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entries tagged with: Rutgers University

 

Hillel groups respond to hate acts by bringing together campus communities

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More than 1,000 students, led by Sam Weiner, son of Paramus’ Rabbi Arthur Weiner, rallied at Rutgers Wednesday morning in a show of unity against the Westboro Baptist Church. Courtesy of Sam Weiner

SAN FRANCISCO – Stanford University’s Jewish community celebrated the first night of Sukkot eating the traditional festive meal inside the sukkah they put up every year.

The next morning, on Oct. 3, a student walked into the sukkah to discover that it had been vandalized: Someone had spray-painted large phalluses on the entrance flaps.

Campus police were called and the graffiti were covered with tapestries. Hillel alerted the entire campus with an e-mail blast.

Although the attack may have been shocking and upsetting, it was not unprecedented.

Sukkahs on college campuses, because they are temporary structures built in the open and typically are unguarded at night, are prime targets for vandalism, whether inspired by drunkenness or anti-Semitism. About two are hit each year on North American campuses, according to Hillel figures.

Along with sukkah vandalism, college campuses in recent years have been hit by a wave of anti-Semitic graffiti, from swastikas painted on dorm walls to anti-Israel slogans scrawled on the sides of buildings.

This is taking place within a growing atmosphere of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on North American campuses documented in the revised edition of “The UnCivil University,” a publication of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

According to co-author Aryeh Weinberg, while violence against Jewish students has abated somewhat since 2005, when the book’s first edition was published, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus “has risen to a crescendo — the amount of background noise keeps the debate vitriolic.”

Universities don’t always work effectively to defuse dangerous situations, he says, and the Jewish community is often loath to respond, feeling it’s up to national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League or Hillel to take the lead.

What has happened in the past year or two is that Jewish students themselves, faced with anti-Semitism or vandalism, have come up with some creative responses that involve the entire campus community instead of retreating into fear and isolation.

Responses to recent cases of vandalized sukkahs are a prime example.

In the fall of 2008, the sukkah at the University of Montana in Missoula was so badly vandalized that it had to be taken down two days into the holiday. In 2009, Hillel moved the sukkah to a more secure location and put out a campus-wide call for volunteers to sleep in it overnight to discourage attacks.

Many of the students who showed up were not Jewish, including freshman Robin Richardson. She spent one night in a tent right outside the sukkah, while two other students slept inside.

“I volunteered to do it because I don’t want to see anyone’s religious traditions destroyed,” says Richardson, who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian. “Yes, it was freezing out.”

At Stanford — in an unexpected outpouring of love and support that poured in after Hillel sent out its notice — administration, faculty, and students inundated the Hillel office with e-mails and phone calls in response to the sukkah vandalism.

Christian, Muslim, and Hindu student groups offered their condolences, said the Palo Alto school’s Hillel rabbi, Mychal Copeland, adding that a Muslim group offered to raise funds from all the campus faith-based organizations to buy another sukkah.

“We were saddened that such an act would be carried out on Stanford’s campus, a place that we generally assume is above such acts of hate and intimidation,” wrote Abdulkareem Agunbiade and Mohammad Ali, presidents of the Islamic Society of Stanford University and the Muslim Student Awareness Network.

Responding to live demonstrations of hatred is another challenge for Jewish students.

The virulently homophobic and anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based hate group composed mainly of Fred Phelps and his family, since April has been targeting Jewish institutions, traveling from city to city to picket outside Hillel buildings, Jewish community centers, federation offices, and synagogues. Their posters denigrate gays, Jews, and others the “church” believes contravene God’s laws. (They picketed last week at Jewish and non-Jewish sites in New Jersey, including the office of The Jewish Standard in Teaneck. See http://www.jstandard.com/content/item/community_unites_as_church_pickets/.)

In early September, Westboro announced it was coming to Norman, Okla., on the eve of Rosh HaShanah to picket the University of Oklahoma Hillel before moving on to the Jewish federation and two synagogues in Oklahoma City.

University of Oklahoma Hillel students and staff, after consulting with the Anti-Defamation League, decided not to respond.

“Some of the students were upset; they said we need to do something,” said Keren Ayalon, executive director of OU Hillel. “I said that’s exactly what Westboro wants, a counter-protest to get publicity.”

Instead, several hundred non-Jewish students and faculty members showed up at the Hillel building during Westboro’s protest to show solidarity with the Jewish students.

Inspired by this outpouring of support, juniors Sam Scharff and Misheala Giddings organized a multicultural rally in the student union. Hundreds of students representing 60 campus groups, from the Black Students Association to the Society of Native American Gentlemen to Sooners for Peace in Palestine, showed up to sing, dance, eat, and sign a huge banner promoting diversity.

“There was a huge mass of support for us as Jews,” Scharff said. “It evolved into something much more meaningful than one response to Westboro.”

Hillel students at Stanford felt the same way after their sukkah attack.

Overwhelmed by the supportive calls and e-mails, Jewish Student Association president Jeff Gettinger invited the entire campus to join Hillel for Sabbath dinner in the sukkah on Oct. 9, the last night of the holiday. It is traditional, he wrote, to invite ushpizin, or guests, into the sukkah for a meal.

Sixty people crowded into the makeshift structure that night to eat and celebrate together. One was Anand Venkatkrishnan, head of the campus interfaith group Stanford FAITH.

“The vandalism of a holy structure is unacceptable to me as a person of faith,” he wrote Gettinger earlier in the week. “The duty of an interfaith leader is not only to condemn an attack on another, but to prevent it from occurring.”

In his letter thanking the Stanford community, Gettinger noted that a sukkah is not a permanent structure, that it is designed to be temporary, even flimsy.

“This is a reminder that no matter how rooted and permanent we may seem, each individual, each community is dependent on something larger than itself,” he wrote. “What grounds the sukkah is not the canvas and metal that make up the frame. It is the people and community that fill it.”

JTA/JS

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Stanford University Hillel members enjoy a meal in their sukkah in October, despite its having been vandalized. Stanford University Hillel
 
 

Muslim mayor and Jewish deputy highlight Teaneck’s diversity

Teaneck has long been on the frontlines of diversity. In the 1960s it was the first town in America to integrate its schools. It is home to more than 20 synagogues, more than 30 kosher restaurants, and a large mosque, which led The New York Times several years ago to dub it “the Jerusalem of the West.”

And last week, the township council appointed New Jersey’s first Muslim mayor. His pairing with an Orthodox Jewish deputy mayor is reportedly a first in the country.

Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin has been on the council since 2008, while Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen won re-election to his second four-year term in May. The pair’s relationship, however, goes back to their days at Ben Franklin Middle School.

“It was sports,” Hameeduddin said. “That would be the first thing everybody did.”

The two became friends playing pick-up games of basketball, and later started a volleyball team in a Teaneck High fund-raiser tournament. During their junior and senior years, their team — named Volleyball Marathon Champs their senior year — came in second place.

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Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen, left, and Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin

“We had our eye on the prize and we weren’t going to settle for less,” Gussen said.

The two eventually wound up at Rutgers University together, and the friendship continued. In 2006, after Gussen won his first term on the council, he noticed that several of the Teaneck planning boards had vacancies. Leaders of Hameeduddin’s mosque had been discussing expansion and land-use issues with the town, so Gussen encouraged his friend to run for the planning board. Hameeduddin ran, won, and served during the contentious debate over the township’s master plan to redevelop the Cedar Lane area.

“How I conducted myself in the Master Plan process built friendships with the mayor and others,” Hameeduddin said. “If you can’t compromise, then there is no democracy.”

In 2008, Hameeduddin ran for council in what many deemed a controversial election marred by uproar over the firing of two elderly black poll workers, perceived anti-Semitic comments by another candidate, and furor over a slate promoted by Councilman Elie Y. Katz. Hameeduddin was the only member of that slate to win election.

Teaneck has its issues with race and religion, but Hameeduddin praised the township for putting them aside when it matters most.

“The people who would vote against me wouldn’t vote against me because I’m Muslim,” he said. “They’d vote against me because of my politics.”

Hameeduddin pointed out that he and Gussen have disagreed on matters of policy. Hameeduddin voted to fire former Township Manager Helene Fall, while Gussen voted against firing her. Gussen supports repealing the blue laws, while Hameeduddin supports the restrictions.

“Teaneck did its job in creating an environment where Mohammed and Adam become friends — that childhood friendship goes through a lifetime, and then we can sit down as adults 25 years later and talk about commonalities we have,” Gussen said. “We can respect each other’s differences. That’s based on trust and mutual respect.”

“Politics by its very nature is divisive,” Hameeduddin said. “People need to disagree without being disagreeable.”

The pair have their work cut out for them. According to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), the township lost millions in funding from Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts.

While the combination of a Muslim mayor and Jewish deputy mayor may be unique throughout the country, it’s par for the course in Teaneck, according to Weinberg, a township resident.

“We’re used to living in our diverse community — to us it’s not such a giant leap forward,” she said. “We’ve had an African-American mayor, an Asian-Indian mayor. I’m happy to say that while many other people think it’s unique, I don’t think we do.”

 
 

Be prepared

Educators help freshmen advocate for Israel

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Hasbara has brought more than 1,800 students to its biannual training workshops in Israel and is on more than 250 campuses throughout the United States and Canada. Hasbara also provides a variety of options to help extend the knowledge about Israel on campus, through various training classes, film screenings, and speakers for student organizations.

Area teens heading to college may encounter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior there — and educators and youth leaders have ways to manage an often overwhelming experience.

“For freshman going to college, it can be a very surprising experience, especially if you come from a tight-knit Jewish community, or a Jewish school,” says Andrew Getraer, the executive director of Rutgers University Hillel in New Brunswick. “Most high school students have never had to deal with such a variety of opinions and events, especially ones that may directly challenge their own.”

Getraer notes that while recent news like that of the Gaza flotilla raid is hard for government officials and adults to digest or respond to, “imagine how hard it is for 18-year-olds to hear Israel attacked on their own campus, just as it’s attacked on television news channels.”

Student groups often sponsor events condemning Israel, as The Jewish Standard has reported. Israeli Apartheid Week, for example, was held for its sixth consecutive year in March, on many campuses. According to the IAW website, the goal of the event is to “educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.”

IAW often invites speakers who are known for their virulent anti-Israel sentiments and critiques. Michael Cohen, a Wayne resident who is entering his junior year at Boston University, said of a speech by Noam Chomsky, a persistent and harsh critic of Israel, during IAW at his campus, “Growing up in a relatively sheltered community that had a large Jewish presence, I never experienced anything like it. I was shocked.”

The most effective way to respond to such attacks, according to Lauren Krol, director of the Young Professionals of Hasbara Fellowships, is for students to learn, and for advocacy groups to educate them, “about Israel’s true nature, as a democracy and a peace-seeking nation.”

The organization, founded in 2001, aims to establish successful Israel advocacy on campuses throughout the United States and Canada. It provides information, fact sheets, and educational videos on its website, www.israelactivism.com.

IAW was a hot topic during Hasbara’s workshop last winter. Students taking it wondered why there wasn’t a more united response across campuses. The result, according to Krol, was “Israel Peace Week.” In 2010, this program made its way to more than 30 different schools.

Krol encourages supporters of Israel to keep in mind that “they are on the front line; they should use every opportunity they have to get across a positive image, and they must always remember the bigger picture.”

Rutgers’ Getraer explains that situations on some campuses are more difficult for Jewish students than others. “Any campus might have a wide range of opinions,” he says, “and some may be anti-Israel — this can be very upsetting or confusing for many students.”

At Rutgers, he says, students are encouraged to tell Hillel about hostility in their dorms, in class, or on campus, because it can help.

Another simple recommendation, he said: Pick a school with a Jewish community. “We have over 5,000 Jewish students,” Getraer says of Rutgers. “If students feel threatened, they always have a place to go.”

Northern New Jersey Hillel — part of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey — runs Jewish student clubs at Bergen Community College (Paramus), Fairleigh Dickinson University Metropolitan (Teaneck) Campus, Ramapo College of New Jersey (Mahwah), and William Paterson University (Wayne). Director Rabbi Ely Allen explains that these local campuses do engage in classroom discussion and debate, but that overall, organized events like IAW are not as great a problem as on other campuses.

Allen says that college students are “in much better shape [to respond to anti-Israel attacks] because of Israel advocacy organizations that are partnering with Hillel; there are more and more of those organizations, which is definitely a big plus, because we all need to work together.”

 
 
 
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