Hillels respond to surge in antisemitism



April 14, 2021

“Freshman dorms are all about building community,” said Eli Wasserman, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. “I never expected to see a hate symbol against my religion in the same place where I made so many friendships just last year.”

Last January, four swastikas were found etched into the walls of a first-year dormitory at Hopkins’ music and dance conservatory, the Peabody Institute.

This hate crime was not an isolated event. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League recorded the highest number of antisemitic incidents nationwide since it began tracking them 40 years ago. Last year, Hillel International counted 178 antisemitic incidents across the 550 North American campuses it serves—an all-time high, even though some campuses were closed due to COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the hate doesn’t go away—we’ve seen it move to online settings the same way everything has moved to online settings in the past year,” said Matthew Berger, Hillel International’s vice president for strategic action programs and communications. “We’ve seen Zoom bombings of Hillel programs and targeting of Jewish students on social media.”

However, Hillels across the country are taking measures to respond to this surge in antisemitism, both reactively and proactively.

“Hillel was extremely supportive and timely in their response to the hate crime, and provided apt resources and advice,” said Hopkins junior Philip Barsky, vice president of the Jewish Students Association at Peabody.

Amid the pandemic, Hillels are continuing to be safe places for Jewish students, hosting educational webinars, and fostering relationships with cultural groups and administrators on campus.

Last summer, Hillel International launched the Campus Climate Initiative (CCI), which works with university leaders to provide training to ensure that Jewish students can express their identities and values “in whatever diverse ways they wish, free of marginalization, harassment, intimidation, and attacks,” said Mark Rotenberg, who oversees the CCI as Hillel International’s vice president for university initiatives and legal affairs.

Rotenberg said he finds it encouraging that many administrators have accepted the challenge of fighting antisemitism while simultaneously addressing the unprecedented twin imperatives of racism and COVID-19.

Similarly, students are rising to the moment and speaking up for themselves on social media when antisemitism manifests.

Hopkins Hillel Executive Director Noam Bentov appreciated students’ quick and thoughtful response to the Peabody incident.

“It filled me with a sense of pride that the Jewish future looks like it does,” he said. “We have a lot to be grateful for.”

Building relationships

Isolated incidents of antisemitism like vandalism and graffiti occur most years at The University of Texas at Austin, according to Maiya Edelson, executive director of Texas Hillel.

“We need to go about our business celebrating the Jewish calendar, engaging with Israel, and doing everything we’re going to do,” she said. “But we also need to make sure our students are educated and understand how to address and call out antisemitism.”

Edelson said it is important to be proactive by maintaining strong ties with UT administrators and Greek life. Over the past few years, Texas Hillel has prioritized interfaith programming on customs and traditions.

“We can’t hide in our silos; it’s important to be out there and create relationships with other groups so that we can understand each other better,” Edelson said. “When connections are made, deeper conversations are able to happen. ‘Hey, why don’t you tell me why this comment might be offensive?’ or ‘Tell me a bit about your family’s history’—learning about each other can really advance the fight against antisemitism.”

University of Delaware Hillel Executive Director Donna Schwartz agreed, noting that “it’s hard to hate someone that you’ve gotten to know on a deeper level.”

Last winter, UD Hillel delivered matzo ball soup to hundreds of students every week, both Jewish and not, as they returned to campus to “spread some love,” Schwartz said. And for the past seven years, UD Hillel has participated in Better Together, an interfaith space for students to talk about different topics and celebrate each other’s holidays and practices, like Passover seders, Shabbat, and Mass.

Reverend Nona Holy, who leads UD’s LUMOS Presbyterian Campus Ministry, reflected on the value of Better Together, which she advises.

“People might’ve had assumptions or been filling in the blanks because they were ignorant or uninformed about what a Jewish tradition was,” she said. “But afterwards, they had a higher comfort level and understood their Jewish colleagues on campus as, in a lot of ways, just like them: Trying to faithfully pursue a set of religious beliefs.”

Hannah Greenberg, UD ’20, who was Better Together’s vice president during her senior year, said that the program has been able to create a more accepting campus.

“When a situation arose for any group,” she said, “we were then able to use these connections to receive and provide support.”

For example, last August, an arsonist set fire to the Chabad Center in Delaware. Although the fire was not officially designated an antisemitic act, Schwartz said that many members of other cultural groups reached out, offering to help.

Campus Climate Initiative

The CCI is currently working with 10 pilot campuses to ensure a positive campus climate for Jewish students. University administrators in the cohort can speak to each other confidentially and share their best practices for addressing antisemitism.

In addition, the CCI is assessing each campus’ climate, surveying Jewish students about their experiences and recording what policies exist for things like holidays and kosher meals, which Rotenberg noted many universities have never done before.

The CCI also trains university leaders about the experiences of Jewish students. Rotenberg explained that many administrators have a “hazy understanding of what it means to be Jewish on campus these days” and an incomplete grasp on the “enormous diversity of Jewish life.” For example, he said, many university leaders are unaware that about 15% of American Jews are Jews of Color.

One part of training, Rotenberg said, is emphasizing that Nazis are not at “the core” of Jewish students’ antisemitic experiences today.

“The marginalization, the exclusion, the stereotypes, and the bullying are much more nuanced and complicated than simply referring to antisemitism as exemplified by the Holocaust,” he said. “We talk about antisemitism from both the left and the right, and then we touch on the very sensitive issue of antisemitism and anti-Zionism—where those two phenomena overlap, where they are distinct, and what campus administrators can do when these kinds of conflicts arise over Israel.”

Rotenberg believes that there is an increasing tension between upholding principles of free speech and academic freedom and building communities on campus that respect diversity and inclusion.

“Sometimes antisemitism is expressed in ways that relate to or are seen as affecting the opportunity to engage in free speech,” he said. “There are no easy answers… but the pendulum is swinging now toward an increased awareness and sensitivity that sometimes free speech is detrimental to or even severely damaging to other equally important values like inclusion and avoiding marginalization of minority populations—not just Jews.”

Although support for absolute free speech and academic freedom used to be a progressive position, Rotenberg observes, today’s undergraduates are more likely to want universities to protect them from hate speech than past generations.

The CCI will launch its second cohort of university administrators this summer. It will also partner with the American Council on Education, a leading higher education association, which will make the CCI highly visible in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space.

“One would hope that for the coming years, we’ll see a more respectful academic environment where students will be able to explore their Jewish identities without feeling that they need to hide their Stars of David, their Israeli flags, and their views on subjects touching on their Jewish identities,” Rotenberg said.