At The New School, an anti-Zionist campus rabbi is ‘not so radical,’ students say


(New York Jewish Week) — The seder at The New School on the first night of Passover was in many ways quite traditional. Matzah, haroset and bitter herbs were arrayed on a seder plate used by students sharing the holiday meal together.

But in other ways, the seder lived up to the century-old university’s longtime reputation as a hotbed of radical politics. The seder plate included both olives and strawberries for Palestinian rights. At the end of the meal, attendees adapted the traditional concluding words to say, “Next year in free Jerusalem” — a reference to the oppression that its participants say Palestinians face from Israel.

The seder was one of dozens organized by anti-Zionist Jewish students on college campuses this Passover, as part of a sweeping pro-Palestinian protest movement that has spiraled out from Columbia University, about seven miles north of The New School in Manhattan. As at Columbia, police broke up The New School’s encampment, arresting 43 people last week.

Now, faculty members have created an encampment of their own, marking a first in the movement and vowing not to turn in grades until the students’ demands for divestment from Israel are met.

What distinguishes the New School seder — and its faculty encampment — is that both have the support of the school’s Jewish religious leader, who identifies as an anti-Zionist.

“I am deeply moved that so many [New School] students have joined the Gaza solidarity encampment,” Louisa Solomon, an alumna with decades of anti-Zionist activism under her belt, told the New York Jewish Week. “We are witnessing a multiracial, multifaith global movement for liberation and our students at TNS represent a vibrant piece of it, demanding their tuition dollars stop supporting genocide.”

Solomon, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, became The New School’s on-campus rabbi last fall — the first in the school’s history. Solomon arrived on campus just before the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that launched the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and spurred anti-Israel protests worldwide, including at colleges and universities.

“It often feels to me like what happened after Oct. 7 is that the center fell out,” Solomon told the New York Jewish Week. “Cracks and divides in the Jewish community are longstanding. But the inflammation and passion and pain around them is more pronounced after Oct. 7. And that’s true at The New School, I think, as it is elsewhere.”

Solomon stands out because most campus rabbis are affiliated with either Hillel International or the Chabad Hasidic movement, both of which support Israel. Many at schools with encampments have focused on supporting and advocating for Jewish undergraduates who have been disquieted, and at times targeted and harassed, by the protests. Like most rabbis, they reject the notion that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

Solomon, by contrast, was one of about 300 people arrested at the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace’s “emergency seder in the streets” to protest U.S. support for the Israeli military on the second night of Passover. It was not her first time facing arrest for pro-Palestinian activism since Oct. 7. She is a member of the group Rabbis for Ceasefire.

“As I met with Jewish students at the TNS Gaza solidarity encampment preparing for Shabbat services to be held there, I was struck by how much of their pain and fear comes not from the sources mainstream media suggests, but from Jewish communities,” Solomon said. “Jewish parents, camps and synagogues are in many cases condemning these courageous students, questioning their Judaism, kicking them out.”

Her work on campus, where she was hired part-time primarily to serve the non-Zionist Jewish Culture Club, has centered on supporting students who are participating in the protests. The club was created as an alternative to Hillel, which has a small presence and no dedicated staff on campus. (The seven-college Hillel consortium serving the school also does not employ a rabbi.)

Solomon’s support for the club has benefited students who are involved, they told the New York Jewish Week.

“As a Jewish student, the Jewish Culture Club has been a very safe space for me, especially meeting with Louisa and meeting with other students at these events,” said Stella, who has been active in the New School’s encampment. (She asked to be identified by a nickname and that her last name not be used because the administration had threatened to suspend students involved in the protest.)

Stella, a first year at The New School, said the Jewish Culture Club and guidance from Rabbi Louisa Solomon have provided a “safe space” for her on campus. (Jackie Hajdenberg)

Although not explicitly anti-Zionist at its inception, since Oct. 7 the Jewish Culture Club has trended that way. It condemned a Hillel trip to Israel that students at other city colleges took last fall. And it joined Students for Justice in Palestine in protesting when Hillel (which had just absorbed a pro-Israel advocacy group) invited an Israel Defense Forces soldier to speak about his Oct. 7 experience. It also held a Shabbat service in the encampment.

The divide between Hillel and the Jewish Culture Club has been deepening, according to a recent report in The New School’s student newspaper. The paper reported that the pro-Israel advocacy group had messaged the Jewish Culture Club to collaborate on an event but had not gotten a response. Solomon, meanwhile, said she has tried to set up a meeting with the Hillel president but did not hear back.

The New York Jewish Week was unable to reach Hillel’s student president at The New School, and the director of the CUNY/Baruch Hillel consortium did not respond to requests for comment.

But some Hillel-affiliated students have taken notice of Solomon’s presence. Henry Shane, a Jewish junior who is on the Hillel student board, said last month that he was avoiding campus entirely because of the encampment. Occasionally, Shane attends New York University’s Conservative minyan, which is run through that school’s own Hillel. He still keeps in touch with his hometown rabbi in California, too. But he said he doesn’t feel like he has pastoral support from his own university.

“It’s really unfortunate that The New School has a rabbinic intern who has made clear on her social media platform where she stands,” Shane told the New York Jewish Week. “She does attend many of these demonstrations at The New School and I think that has also really defined who she is for many students.”

Meanwhile, at Columbia, Jewish student pro-Palestinian protesters said they craved the kind of rabbinic support Solomon offers. Shay Lev, a sophomore active in Jewish Voice for Peace and that school’s encampment, said it was “so cool” to hear about a rabbi who was supporting anti-Zionist Jewish students. (Like Stella, Shay Lev — the student’s first and middle names — declined to be identified by their full name because of fear of retribution.)

“I’ve had so many people come to me being, like, ‘I haven’t gone to a seder, I didn’t come to a Shabbat dinner for years, because I haven’t felt welcome in Jewish spaces.’ And then they come to JVP services, and they pray for the first time in years,” Shay Lev said. “And yeah, I would really appreciate an actual qualified rabbi doing it, so I don’t have to, because you know, I’m a 20-year-old without any rabbinical training.”

Founded in 1919, The New School, which enrolls approximately 7,200 undergraduates and is located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, has a long history of radical activism. “Dissenting opinions, radical ideas, and progressive solutions have always had a home at The New School,” the school’s website boasts.

It also notes a handful of past students who were drawn to the school’s mission, including former Israeli President Shimon Peres while he worked for Israel’s Defense Ministry in the 1950s. Political theorist and Jewish refugee Hannah Arendt, who was critical of Zionism but not opposed to it, was a professor of social research there in the 1960s and ’70s.

Solomon graduated in 2005, having majored in cultural studies with a concentration in race, ethnicity and postcolonial studies. As a student, she was also an activist involved in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and a predecessor to Jewish Voice for Peace, called Jews Against the Occupation.

In 2002, Solomon was one of four Jewish activists ejected after interrupting a talk by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. “Fortunately, we weren’t arrested in the end, and I think we got our point across,” she said on the progressive radio show “Democracy Now” at the time.

Solomon grew up in a home with parents who were political activists in the 1960s and 1970s — she recalls a shelf in her home full of books by Black Panthers and a now-out-of-print anthology of Palestinian poetry. Although she says she always felt religious, she didn’t have much of a formal religious education. She did not apply to rabbinical school until she was pregnant with her second child, now 4.

In her current role, she has protested Israel since the earliest days of the war. On Oct. 8, she posted a photo of herself with her child in a sukkah, celebrating the holiday that was ending as news of the Hamas attack and its steep toll was still emerging.

“Judaism can be liberatory and Judaism can be an instrument of oppression,” she posted on Instagram. “Judaism is not Zionism and my kids will not be taught that their Jewishness requires loyalty to Israel, insularity, or valuing Jewish life more than non-Jewish life.”

She credits her time at The New School with awakening her as a Jewish activist.

“Jewishness for me was very connected to social justice activism as a young person,” she said. “I made Jewish friends at The New School and found that many of us were queer, many of us were far to the left of the established Jewish communities we’d had access to before. And we got connected to Jewish activism.”

After graduating, Solomon’s activism receded somewhat as she embarked on both a professional and musical career. She worked first at UJA-Federation of New York, which has a long history of supporting Israel, and then at the publishing house Simon and Schuster for many years while also touring with her band The Shondes, whose Yiddish name means “shame.”

But she was never shy about her opposition to Israel, and in 2014, the Washington, D.C., Jewish federation canceled The Shondes’ headlining role at a music festival over Solomon’s support for the movement to boycott Israel.

Solomon said at the time that she and her bandmates had engaged in activism together as New School students and that she felt they were making an impact on Jewish fans who supported Israel.

“Since the band formed in 2006, we haven’t had as much time for that kind of activism,” she told Tablet. “A lot of it has happened through the band’s shows, and trying to do events with Hillels has brought forth opportunities to talk about the issue with Zionists.”

Jonathan Sarna, a prominent Jewish historian and professor at Brandeis University, said Solomon’s appointment reflects two trends: a growing shortage of non-Orthodox rabbis to fill open positions, and rising anti-Israel sentiment among younger Jews.

“A couple of years ago, there was a rabbinical student declaration [about Israel] that really angered many, many leaders of the Jewish community because of the virulent-seeming one-sidedness, as they saw it, of the documents,” he said, referring to a 2021 petition by dozens of rabbinical students accusing Israel of apartheid. “There was this question, ‘Will young rabbis be able to lead the community?’ Now we are seeing that that is coming forward.”

Sarna, who disparaged Jewish participation in the encampments, lamented the idea of a campus rabbi who ideologically overlaps with only some Jewish students on campus. “Part of your obligation is to say, ‘I’m available to the whole spectrum of Jews,’ just like in a family,” he said.

Solomon said that she does aim to serve “any and all students,” including non-Jewish students, who seek her guidance. She says she would be happy to meet with Hillel’s leaders or anyone else, no matter their beliefs about Israel.

“It’s definitely a source of great sadness to me if anyone feels unable to approach me in a rabbinic capacity because of disagreements they have with my political views,” she said. “I know what that feels like, to be a person who can’t seek out support from a rabbi, because that rabbi has alienated me — certainly an experience many of us have had.”

Critics and allies of Solomon agree on at least one thing: In light of the seismic shifts transforming the American Jewish world since Oct. 7, the idea of an anti-Zionist campus rabbi is no longer as surprising as it once was.

“There’s that old saying that Jews have a difficult time agreeing on things,” Stella said. “There’s so much diversity in Jewish culture, so I don’t think the idea of an anti-Zionist rabbi is so radical.”