As someone who grew up in a Jewish “bubble,” I knew college would be different. I knew I would meet many people with backgrounds different than my own, and most would tolerate and respect my Judaism. But I also knew and expected there would be anti-Semitism. Most youth organizations run various seminars on anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity at college to prepare Jewish students for when they arrive on campus. As a product of Jewish day school, youth groups, Jewish summer camp and a gap year in Israel, I sat through my fair share of those discussions. But the reality is, you can never know what it will feel like until it is happening.
The first incident at Syracuse University occurred in Day Hall, a freshman dorm. Racist graffiti was found on two floors of the building on Nov. 6 and reported to the Department of Public Safety the next day, according to a Daily Orange article. However, the administration did not release a statement about the graffiti until Nov. 11, five days after the incident.
Because of the lack of response, the #NotAgainSU movement started, and students began protesting in the Barnes Center, the new campus wellness center, on Nov. 13. Later that day, more racist graffiti was found in an academic building, so the sit-in, intended to last from 10 a.m. until 1 a.m., continued. It went on for eight days, because the racism and anti-Semitism did not stop; there was a total of 14 reported bias-related incidents, according to The Daily Orange.
The anti-Semitic acts only began the day after the sit-in started, on Nov. 14. A swastika was found drawn into the snow behind an off-campus apartment building, just a few blocks away from Hillel.
I was at Hillel that evening, heading over for my weekly Jewish Learning Fellowship session, only to find out what had happened. I was horrified. I had attended the sit-in for a short period on the first day to show support, but now I was a target.
The following morning, Nov. 15, Chancellor Kent Syverud met with Hillel staff, four Jewish students and the president of the Central New York Jewish Federation, according to Rebecca Sereboff, a sophomore and Hillel leader who attended this meeting. They began the preliminary discussion that would eventually turn into the two-page “Jewish Student Community Needs” document, which Syverud ultimately signed.
“The chancellor came to show concern for the community and in the meeting he asked us what he should be doing to support the [Jewish] community,” said Sereboff.
But nothing was over yet. It seemed as though every day students would get another email from the Department of Public Safety with a new reported incident. On Nov. 19 around 1 a.m., a white supremacist shooter manifesto was AirDropped to the phones and laptops of several students in Bird Library. This led many professors to cancel classes, and many schools and colleges at Syracuse to adjust their attendance policies for the week. Some students even changed their travel plans to leave earlier for Thanksgiving break, and the campus was in total uproar.
The following day, Nov. 20, a community forum was held. Chancellor Syverud, the chief of the public safety department, Bobby Maldonado, and many other university leaders and officials came to answer any questions. When the #NotAgainSU students demanded that Chancellor Syverud sign their demands at the forum, Syverud raised a couple of issues with the demands and the students left chanting “sign or resign.” The forum continued and several students and faculty raised questions and concerns with the current campus climate.
After the forum, a group of Jewish students went back to the Winnick Hillel Center and worked with Hillel staff to formalize a document of “Jewish Student Community Needs.”
The Jewish Student Community Needs were broken down into six categories: security assessment for university-owned buildings, communication between DPS and the SU community, religious observance, Judaism as an identity, marginalized identity student leadership coalition and better communication. With only a couple minor changes, the chancellor signed the document.
“When writing the list of needs, we tried to think of issues that were unique to the Jewish community … to me, being Jewish is as much a part of me as being female, and I want my professors to understand that,” explained Sereboff.
Syverud relented. The evening of the forum, he signed the demands of the #NotAgainSU students and the international students, and the following morning, he met and signed the Jewish Student Community Needs.
Pride and Resilience
Thanksgiving Break began on Nov. 22. Over the break, students received an email with the subject “Rising Above Hate and Fear.” This was the first university communication that dealt with handling this sort of hatred on campus and treated the situation as something other than a safety threat.
When classes resumed on Dec. 3, after a snow day, many professors spent time processing the events before returning to business as usual. Hillel held a student community action meeting to help process everything and move forward. Hendricks chapel held a vigil on Dec. 4 with speakers from diverse faiths and backgrounds. The vigil concluded with a candle lighting. Though there was not a large attendance, the ceremony was beautiful, and finally showed the diverse Syracuse University community coming together.
Even though there have been anti-Semitic incidents on my campus, through it all I still woke up every day with my Hadaya necklace around my neck and a mezuzah on my dorm wall. I felt proud to be Jewish. Had I hidden my necklace or taken down my mezuzah, the people who drew the swastika and wrote the racist graffiti would have won.
The Syracuse Hillel staff did an excellent job supporting Jewish students during this difficult time. They were constantly available for support and helped many students, myself included, process the events and take action in stopping hatred.
I hope that throughout these next four years at Syracuse, I never have to experience another crazy few weeks like I did in November. But these weeks taught me a lot about Jewish pride, resilience, coming together and combatting hate. And alas, my Jewish bubble has popped.
Mira Berenbaum is a freshman at Syracuse University.