Hillel groups responding to hate acts by bringing together campus communities

Hillel students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., setting up their sukkah in early October 2009, days before it was vandalized. (Stanford University Hillel)

Hillel students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., setting up their sukkah in early October 2009, days before it was vandalized. (Stanford University Hillel)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Stanford University’s Jewish community celebrated the first night of Sukkot eating the traditional festive meal inside the sukkah they put up every year.

The next morning, on Oct. 3, a student walked into the sukkah to discover that it had been vandalized: Someone had spray-painted large phalluses on the entrance flaps.

Campus police were called and the graffiti were covered with tapestries. Hillel alerted the entire campus with an e-mail blast.

Although the attack may have been shocking and upsetting, it was not unprecedented.

Sukkahs on college campuses, because they are temporary structures built in the open and typically are unguarded at night, are prime targets for vandalism, whether inspired by drunkenness or anti-Semitism. About two are hit each year on North American campuses, according to Hillel figures.

Along with sukkah vandalism, college campuses in recent years have been hit by a wave of anti-Semitic graffiti, from swastikas painted on dorm walls to anti-Israel slogans scrawled on the sides of buildings.

This is taking place within a growing atmosphere of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on North American campuses documented in the revised edition of “The UnCivil University,” a publication of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

According to co-author Aryeh Weinberg, while violence against Jewish students has abated somewhat since 2005, when the book’s first edition was published, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus “has risen to a crescendo — the amount of background noise keeps the debate vitriolic.”

Universities don’t always work effectively to defuse dangerous situations, he says, and the Jewish community is often loath to respond, feeling it’s up to national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League or Hillel to take the lead.

What has happened in the past year or two is that Jewish students themselves, faced with anti-Semitism or vandalism, have come up with some creative responses that involve the entire campus community instead of retreating into fear and isolation. 

Responses to recent cases of vandalized sukkahs are a prime example.

In the fall of 2008, the sukkah at the University of Montana in Missoula was so badly vandalized that it had to be taken down two days into the holiday. In 2009, Hillel moved the sukkah to a more secure location and put out a campus-wide call for volunteers to sleep in it overnight to discourage attacks.

Many of the students who showed up were not Jewish, including freshman Robin Richardson. She spent one night in a tent right outside the sukkah, while two other students slept inside.

“I volunteered to do it because I don’t want to see anyone’s religious traditions destroyed,” said Richardson, who describes herself as a nondenominational Christian. “Yes, it was freezing out.”

At Stanford — in an unexpected outpouring of love and support that poured in after Hillel sent out its notice — administration, faculty and students inundated the Hillel office with e-mails and phone calls in response to the sukkah vandalism.

Christian, Muslim and Hindu student groups offered their condolences, said the the Palo Alto school’s Hillel rabbi, Mychal Copeland, adding that a Muslim group offered to raise funds from all the campus faith-based organizations to buy another sukkah.

“We were saddened that such an act would be carried out on Stanford’s campus, a place that we generally assume is above such acts of hate and intimidation,” wrote Abdulkareem Agunbiade and Mohammad Ali, presidents of the Islamic Society of Stanford University and the Muslim Student Awareness Network.

Responding to live demonstrations of hatred is another challenge for Jewish students.

The virulently homophobic and anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based hate group composed mainly of Fred Phelps and his family, since April has been targeting Jewish institutions, traveling from city to city to picket outside Hillel buildings, Jewish community centers, federation offices and synagogues. Their posters denigrate gays, Jews and others the “church” believes contravene God’s laws.

In early September, Westboro announced it was coming to Norman, Okla., on the eve of Rosh Hashanah to picket the University of Oklahoma Hillel before moving on to the Jewish federation and two synagogues in Oklahoma City.

University of Oklahoma Hillel students and staff, after consulting with the Anti-Defamation League, decided not to respond.

“Some of the students were upset, they said we need to do something,” said Keren Ayalon, executive director of OU Hillel. “I said that’s exactly what Westboro wants, a counter-protest to get publicity.”

Instead, several hundred non-Jewish students and faculty members showed up at the Hillel building during Westboro’s protest to show solidarity with the Jewish students.

Inspired by this outpouring of support, juniors Sam Scharff and Misheala Giddings organized a multicultural rally in the student union. Hundreds of students representing 60 campus groups, from the Black Students Association to the Society of Native American Gentlemen to Sooners for Peace in Palestine, showed up to sing, dance, eat and sign a huge banner promoting diversity.

“There was a huge mass of support for us as Jews,” Scharff said. “It evolved into something much more meaningful than one response to Westboro.”

Hillel students at Stanford felt the same way after their sukkah attack.

Overwhelmed by the supportive calls and e-mails, Jewish Student Association president Joe Gettinger invited the entire campus to join Hillel for Sabbath dinner in the sukkah on Oct. 9, the last night of the holiday. It is traditional, he wrote, to invite ushpizin, or guests, into the sukkah for a meal.

Sixty people crowded into the makeshift structure that night to eat and celebrate together. One was Anand Venkatkrishnan, head of the campus interfaith group Stanford FAITH.

“The vandalism of a holy structure is unacceptable to me as a person of faith,” he wrote Gettinger earlier in the week. “The duty of an interfaith leader is not only to condemn an attack on another, but to prevent it from occurring.”

In his letter thanking the Stanford community, Gettinger noted that a sukkah is not a permanent structure, that it is designed to be temporary, even flimsy.

“This is a reminder that no matter how rooted and permanent we may seem, each individual, each community is dependent on something larger than itself,” he wrote. “What grounds the sukkah is not the canvas and metal that make up the frame. It is the people and community that fill it.”

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