The potential of facing anti-Semitism in college is unfortunately a real fear for Jewish students and their parents.
Anti-Semitic incidents and speech are becoming more blatant and pronounced, with the latest face of anti-Semitism being anti-Israel and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS activists claim that the movement is simply working to end international support for Israel’s alleged oppression of Palestinians by calling for boycotts on Israel’s goods and services; but in reality, BDS has become a cover for anti-Semitic attacks on Israel and Jews in general.
The number of anti-Semitic events on college campuses has been rising steadily since the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 204 anti-Semitic events on college campuses in 2017, an 89% increase from 2016. In 2018, 201 anti-Semitic events on college campuses were reported – including the physical and verbal attack on two Jewish Towson University students in April 2018.
Jewish parents across the U.S. are concerned about these trends and are seeking ways to prepare their college-aged children for what they might face on campus. The students themselves are wondering whether they will be safe on campus.
Both parents and students want to know: “What can I do to be ready if I face anti-Semitism?”
The JT reached out to several local colleges’ Hillel chapters to learn what can be done to help college students be prepared. We also got insights from Amalia Phillips of the Center for Jewish Education’s (CJE) Israel High program, where educators go around to public and private schools with the goal of preparing students for potential anti-Semitism.
What is currently being done?
The Hillels and Chabads serve as campus “home bases” for Jewish college students. However, there are two particular ways Hillel organizations work to help Jewish students feel safe and stay safe on campus. The first is maintaining connections with other religious and cultural groups on campus.
“We work with our students to create a warm, welcoming and inclusive community,” said Noam Bentov, executive director at Johns Hopkins (JHU) Hillel. “We also work with our many allies on campus … to make sure students feel supported and cared for.”
Towson University (TU), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Goucher College and JHU Hillels all have partnerships with fellow religious groups – particularly Muslim groups – on campus to help educate others on Judaism and Israel, such as TU’s Tigers for Israel organization.
The second method is making sure there is an established Jewish presence on campus.
“If we are known to the community, [if] we are visible and present every which way we can be, then that already sets the stage for a feeling of safety and ideally not just the feeling … that there is actual safety there,” said Rabbi Jeremy Fierstein, executive director and rabbi of UMBC Hillel. “Even on a more micro-scale … that level of presence really is a difference-maker. Not being afraid to engage in conversation with anyone and everyone is [also] a huge piece of being present.”
Outside of Hillels, there is Israel High, a program founded by The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and the CJE in the 2015-16 school year.
“[Our objective is to] prepare students in Baltimore … heading off to college within the next few years, but who may not have the tools and knowledge to stand proud and confident in the face of [anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment],” said Amalia Phillips, CJE director of the Israel and overseas education department and former director of Israel High.
Israel High educates students on Israel and their Jewish identities. The program also works to “train professional adults in schools and youth groups to be more effective resources for information and guidance around the issues of Israel and anti-Semitism on college campuses,” according to Phillips.
What helps in combating anti-Semitism?
Education is key to combating anti-Semitism, be it teaching Jewish students what anti-Semitism is and what to do when faced with it, or educating non-Jewish individuals about Judaism, Israel and the history of anti-Semitism.
“We keep education and zero tolerance for anti-Semitism and hate speech at our forefront,” said Bentov. “We … offer training and classes to better inform students and equip them with tools to make sure they are confident and well-articulated in case they need to respond. We also work with the university … to make sure that students are supported in case they encounter anti-Semitism.”
Going hand-in-hand with educating people outside the Jewish faith is forging connections with other faith-based groups.
“I believe one of the most effective ways to combat anti-Semitism is for the Jewish community to build intentional bridges with communities of faith and … shared identity,” said Rabbi Josh Snyder, executive director and rabbi of Goucher Hillel. “When we have each other’s backs, we are stronger and less afraid.”
It is also important to establish connections between a campus’s Jewish community and the school’s administration, staff and faculty, as “having that direct relationship really helps,” Fierstein said.
One of the strongest instruments in the “combatting anti-Semitism” toolkit is love and positivity.
“I always like to say freedom of speech is one of our greatest strengths, so use it to our advantage,” said Fierstein. “If someone is speaking hate, you should stand next to them and speak love louder.”
In a student’s day-to-day life, there are several important institutions that can ready them to face and handle anti-Semitism: schools/educators; parents/family; and youth groups.
For outside resources, schools are encouraged to partner with Israel High and other “bridge” programs, enabling Jewish students to meet with Hillel staff or current Jewish students. As for inside resources, make sure Jewish students are aware of the presence of Jewish campus organizations and can reach them.
College guidance counselors are a key player in making Jewish students aware of Jewish campus life. Having these individuals “armed with as much information about what Jewish life on campus looks like and who the purveyors of it are,” as Fierstein said, lessens the number of steps Jewish students need to take to find their place on campus. Students can be made aware of what resources for Jewish life and support exist at their chosen campus so they are “better equipped … to thrive in the college of their choice,” said Bentov.
Even simply having the Hillel College Guide Magazine, a comprehensive guide to Jewish life on college campuses, available “so people can see it and the self-identified, self-selected Jews can pick it up” plants the first seed of Jewish students finding a safe place on campus, Fierstein says.
“It’s important that guidance counselors name these things as resources for students,” he said. “If a student comes to a campus, maybe they’re not looking for [Jewish life on campus]. But [if] an anti-Semitic incident happens, they know where to turn.”
Lisa Bodziner, executive director of the TU Hillel, encourages students to visit campuses and, while there, connect with the Hillels and Chabads to learn firsthand about Jewish campus life – and more importantly, establish an important Jewish connection on-campus before classes even begin.
Having an open discussion with your child about anti-Semitism is also recommended, as tough as it might be. Such a conversation “arm[s] the child with the knowledge that [anti-Semitism] exists” and makes them aware that they might be affected directly by it at some point, according to Fierstein.
Talking about potential scenarios also helps the child to build a toolkit of ways to “both safely remove yourself from the situation while potentially having a meaningful response to it,” he said.
And remember: your child is not alone.
“We are here to help,” Bentov said. “No one should be facing hate or anti-Semitism, but if students were to face these challenges, they should not feel alone. Hillel has the knowledge and resources to help and work with the student and university to make sure the student is safe and appropriate action is taken.”
“Parents want to know their students will have support at college as they learn to take on the responsibility of advocating for themselves,” Snyder said on being asked repeatedly about anti-Semitism. “I let parents know we are there for their children, and if the students don’t know what to do in a particular situation, the best thing to do is to come to us and ask for help.”
Bodziner also encourages parents to get in contact with campus Hillels or Chabads.
“Learn about resources on campus, come find us,” she said. “Work with us to learn about all the options and then feel confident to educate [your] children on making informed decisions and how to act when/if feeling threatened.”
Jewish youth groups are an ideal way to reach out to Jewish students, as participants are already interested in Jewish life.
“A youth group has the ability and flexibility to either bring [the Hillels] to them or bring [the kids] to us,” said Fierstein. “That goes a long way in starting that conversation and relationship, lifting the veil off of where [to] find Jewish community and Jewish life on campus.”
Youth groups are encouraged to take advantage of their unique position and connect with on-campus Jewish organizations to educate their participants on available Jewish resources.
“Meet with staff, share ideas, empower the students to share what they want to learn about,” said Bodziner.
There are ways to be prepared for potential anti-Semitic scenarios.
“[Do] not hesitate to lean heavily on the local Hillel staff for support and guidance on these matters,” said Fierstein. “Hillel professionals are trained to support students on their Jewish journey in a myriad of ways and can be especially adept at shepherding folks through a crisis.”
“Parents … we are there for [your] students,” Snyder said. “If the students don’t know what to do in a particular situation, the best thing to do is to come to us and ask for help.”