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Jewish organizations support students amid concerns of rising antisemitism

<p>Members of Hillel, a Jewish organization in Oxford, gather at the Shabbat of Love and Honor after the organization&#x27;s property was vandalized. Lauren Somers, president of Hillel, two from right, and Whitney Fisch, executive director of Hillel, middle back, talked to The Miami Student about how the organization supports students.</p>

Members of Hillel, a Jewish organization in Oxford, gather at the Shabbat of Love and Honor after the organization's property was vandalized. Lauren Somers, president of Hillel, two from right, and Whitney Fisch, executive director of Hillel, middle back, talked to The Miami Student about how the organization supports students.

When Hannah Lefkowitz, a senior social work major, was exposed to COVID-19 and had to isolate during Passover her sophomore year, she didn’t know how she would celebrate. Lefkowitz’s mom posted a message on Miami University’s parents Facebook page asking for help so her daughter could still celebrate the Jewish holiday.

Rabbi Yossi Greenberg of Miami’s Chabad, a Jewish organization in Oxford, responded to the post and, with Miami’s Hillel, another Jewish organization, arranged for kosher food to be sent to Lefkowitz. They also set up a Zoom meeting for Lefkowitz to still participate in the traditional Seder Passover meal.

Lefkowitz was not an active member in either of the organizations, but she felt supported by their acts.

“It was very much like a village,” Lefkowitz said. “Everybody just chipped in where they could, even though they had never met me before.”

Since then, Lefkowitz has become involved with both groups, like many other Jewish students on campus.

These organizations have established themselves in Oxford to support Jewish students at Miami, and support is a necessity, especially with growing concerns of antisemitism throughout the nation.

The Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization, reported that it received the highest number of antisemitic incidents last year, with 2,717 reports of assault, harrasment and vandalism. Other controversies have added to concerns of antisemitism, particularly with comments from hip-hop artist Ye (previously known as Kanye West).

On Oct. 15, three Miami students toppled a sukkah, a Jewish holiday hut, on Hillel’s property. Within less than a week, the men came forward, and after a police investigation, no evidence of antisemitism was found.

Photo by Jessica Monahan | The Miami Student
Miami University's Hillel, housed in the Arthur Beerman Center in Oxford, has established itself as a support system for Jewish students at Miami.

Daniel Renfield, a junior accounting major, is a part of both Hillel and Chabad and serves as the treasurer for Chabad. Renfield says these organizations help establish connections among Miami’s Jewish population.

“It gives you a great sense of community because the percentage of Jews at Miami isn't so big, so you don't just run into people,” Renfield said. “Just coming to a place where everyone's Jewish and just connecting, it's really valuable.”

Chabad and Hillel are both international organizations that function in partnership with the university. Hillel estimates that Miami’s campus has close to 1,000 Jewish students in total. The Hub lists 177 members for Miami’s Hillel and 89 members for Miami’s Chabad, although neither group has formal membership, with some larger programs attracting nearly 3o0 students.

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Whitney Fisch, executive director of Miami’s Hillel, said the organization aims to offer a place to support Jewish students.

“We are a community organization, and our goal is to engage, connect and empower students on campus to explore their Jewish identity, so that they can create and inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders,” Fisch said. “We want to enrich and engage in an effort for Jewish students at every point of their Jewish journey.”

Both organizations achieve this through social events, education sessions about Jewish life and Shabbat dinners, a weekly celebration for Jewish people.

Hillel Gray, a professor in the department of comparative religion, said it’s important to take multiple factors into consideration when studying levels of antisemitism. He said concerns that college students regularly face antisemitism on campus are tied to political divisiveness.

“There's a lot of media attention in the Jewish world … toward college campuses now and whether there's more antisemitism,” Gray said. “But a lot of that is driven by political interests, both on the left and the right, blaming each other and trying to categorize each other as a source of antisemitism.”

An article titled “Trends in Jewish young adult experiences and perceptions of antisemitism in America from 2017 to 2019” examined this trend and tied the rising levels of antisemitism to an increased focus on discriminatory acts.

According to the article, published in the academic journal Contemporary Jewry, Jewish concerns about antisemitism were strongly tied to media reports on antisemitism and discrimination against other minorities, showing that Jewish people feel their fates are tied to other marginalized groups.

The article also says most Jewish college students perceive almost no antisemitism on campus. 

Miami has had a few concerns when it comes to antisemitism. In 2019, a former Miami student used Venmo to request money from a Jewish student with attached comments that referenced the Holocaust. In November, swastikas and antisemitic posters were found throughout campus.

This year, Jewish organizations have mainly dealt with vandalism. Before the Sukkah was toppled in October, Chabad had its Menorah stolen from the front porch on Sept. 29, but it was returned the next morning with an apology and money for the damage. 

Greenberg filed a police report for the incident, but after the Menorah was returned with the apology, he asked police to drop the case. Since Greenberg moved to Oxford, he’s experienced more positivity than anything from the community.

“I’ve lived in Oxford for many years and experienced nothing but love and admiration, very nice people here,” Greenberg said. “This is a lovely town and a great university. Jewish students should feel safe here.”

Still, some Jewish students have problems with the university.

Lauren Somers, president of Miami’s Hillel and a junior business analytics and fashion corporate business co-major, said sometimes Jewish holidays conflict with classes.

“I do think that being the only person in a lot of my classes that's Jewish, or being the minority, is difficult,” Somers said. “On things like the High Holidays, where despite Miami having a calendar of religious holidays, professors don't look at that. They schedule exams [and] presentations on High Holidays.”

Hillel and Chabad both help students work with professors to reschedule if classes interfere with Jewish holidays. Cristina Alcalde, vice president of Miami’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (OIDI), wrote in an email to The Miami Student that the university also tries to make professors aware of these conflicts.

“About a year ago we also created a Religious Observances and Inclusive Scheduling Guide, which provides guidance to help avoid scheduling important events, activities, and deadlines on holidays observed by members of the Miami community,” Alcalde wrote. “More specifically, OIDI sent out a note about this to senior leadership before Jewish [High Holidays].”

To Somers, however, the fact that classes need to be rescheduled at all is still frustrating.

“It's kind of that idea of equity where if you bring up to a professor that it's on the holidays, most of the time they'll want to work with you and say that's totally fine,” Somers said. “But it's just that having to ask and having to reschedule.”

Some of the main problems for Jewish students come from other students.

Because the Jewish homeland is in Israel, difficulties can arise when discussing the conflicts between Israel and Palestine. Fisch said Hillel frequently receives complaints that students are unable to demonstrate Zionism, the support of the protection of a Jewish homeland, because of these conflicts.

“Zionism has been co-opted by other movements and defined by other people rather than Jewish people, which is wildly frustrating,” Fisch said. “It's been a struggle that even organizations who claim to be inclusive, they have it [as] ‘we're inclusive except if you identify as a Zionist.’”

Somers said the organization tries to create events to help inform students about the conflict.

“We have events centered around Israel and learning about the conflict, learning about what different sides have done,” Somers said. “Hillel does the best job it can at separating; while we are proud to be Zionist, and we are proud to support Israel, we very much do not believe that Israel is completely innocent and hasn't done bad things.”

Hillel also offers a program called Birthright Israel, where Jewish students can take a trip to Israel.

Fisch suggested that in order to better support Jewish students, people should try to educate themselves and others. She suggested correcting antisemitic behavior to avoid creating unsupportive environments.

“The amount of students that are on this campus who are Jewish but don't own it because … they've been around friends for two, three years who tell Hitler jokes, tell right-wing kind of white conspiracy jokes about Jews and replacement theory and things like that,” Fisch said. “That is running rampant, and we need allies to call that out.”

Caleb Krainman, a first-year game simulation major, said when experiencing harmful behavior to the Jewish community, it’s important not to fight back with anger.

“Don't come back with hate,” Krainman said. “And you tell them, you calmly explain why they're wrong, and you always welcome them … You're not going to fix anything through fighting fire with fire.”

Gray uses a similar viewpoint when handling antisemitic remarks.

“I generally try to call people in rather than call them out,” Gray said. “If you're calling them out, then usually you're trying to shut them down or cancel them or get them to stop, and there are people who probably need to do that. But for my purposes, I'm usually trying to relate to people and connect to people."

OIDI has compiled a list of resources on its website to help students identify antisemitism.