As the situation in Israel continues to escalate, Jewish organizations on college campuses are concerned about their students.
Campus Hillels and Chabad houses across the Baltimore area have been working together to keep their students safe in the current political environment. In addition to hosting pro-Israel solidarity events, campus organizations have been providing a safe space for Jewish students to voice their concerns and to educate themselves about Israel’s war against Hamas.
Students from Israel or who have families in Israel are among the most affected by the Oct. 7 attacks on the country, and Jewish campus organizations have rallied around them to support them during this time.
“We’ve been proactively reaching out to these students that we know are deeply connected [to Israel] to be sure they’re OK, because some of them have not been coming out to Hillel as much,” said Rabbi Alex Salzberg, executive director of Towson Hillel. “At the same time, though, other students have started to participate in Jewish life on campus more frequently to show their support.”
On Oct. 11, the Wednesday after the initial attacks, Towson Hillel held a vigil in memory of the victims. Nearly 200 students attended, as well as several members of the university’s faculty.
There have been a number of antisemitic incidents at college campuses in recent weeks. A student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was arrested for punching a Jewish student holding an Israeli flag at a vigil for hostages, and another student at Cornell University was arrested for threatening to kill Jewish students, while antisemitic incidents in the United States overall have increased 388% during Oct. 7-23 compared to the same period of time last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The Biden administration has said it would create a plan to counter antisemitism at universities, and several Ivy League universities have announced their own steps to address antisemitism.
But at Towson University, Salzberg noted that pro-Israel students have experienced fairly minimal harassment compared to other campuses. There were a few instances of students being shouted at, but he said he feels that Towson’s administration has been very supportive of its Jewish students.
He added that he has a very close relationship with the university’s Muslim chaplain, and the two of them have met several times to discuss the situation in Israel and in Gaza.
“Towson students are incredibly resilient and incredibly passionate,” Salzberg said. “It’s been impressive to see how incredible our students have been.”
In a video interview with The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, Beth Vander Stoep, Goucher Hillel’s assistant director, noted that many Jewish students at Goucher College have family and friends in Israel, and that some are among the missing and murdered. Since 2021, Goucher Hillel has been part of Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative, which aims to create safe spaces on campus for Jewish and pro-Israel students.
“Goucher [College] has been an amazing partner on this,” said Rabbi Josh Snyder, Goucher Hillel’s executive director, in the video interview. “We have a lot of folks who are really working with us on this issue, because what we’ve found is that Hillels and Jewish students can’t be fighting the fight against antisemitism themselves. We need partners from universities to make sure that’s a part of the larger structure of inclusivity on our campuses.”
Chabad houses on college campuses have also been working to support Jewish students.
In addition to holding student events for Israel, Rabbi Zev Gopin, executive director of Chabad of Johns Hopkins and Central Baltimore, said that they have also begun offering one-on-one counseling for students who are concerned about what is happening in Israel and would benefit from more personal support.
Gopin and his wife, Channi, have run the Johns Hopkins University’s Chabad house for over 20 years. He noted that while Jewish students worrying about antisemitic harassment is nothing new, the backlash to Israel’s military actions in Gaza have made Jewish students and faculty concerned for their safety.
“Obviously, it’s a very troubling and difficult time. We use the personal impact and the relationships we have with students to help and assist them during times like these,” he said. “The last thing we want is for people to feel uncomfortable walking around campus.”
Chabad of Johns Hopkins and Central Baltimore has been working with other on-campus Jewish organizations, including Hopkins Hillel, since the Oct. 7 attacks. They also collaborate with Chabad houses on other Baltimore-area college campuses.
Gopin said that some Jewish students have sought his guidance in part because they worry that the rise of Palestinian support on campus could lead to increased antisemitism. Johns Hopkins University was one of many colleges across the country to have students participating in a walkout protesting the Israel-Hamas War on Oct. 25, which Gopin said he found concerning.
Still, Gopin wants to take the opportunity to uplift Jewish students and help them feel proud of their religious and cultural identity.
“We’re all making a concerted effort to strengthen Jewish pride and identity on campus,” he said. “We will prevail; we will triumph; we will succeed. We will overcome our enemies, and we are trying to instill in students an understanding that every Jewish person around the world is part of this effort. Our effort is to hold our heads high and know that justice is on our side.”