What should have been a relaxing first Shabbat on the Princeton University campus after winter break turned into a busy day of fear and protest as students responded to news of a purported march by a white supremacist group planned for Saturday in the New Jersey college town.
The march, organized by the New Jersey European Heritage Association (NJEHA), was planned for Saturday morning in Palmer Square in the town of Princeton. Activist groups, including Black Lives Matter and the Central Jersey Democratic Socialists of America, planned a counter-protest nearby.
In a sign of the post-Pittsburgh and post-Charlottesville times, despite a Friday morning announcement from NJEHA via Twitter that the march had been a joke all along and would not proceed, the counter-protests still happened as planned with hundreds of protesters from the town and the university congregating in Palmer Square on Saturday. A group of Jewish students joined the counter-protests, accompanied by members of Princeton’s Young Democratic Socialists’ club because Shabbat-observant students were not carrying cell phones, after services on Saturday morning.
“Many of the observant Jewish students, myself included, were concerned in particular about being visibly Jewish, walking from the CJL in a small group, and not having access to phones on Shabbat,” Ricki Heicklen, a senior at Princeton and president of the campus group Alliance of Jewish Progressives, told The Jewish Week in an email. “They volunteered to have YDS congregate at the CJL so that we could all walk together and Jewish students wouldn’t have to make their way somewhere else without phones.”
About 30 Jewish students participated in the counter-protest, said Heicklen.
The Center for Jewish Life at Princeton remained open over the weekend and hosted over 180 students for Friday night dinner. “First and foremost my concerns were for student safety and that we could exercise our religious freedom and celebrate Shabbat as we usually do at the Center for Jewish Life,” said Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life and Jewish Chaplain at Princeton.
The Center for Jewish Life is currently reassessing its security protocol in the wake of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year. The building was locked with two security guards stationed at the door on Saturday due to the events in Princeton.
Rabbi Roth noted that the group that planned the march, NJEHA, had been somewhat active in Princeton before. “There’s been some other activity by this group in the last two years. There were some posters on campus at one point,” said Rabbi Roth. But, she noted, the event on Saturday turned into a demonstration for “citizens asserting the value of diversity.”
“This was the first time I’d geared up for a counter-protest against white supremacists in Princeton, and the first time I’d felt fearful for my own safety on campus,” Heicklen wrote. “Even with Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and everything else happening nationwide, it still felt surreal to prepare for that on my own campus.”