Moving Beyond Flashpoints
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The View From CampusUniversity of Michigan

Moving Beyond Flashpoints

The challenging moments have only made us stronger.

The University of Michigan quad.
The University of Michigan quad.

The University of Michigan has a lively, vibrant Jewish community. According to a Campus Climate Survey conducted by the university, we have approximately 6,700 students who self-identify as being Jewish. Just as with any community of this size on a college campus which encourages diversity of opinion and productive discourse, we too have a range of perspectives. I am currently a senior at the University of Michigan and the outgoing Chair of the Hillel Governing Board. As the chair, I was often the first student notified of situations impacting the Jewish community, and “the student in the room” advocating on behalf of our Jewish community.

Since September, there have been several flashpoints that have occurred on our campus. To some community members these recent events have been seen as anti-Semitic, to some anti-Israel, to some both and to some neither. Within these differing opinions, there is a great deal of room for students to come together to discuss with, and learn from, their peers. For example, a group of students of varying opinions about how to classify these events are working collaboratively with Hillel staff and various faculty to put together a series of discussions on the many manifestations of modern-day anti-Semitism. This educational series is expected to take place next semester.

Just as our campus is in ongoing conversation about our community’s internal needs and viewpoints, we remain in talks with university administration about these events and how to move forward. Discussions have included adding religious diversity education to freshman orientation, modifying diversity, equity and inclusion language and forming a committee to assess relationships between students and faculty. Overall, the administration has been extremely responsive, thoughtful and supportive of the Jewish community. In a recent meeting between Hillel student leaders and university administrators, a concern was voiced about recent events potentially painting a false picture of the campus’ relationship with its Jewish community. I recently spoke on a panel at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never is Now” summit, and after interactions that took place there, I too am worried about this.

Yes, these incidents occurred, but at the same time they do not cover the depth that is the UM Jewish community. A few weeks ago, we hosted our annual event called ShabUM. During this event, we switched gears from the usual 300-student Shabbat dinner at Hillel and instead encouraged students to take ownership over their Jewish identity and host their friends for a Shabbat in their homes. This year, we had 86 Shabbat dinners across campus with 1,600 students attending. The vibrancy and activity of our community was even noted by administrators.

A 2017 study, conducted by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University, found that an overwhelming majority of Jewish students at the University of Michigan do not feel as if there is hostility toward Jewish students, and 100 percent surveyed said they felt safe on this campus. While this study was conducted prior to this school year, and there is a small minority of students who would say this study is no longer representative of our campus, my understanding after discussing these recent events with many students is that this remains the sentiment of the majority. Recent campus events and increased media coverage have painted an incomplete picture of our community. Our Jewish community is one that gathers on Shabbat, studies together for finals, laughs together in moments of joy and supports each other during difficult times. The power of having a vibrant, active Jewish community to support one another allows us to bring different narratives to campus, and actively advocate for Jewish students during difficult moments.

Being at Michigan and a part of the Jewish community has provided me with learning opportunities and skills far superior to those learned in the classroom. I have gained a more nuanced understanding of the diversity of opinions that exist within the Jewish community, developed communication skills to better articulate my opinions and advocate on behalf of the Jewish community, and have a greater sense of confidence in and love for my Jewish identity. None of this would have been possible without the spirited, diverse Jewish community at UM. Yes, there are challenging moments, but because of these moments, we have the opportunity to learn how to respond and advocate for our Jewish community.

Kendall Coden 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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