On Leafy Campuses, Hillel Struggles For A Foothold
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On Leafy Campuses, Hillel Struggles For A Foothold

At four small Westchester colleges, Jewish students battle apathy, anti-Israel sentiment.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

As the fall semester neared, Andi Cantor, a Jewish student leader at Sarah Lawrence College, was afraid to go back to campus. After inviting an Israeli soldier to speak at the Bronxville school last spring, she’d become the subject of virulent Facebook posts, angry email chains and threatening stares and whispers.

Sarah Friedson, a senior at Pace University in Pleasantville and a professional dancer, is fond of wearing “I Love Israel” T-shirts to class. Along with five Jewish peers, she worked to reboot the dormant campus Hillel last year. Now, the Pace Hillel is an official campus club, and the six students have big plans going forward.

Mellysa Stiel, a psychology major at Manhattanville College in Purchase, faces overwhelming apathy from fellow Jewish students as she tries to spearhead beginner-friendly Jewish events. Given a certain amount of ignorance about Jewish life on the part of the student body in general, Stiel and her Hillel board are working to craft a response as they confront blunt misinformation about Israel and anti-Semitic incidents.

In the shadows of Columbia University, NYU and the CUNY schools, universities with booming Hillels and equally vocal Palestinian student groups, four campuses in leafy Westchester County are engaged in battles of their own. Though mere miles from New York City, these campuses — Sarah Lawrence, Pace and Manhattanville, as well as Purchase College — face a unique set of challenges as newly minted campus Hillels fight to make inroads with Jewish students, and combat growing anti-Israel sentiment in the wider student body.

Tucked into a green corner of southern Westchester, Sarah Lawrence College, the private liberal arts school known for its steep price tag and individualized courses of study, seems to be a collegiate paradise. On a warm day in September, students sat in small groups at tables outside a dining hall talking and laughing, some typing on sleek MacBooks. Elegant brick buildings and sprawling, manicured lawns completed the picture.

But for Cantor, a senior studying writing and literature, the scene is far from peaceful.

“I’ve become a persona non grata to some,” she said, sitting on a park bench outside one of the study halls.

As the president of the campus Hillel and one of few openly pro-Israel students at a school (where nearly a third of the students are Jewish), she’d grown accustomed to threatening messages on social media, listserv discussions that single her out by name, and icy stares and purposeful whispers when she passes by.

“I didn’t want to come back this semester, and my mom really didn’t want me to come back,” said Cantor, 21, who was out on sick leave during 2015’s spring semester.

Wearing casual black leggings and an off-the-shoulder black top, Cantor did not stand out visually from others on campus, and showed no sign that she felt deeply estranged from her fellow students. But, she said, “If I had known what I would face here, I would not have signed up.”

She referred to an event last semester in April that piqued student anger. As Hillel’s Israel intern, a position that no longer exists at the school, Cantor invited an Israeli soldier to speak on campus about his army service. The move spurred an outpouring of protest on campus and online as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that protests Israel’s “apartheid regime,” according to its online description, petitioned the administration to cancel the event.

Virulent posts such as “This is disgusting, I can’t believe Sarah Lawrence would invite a terrorist to our campus” flooded the Facebook page where the event was posted. Another student posted a video of herself crying, claiming she was having nightmares because of the imminent event.

“The anger, the hate was so real,” said Cantor, who described the days leading up the event as “hysteria.” Friends who had nothing to do with the event unfriended her on Facebook, and many stopped talking to her in person. “I felt isolated and alone.”

Despite protests, the soldier came and spoke. According to Cantor, who did not attend the event herself because she was out on sick leave, the IDF soldier was interrupted several times during his presentation by the student moderator, who felt the need to check that everyone in the audience still felt “safe.” His presentation was followed by boos, accusations and some shouting, according to one student who attended the event but preferred to remain anonymous.

Neither the dean of student affairs at Sarah Lawrence nor representatives of the college’s SJP chapter responded to requests for comment. According to a source close to the situation, the administration is said to be investigating claims of cyberbullying surrounding the event.

“I didn’t want this to mean the end of Hillel, but there was no going back,” Cantor said. “Some things you can’t un-see, and you definitely can’t un-feel. The campus showed its true colors, and people stopped putting on a façade of being polite and accepting. But I had to come back. If I’m not going to represent Israel on this campus, who will?”

——♦——

At the close of the 2014-15 academic year, the question was not hypothetical. After the turbulent year of student protests spearheaded by SJP and intimidation on social media, not one student volunteered to be on the Hillel board at Sarah Lawrence. Being associated with the Jewish, pro-Israel group was “too much of a risk,” said one formerly involved student (who also asked to remain anonymous).

“It was a sobering low,” said Rachel Klein, executive director of Hillels of Westchester, which serves 1,300 Jewish students at Purchase, Pace and Manhattanville, all with Jewish populations of about 10 percent, as well as Sarah Lawrence. “There was a moment last semester when I said to myself ‘there might not be a Hillel this year.’”

Though the Sarah Lawrence chapter persevered (Cantor recruited new board members one by one), a recent visit to all four Westchester Hillels showed that serious challenges persist for Jewish students.

“The blatant ignorance about simple Jewish life is shocking,” said Friedson, 25, a Pace senior and secretary of the campus Hillel. At the Pace Hillel board meeting, she arrived a bit late, wearing black leggings under her “I Love Israel” T-shirt.

“Our role at Hillel is to educate the student body, more than anything else,” Friedson said. She described one incident in which a campus newspaper printed a yellow Jude star, the cloth patch Nazis forced Jews to sew on their garments as a badge of shame, to wish Jewish students a happy Chanukah. She contacted the editorial staff and asked them to remove the offensive image. The image was removed. “We want students to know what ‘Shabbat’ is, let alone come to a dinner.”

Given the high volume of synagogues and Jewish organizations in Westchester County, the ignorance of the largely commuter student body about Jewish life is mystifying, said Klein. “When we first introduce ourselves as Hillel, students don’t even know we’re a Jewish group,” she said. “We’re building up from scratch.”

And apparently having some success. At Pace, Hillel was dormant for the last decade. Only in the past year did the group reapply for official club status, a step that must be completed before a club can begin programming. With six board members, they are the only functioning Jewish organization on campus.

“It’s become a safe haven for Jewish students,” said Emily Weiss, 20, a junior and a Hillel board member who said she’s been looking for her place on campus since freshman year.

——♦——

Among the four campuses, Purchase boasts the most established Hillel; it has become a retreat for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. Unlike the other Westchester Hillels, Purchase Hillel has a room on campus that is reserved for its activities. It operates on a larger budget (both from Hillel and the student government) and often serves as the meeting ground for Hillel members from the other campuses.

Rick Redlon, a senior at Purchase, is a non-Jewish member of the Hillel board. “I joined for the food,” he quipped, before explaining that the community service element of the club drew him in. “Selling food to raise money for those in need — that’s something anyone can relate to, no matter their background,” he said, referring to Challah For Hunger, a Hillel-wide initiative to bake and sell challah to raise money for a variety of causes. (Nearly a quarter of the students who participate in Hillel events across the four campuses are not Jewish, Klein said.)

About 15 Purchase students milled around in the generous space filled with couches, chairs and tables. An adjoining kosher kitchen hummed with student activity, the freezer always stocked with frozen bagels.

Still, despite the general ease and calm, some incidents there have raised alarm. In March, swastikas were scrawled in three Purchase dormitories. One of the swastikas was etched onto the door of a Jewish student.

“It was disturbing,” said Emet Tauber, a junior at Purchase. A transgender student with colorful eye makeup, Tauber described the tight-knit support system he’d found through Hillel, but added that challenges to the group’s Jewish identity are disheartening. “It automatically made me reflect on what it means to be a Jew.”

Part of that reflection includes The Israel Conversation, said Tauber. The lines between Jewish identity and one’s position on Israel often blur uncomfortably, he said.

“For me, it’s an internal struggle. If you’re critical of Israel, people will jump on you and be like, ‘What side are you on anyway?’ But it’s complicated.” He finds it frustrating that his opinions about Israel “automatically reflect on who I am as a Jew.”

Still, Hillel’s goal on the Purchase campus is to ensure that all students feel comfortable expressing their opinions, no matter how diverse those opinions are, said Becky Nussbaum, president of the Purchase Hillel. A junior who has been on the Hillel board since her freshman year, Nussbaum spoke briskly and directly.

“This is an open space — it’s a place for discussion,” she said, “We don’t close the door to anyone.”

That open-door policy includes Palestinian students and sympathizers, said Nussbaum, though few have taken the club up on the offer. Students for Justice in Palestine is not currently active at Purchase, but Palestinian student activists have applied several times for official club status. Their application has been repeatedly denied. According to Hillel students, this is because their “anti-Israel agenda” has been too blatant.

“They weren’t proposing any pro-Palestinian content, just anti-Israel,” said Nussbaum. “SJP can feel free to apply again — they haven’t done so.”

Politics aside, a celebration of Israeli culture is apparently something most students can agree on, Nussbaum said. Last semester, Hillel’s “A Night in Tel Aviv” event drew the biggest crowd of any event in the chapter’s history. Five hundred Jewish and non-Jewish students partied the night away to Israeli music with blue and white flags waving.

“It was a rare moment when we all looked at each other and said, ‘wow, we really pulled off a hot event’ — and it had to do with Israel!” said Nussbaum, the board bobbing their heads in agreement.

——♦——

The Manhattanville Hillel, though not as prolific as Purchase when it comes to putting on events, benefits from the committed leadership of Mellysa Stiel and Jen Weintraub, who together revived the club two years ago. Prior to their leadership, the Hillel, previously the Jewish Students Association, received little attention from students. Stiel, a senior, is also an Emerson Fellow, a prestigious one-year fellowship sponsored by the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, that recruits and trains college students to spearhead educational Israel programming.

With short bleached-blonde hair and wearing, like so many college students, all black, Stiel described Manhattanville as the “most apathetic campus in Westchester.”

“Getting students to care about anything is an uphill battle,” she said. A straightforward Shabbat dinner is an undertaking, let alone an event involving Israel, she added.

Evelyn Obertnaya, another member of the Manhattanville board, said that the “disrespect and ignorance” she has faced as a Jewish student is “hard to believe.”

“We’re in Westchester — it’s not like we’re far from Jewish life,” she said.

In one particularly offensive incident, Obertnaya described how she was working a table for Hillel at a club fair when a student, upon hearing that the group was Jewish, threw a penny on the ground to see if she would “go pick it up.”

“Deep-rooted stereotypes about Jews still exist here, on a liberal arts campus only a train-ride away from New York City,” she said.

Weintraub, the co-president, said the ignorance includes Israel as well. “Most [students] just assume that the narrative they hear in mainstream media is the way it is — Israel as the oppressor,” she said. Challenging these notions often compels her to speak up in class, even to contradict the professor. She described one class in which the professor used “Israel” and “apartheid” interchangeably.

“I stood up and said, ‘that’s not right, and I find your wording offensive,” said Weintraub.

A college spokeswoman said the college would never condone “any comment like that” and that it is “hard for me to believe a professor would be that outspoken.” The college has students from “all religious backgrounds” and promotes social justice and community-service, she said, adding that she was “deeply upset” to learn of the incident.

Weintraub’s passion for Israel was fueled by a March of the Living trip to Eastern Europe and Israel she participated in after her freshman year.

Though animus towards Israel does exist on campus, misinformation, confusion and basic ignorance are far more rampant, student leaders said.

“They [students] don’t mean any harm when they call Israel ‘Palestine,’ they just don’t know better,” student leaders said. Apparent ignorance among professors is less excusable, she said. “If I don’t stand up for Israel in the classroom, no one else will.”

——♦——

Back at Sarah Lawrence, Cantor said her goal this semester is to focus on her studies and enjoy her last months as an undergraduate. In her renewed role as Hillel president and with a fresh board of 10 members by her side, she aims to build up Hillel as a place where Jewish students can comfortably celebrate their cultural identity — or “just being Jews,” as she put it.

“No more controversies, no more Facebook hate — for now, let’s just celebrate Jewish food and holidays and Shabbat dinner,” she said. For the moment, events dealing with Israeli politics will have to take a back seat. “This is not the Hillel of last year. If people are going to protest free hummus, let them.”

Still, as neutral as she aims to be, Cantor is aware that her return to campus, and Hillel’s refusal to fold, is itself a statement. “If I let fear prevent me from being here, I let them win,” she said, her quiet voice difficult to hear amid the laughter from surrounding tables and rustle of autumn leaves. “They can turn their backs on me, glare at me, whisper about me, but I’m not going away.”

hannah@jewishweek.org

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