.
As the fall term ended, the plight of Hillel at John Jay College had made national headlines. Some Jewish students told reporters that they were afraid to come to campus, not to mention hesitant to share their heritage, religion, and culture. Between semesters, as the part-time advisor to Hillel, I consulted with Hillel International, JCRC, and UJA. What could we do to make Hillel members feel comfortable at John Jay?
As a current faculty member and former member of the college administration, I transitioned roles and became Hillel @ John Jay’s dedicated Director. With the help of Hindy Poupko at JCRC, we decided to relaunch Hillel with a strategic plan to grow the club, identify strong student leaders, ingratiate ourselves with the larger community and administration, and offer positive programming that would instill pride in our students. How could we achieve these goals where the Hillel students are a minority and frequent victims of hate speech?
Our transformation began in December. We met to discuss our concerns with college administration. I approached my colleagues on the faculty to hear their concerns about hate speech in the classroom. We asked students to describe what a more welcoming campus would look like. And we decided to act towards creating this vision and achieving the mission of Hillel International: to enrich the lives of Jewish students worldwide.
To reach our goals, Hillel International paired me with experienced Hillel professionals from across the country. I am especially grateful to my mentor, Ilya Bratman, from neighboring Baruch College, as well as Dan Rosenberg and the amazing team at Hillel International’s offices in DC. With their guidance, and under the amazing advisement of JCRC Managing Director Hindy Poupko, our team created Four Tenets of Success to turn this struggling student club into a full-fledged chapter. These Tenets are worth sharing, as our example may serve other Hillel professionals.
1. We can’t do this alone.
Seeing the big picture can be difficult under stress, but we empowered the students to recognize that they are part of a larger community. Help is only a call, tweet, or text away—and that goes for us Hillel professionals, too. Finding a mentor is crucial, especially when establishing a new chapter or if you are the sole professional on campus. Even better is forging partnerships with other local chapters as I was able to do with Baruch College Hillel. It’s also crucial to remember that Jews everywhere are one community. Local parents from the neighboring Jewish day school offered thoughtful suggestions and are helping us build an advisory board. Senior faculty members offered insights. Our students are learning from their example.
2. Establish relationships with the entire student body.
We can’t engage all 15,000 students on campus, but we surely try! I’m a faculty member who works closely with students on faculty-student engagement (FSE) outside the classroom. This experience proved invaluable. As a Hillel professional, it’s important to look beyond the walls of our offices. Meet students for coffee, introduce yourself to student leaders of other clubs, and attend meetings of Student Council. As part of our relaunch, we wanted to establish ourselves as part of the fabric of the school. So we were sure to have a presence at large campus-wide events such as our Admitted Transfer Students Day. Hillel is for everyone, and we wanted to share this sense of inclusivity with the school.
3. Establish a strong working relationship with school administration.
It’s hard to believe that a school in bustling Manhattan—the world’s melting pot, and a city with the largest Jewish population outside of Jerusalem—could face anti-Semitism and hate speech. Unfortunately, hatred lives everywhere. Thankfully, John Jay’s President, Jeremy Travis, was receptive to our concerns. Our V.P. of Student Affairs, Lynette Cook-Francis, was equally enthusiastic about creating the change we envisioned. Having the administration on board was crucial.
4. Remind ourselves that every student deserves an educational experience with positive cultural programming.
We love our students. They’re the reason why we do what we do. When faced with infrastructural hurdles and mounting instances of hate speech, some students threw up their hands. It would have been easy to ignore the concerns of a few students on a huge campus. But then we wouldn’t accomplish Hillel International’s mission of embodying students with knowledge and positive cultural and religious experiences. Every student deserves this, and it’s our job to facilitate this experience for as many students as possible.
In late January, we hosted our first event, leadership communications training for our students. They learned effective communications skills, and how to talk to their peers about the cultural and religious tensions on campus. This was followed by a cultural exchange, facilitated by Anna Langer, in which a dozen visiting Hillel students from Israel met with our students, many of whom are Israeli. Friendships were forged, and the two-hour conversation could have lasted for days. A few weeks later, despite a blizzard, we hosted a speaker who spoke about the Jewish-Muslim relationship.
And then, just as the dark days of winter seemed to be coming to a close swastikas were discovered on campus. Hillel @ John Jay was back in the headlines, with news outlets pitting students against the administration. Hate-speech vandalism against other religious and cultural groups also appeared throughout the building.
Thanks to our Four Tenets of Success, we turned an anti-Semitic and potential hate speech crisis into a multicultural learning experience for our entire student body.
Last week, Hillel @ John Jay hosted the first-ever Spring Break Diversity Seder officiated by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of NYU Hillel. Given a student body divided by hate speech and cultural differences, we were afraid that nobody would attend. Instead, the event was a wild success. Some in the administration called it the most successful student event of the year and expressed hope that the Diversity Seder would become an annual event. The reason for their enthusiasm? Every student from every cultural and religious group on campus attended the seder, as did our Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Jules Kroll, Mrs. Lynn Kroll, President Jeremy Travis, the Dean of Students, the V.P. of Student Affairs, and the Head of Student Life, as well as numerous faculty members and staff. Neighbors of John Jay College attended the Seder with their children. Each table of students shared their own Four Questions about tolerance and diversity.
In the week since the Seder, students and faculty from all groups have been emailing each other with plans for more events with Hillel @ John Jay. We are starting to be viewed not only as a group for promoting Jewish education, scholarship, and community, but also as campus leaders working to create a safe space for all students.
We may not have a dedicated space for our chapter, nor the level of funding we need to accomplish even larger events, but we also know that we’re just getting started. At the start of the school year, the thought of a thriving Hillel at John Jay College of Criminal Justice was a fantasy. We still have a long road ahead of us, and much more work to do, but our goals are well within our reach. Even a TV writer couldn’t write a better finale.
Jessica Diller Kovler is a professor in the history of psychiatry at John Jay College, The City University of New York and Director & Faculty Advisor of Hillel @ John Jay.
You can visit their Facebook group and email Professor Kovler at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictured above: Interfaith Seder at John Jay Hillel, March 2015.