Of Encampments, Anti Semitism And Jewish Students: A View From Campus | Rabbi Meir Goldberg

By Rabbi Meir Goldberg, Director of Meor JX campus network – an Olami affiliate 
As the semester winds down and students finish up finals, we complete what has been the most tumultuous year on campus, in the twenty years that I have been a Rabbi at Rutgers. Never in the last twenty years have college campuses taken such a central role in the national news cycle, nor in the collective consciousness of Jews nationwide. Never before have I gotten so much communication, asking me how the students are, how we relate to the University administrations on which we work and expressing such genuine concern for our students. I would like to broadly answer some questions that we are often asked and give an overview of the state of Jewish life from the perspective of our JX campus programs that we run at Meor Rutgers JX, Meor Columbia/NYC campuses, Meor Princeton, Olami Northwestern and Olami Hofstra.
Are Jewish Students in Danger? At Columbia there has been intense harassment and intimidation. It is unclear if it will stop there. At the other campuses we are at, Jewish students aren’t in physical danger on campus. In some cases, students have been doxxed by Palestinian activists. Others have been randomly harassed, yelled at, etc. But to my knowledge, on our campuses, no physical threats appear imminent. As someone who has been visibly Jewish their entire life, walking around on campus even with the threat of verbal harassment never scared me too much, since it is something that I, my friends and children have grown up with. I have had pennies thrown at me, been cursed out by passing cars, harassed on subways, etc. My children have experienced the same on the streets of NJ. But for many of our students who are generally secular and aren’t visibly Jewish, this harassment is something that they have never had to deal with before and it has shaken them up very much. Many of our students have parents who experienced anti semitism in the former Soviet Union and were sure that America was different. And while that was true for a while, sadly this is no longer the case.
Do the Encampments pose a danger to Jewish students? Generally not. The encampment at Columbia was well documented. I and other students and alumni visited the Rutgers encampment. While there were around 100 or so students (and many of them outside agitators who were too old to be students), not much seemed to be going on. There were well armed police there and for the most part it resembled an old April tradition of Rutgers students camping out at Vorhees Mall, “tent city”. Sadly, there were the anti Israel signs and slogans prominent, but Jews could walk by. Once they started to disturb finals, the University asked them to leave.
Has this driven students away from or toward Jewish life? It depends. For students with some prior Jewish or Israel consciousness, the events since Oct 7 have caused a great increase in Jewish pride, Israel activity and a general thirst to want to know more about Judaism, Israel and our roots. While post covid saw a 20% increase in Jewish learning and activity for Olami worldwide (the 300+ Olami worldwide branches saw an increase of 10,000 students in 2022 for a total of 60,000 students, up from 50,000 the year before), Oct 7 has brought us students that we never knew existed, including many Israelis who were previously hesitant to study Torah or attend a Shabbaton. Some students who previously had a circle of non Jewish friends, suddenly found themselves ostracized from those communities, since they were now viewed as allies of “white/Jewish colonizers supporting genocide.” Finding our open and warm campus community of like minded young Jews has been a lifeline of social and spiritual oxygen for them.
On the other hand, it is highly likely that students with little previous Jewish identity have been driven further underground, fearful to identify with an ancestry and religion of which they have little knowledge or understanding. Many woke students have, sadly, identified with those who hate us. Our Meor and Olami staff have little connection with such students, since they would usually not want to attend our programs in the first place.
Have University administrations been sympathetic or helpful to Jewish students? It depends on which University. It’s important for us to be realistic about the nature of the 21st century American University and what the cultural and social zeitgeist is. Universities today are bastions of leftist and woke ideology. So even if a University President understands that Israel is not at fault and that Jewish students shouldn’t be treated any worse than students of other minorities, they have to deal with their peers who may not share such sentiments. They are walking a tightrope and one false step might send the anti Israel mob after them. While this doesn’t excuse much of the unequal treatment that Jewish students receive, it gives us a peek into the world of higher education and why they may act the way they do.
It is also important to know that some professors are openly anti Israel or sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. This creates unfair pressure and some intimidation to Jewish students.
At Rutgers, we met regularly with University administration. While they were open to hearing our concerns, we were disappointed that they would not increase security at our events, always balanced a statement against anti semitism with obligatory mention of Islamophobia and always prevented the students from counter demonstrating directly in front of “Students for Justice in Palestine,” who seemed to be demonstrating against Israel every week. We were also disappointed in their allowance of the encampment and the alleged capitulation to the pro Palestinian demands, though in a later statement, President Holloway of Rutgers seemed to walk back many of the Rutgers pledges to the protestors. Maybe it is the Yeshiva education that I was raised with, but I am not so surprised at how we are treated, because this is always how Jews have been treated in golus (diaspora).
What has been the students’ response to all of this? This has been the silver lining in all of this. For those who have doubted the pride, passion and Jewish vitality of our younger generation, I am happy to report that you have been proven wrong. Post Oct 7 Jewish campus life has been a whirlwind of rallies, mitzvah campaigns (our whatsapp tefillin chats, where students post selfie’s putting on tefillin, are going strong), weekly Jewish learning matching local community members and our students , Shabbatons, Meor trips to Israel, Poland etc. We have had so much support from the Jewish community, including Rutgers campus concerts by Shlomo Reich, Yaakov Schweckey and “Thank You Hashem”. Our Pesach sedarim were full. Rabbi Zach Horwitz of Meor Columbia squashed as many students into his Manhattan apartment as he could fit for the Seder, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of Columbia students had gone home and were learning virtually.
Israel based learning programs (with hasbarah and insights into both modern Israel and Torah related to Israel) have taken off at Rutgers, Columbia, Hofstra, Northwestern and more. Students have been energized by all of this and are proudly Jewish, enthusiastically supporting Israel and are engaged with the Jewish community. Olami has provided our campuses with tremendous Israel resources as well.
How do we move forward? We have the greatest opportunity in 50 years to reach out to those Jews who are less affiliated and we dare not let this slip away. Jews with little previous connection are asking more questions than ever before. They are looking for community, Shabbos, answers to tough questions and want to know why those they formerly considered friends and allies have now abandoned them. If we don’t fill that void with reaching out and inviting them into our homes and communities for Shabbos meals, chavrusah learning or social connections, we will have to give an accounting to Hashem as to how we could have let our brethren down. Yes, the anti semitism can be frightening at times, no, we don’t know how young non Jews will view us in the coming years. There are no easy answers. But what we need to do is to spread the fundamentals of Shabbos, Torah and Ahavas Yisroel (love of our fellow Jew) to all of our brothers and sisters. Now is our moment! This is our time!
Rabbi Meir Goldberg
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