At roughly 2 a.m. on Oct. 15, three Miami University students jumped Miami’s Hillel center’s fence at 11 E Walnut St and toppled a sukkah, destroying the inside. The three individuals have since come forward claiming responsibility.
Hillel is an international Jewish campus organization that aims to create a community for Jewish students.
The sukkah is a hut used to celebrate the Jewish holiday Sukkot and represents the same huts used by Israelites as they wandered the Egyptian desert for 40 years. Sukkot is a weeklong celebration where a large amount of time is spent in the sukkah. This year’s Sukkot started Oct. 9 and ended Oct. 16.
Whitney Fisch, executive director of Miami University’s Hillel branch, wrote about the incident in an email to Hillel members on Oct. 21.
“The desecration and vandalization of this ritual item and the damage done to our Sukkah is distressing enough,” Fisch wrote. “While (thankfully) we have an extra Sukkah, what has shaken our students and staff to the core and left me with a pit at the bottom of my stomach is the complete violation of our property and of our sacred space.”
Hillel uploaded two videos of the security footage from the night. Originally, the three men could not be identified, but Fisch wrote in an email that after a large community response to the incident, the men came forward and claimed responsibility on the night of Oct. 21.
On Oct. 27, the Oxford Police Department posted to its Facebook page that the three men were students Kevin Ladriere, Eli Lauger and Santiago Arenas. The police department said the students would be charged with vandalism, but no antisemitic motives were found during the investigation.
“During our investigation, it was determined that there was no religious bias involved with the commission of the crime,” the post read. “While the suspects in this case did not understand that they were damaging a religious symbol, the effects were felt by the Jewish community.”
Students involved with Hillel were shaken by the incident. Matt Seifert, a first-year accounting major, said the incident made him rethink his safety at Miami.
“It's definitely frightening because I've seen this on other bigger campuses and more urban campuses and normally I think of Miami as a safe and inclusive place,” Seifert said, “but seeing something like that is definitely an eye opener.”
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Grant Titlebaum, a first-year mechanical engineering major, said antisemitism was already present in the U.S., but this act brings the problem closer to the local community.
“We've seen lots of hatred to Jews, especially recently,” Titlebaum said. “Some of it has to do with Kanye [West, now known as Ye], but a lot of it has to do with the High Holy Days in general, but we usually see our fair share. So this is, it's more that it's getting close to a place I thought it wouldn't happen, rather than it's happening.”
Even though the investigation found no evidence of religious bias, Lauren Somers, a junior business analytics and fashion corporate business co-major as well as the president of Hillel, said the situation can help educate students about antisemitism.
“In so many areas of the world with everything going on with [Ye] and antisemitism on other campuses, anti semitism is a huge rise right now,” Somers said. “It's so important that we have the goal of educating and bringing light to situations. I think building a community of Jewish allies on campus, I think it has been huge getting that support from non-Jewish students.”
Rabbi Yossi Greenberg, who works with Chabad at Miami, said despite the incident, Oxford is a safe and wonderful community.
“Obviously, watching the footage is troubling,” Greenberg said. “My response to everyone asking is that we feel safe. I want to thank the Oxford Police Department and Miami University for making Miami such a welcoming and safe space for Jewish students to be proud and openly Jewish.”
Titlebaum also hoped the university would support Jewish students in response to the destruction of the sukkah by working with them in discussions of diversity and inclusion.
“Miami tries to include everybody and a tendency with people with that ideal is Jews get left out,” Titlebaum said. “So [I’m] hoping that Miami kind of includes that because not only are we a religion, but we're also an ethnicity. We're also a culture because the religion part, not every Jewish person believes in the religion side, but they believe that Judaism is also a culture and an ethnicity.”
Somers said even though Hillel is waiting for the results from the investigation, the organization has appreciated the support from the community.
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” Somers said. “But our response to the situation was what was so meaningful. I think to us as an organization, seeing so many Jewish students, Jewish allies, other organizations come and support us has just been incredible.”
In a joint statement on Oct. 21, Miami President Greg Crawford, vice president for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion Cristina Alcalde and interim provost Elizabeth Mullenix condemned the incident, while also showing support for Jewish students at Miami.
“Many Miami community members, particularly Jewish community members, may be understandably distressed and feel unsafe after learning about this incident,” the email read. “We are committed to every Jewish student, faculty, and staff feeling welcome and included as part of the Miami community.”
Crawford, Alcalde and Mullenix invited students to attend The Shabbat of Love and Honor event in response to the incident, hosted by Hillel and the Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 28 at Hillel. The event, which required people to RSVP, has already had all its slots filled.
“We've never really had an event that big before,” Somers said. “I think people in the community are so willing to show up, and that's been really speaking volumes to Hillel and to the Jewish community for sure.”
In her follow-up email, Fisch wrote that despite the destruction of its sukkah, Hillel would continue in its typical ways.
“This is what we do," Fisch wrote. "We’re Jewish and no matter what happens,” Fisch wrote, “we will always be here to celebrate our community, our culture, our religion, and as always, our Jewish students.”