Don’t Falsely Label UM
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The View From CampusUniversity of Michigan

Don’t Falsely Label UM

Focus on a few incidents is clouding a rich Jewish life.

The University of Michigan is home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies of any U.S. university. Wikimedia Commons
The University of Michigan is home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies of any U.S. university. Wikimedia Commons

While touring schools as a high school senior, I was always told that you could make a big school feel small. I did just that by carving out an enclave for myself within the Jewish community, and this has been essential to my time at Ann Arbor.

As a senior, I’ve been fully immersed in Hillel for over three years now. I immediately found my home in this group within the first few weeks of freshman year, after attending the Hillel-sponsored “Welcome Week.” After attending events, I filled my calendar with programs and opportunities for first-year students, was matched up with a Michigan Mensch who would help me navigate the trials of first semester and met a best friend with whom I room with to this day. During Rosh HaShanah, I celebrated my first Jewish holiday away from home, heartened by the many Jewish students surrounding me — a welcome contrast to my high school years when I was the only student missing school.

However, this is likely a part of the Michigan Jewish experience you haven’t heard. I fear my campus has become the target of a troubling trend to “essentialize” the Jewish experience. Essentializing, as I learned in a Judaic Studies course, is the practice of attributing certain characteristics to and generalizing a whole group of people. With regards to Jews, we often essentialize the entirety of the Jewish experience based on struggle and anti-Semitism. As a result, we miss crucial, heartwarming elements to the Jewish story.

This is playing out at the university, as people on the outside are increasingly losing sight of the strength and breadth of what it means to be Jewish. Positive experiences like mine have been clouded out recently by events on campus that some individuals claim to be anti-Semitic, anti-Israel or both.

To label our campus as simply “bad for Jews” is to write off the countless experiences of my Jewish peers and myself at Michigan.

Rachel Levy, a junior, said she found that “within our Jewish community, it’s very easy to find others that love being Jewish.”

Jewish students on campus are not living in fear. Noah Seligson, a senior, explained that none of his peers has “felt that they need to hide their Judaism,” adding that he “can confidently say the University of Michigan is a great campus to be Jewish and proudly express your Judaism.”

Concentrating on incidents of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism alone leads many to overlook the inroads made towards thoughtful dialogue with others. Mariel Setton, a senior who has been active in coexistence efforts, said she shared the respect she has earned from many friends outside the Jewish community who are familiar with her connection to Israel. “We’ve talked about it and they respect it,” and that for the most part she has had “really great engaging conversations with students who want to learn more.”

The narrow spotlight on anti-Semitism also overshadows Hillel’s 55 independent student organizations that range from religious and spiritual life to cultural groups that help students embrace their Judaism however they see fit. The negative spotlight overlooks the weekly gatherings of over 300 Jewish students at Shabbat meals, and over 1,500 meals provided for ShabUM – or Shabbat in the Home – across campus. Concentrating on particular incidents obscures the 90-year history of Michigan Hillel. There’s simply more to the Michigan Jewish story than what has been publicized.

This isn’t an attempt to excuse the incidents that warranted our attention. As an active member of the Jewish community, I felt the ripple effects of such incidents and was challenged by them. There were conflicting reactions and interpretations from the wide range of perspectives present on our campus, pulling my thoughts and feelings in differing directions. Feeling conflicted, I was especially thankful to receive support from Hillel and the rest of the Jewish community.

I was encouraged to take on leadership positions such as the jNET engagement fellowship and to become a Mensch myself, to support incoming students as I had been. This past semester, I found like-minded people who were excited about the opportunity to bring MitzVote to campus, Hillel’s civic engagement initiative.

When many outside the school looked only to the initial actions of the offending professors and students, they ignored what the Jewish students themselves were doing. These people have missed how we continue to come together from different religious backgrounds and practices, divergent views and opinions, and work together to foster an amazing Jewish niche on campus. I hope that many more students who are seeking an opportunity to have a wholesome Jewish college experience do not count Michigan out.

Ali Rosenblatt is a senior at the University of Michigan.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program. 

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