College Life Today?

Thank you to our community for its outpouring of support for the millions of people impacted by Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and the Eagle Creek fires. We are grateful to those who donated to any disaster relief cause and are proud that the Jewish Federation raised over $40,000 for disaster relief efforts.


Every community has “unsung leaders.” Sadly, Portland lost one of ours August 22 in a car accident. Jane Goldhamer (z”l)was the founder and “true spirit” behind the Kol Shalom Community for Humanistic Judaism. She was a remarkable woman with whom I would often share thoughts on Jewish communal and religious life. 


Humanistic Judaism is focused on a positive connection to Jewish culture, values and heritage without the traditional God-centered worship. You can learn more about Jane’s role and the history of Humanistic Judaism in Portland by reading this.


Our community’s thoughts go out to Jane’s family and the Kol Shalom community who will all miss her greatly. May they all be comforted by the mourners of Zion.


Last week an important study about experiences for Jewish college students on campus was released by Stanford University, Safe and on the Sidelines – Jewish Students and the Israel-Palestine Conflict on Campus.


In recent years, concern has grown for the wellbeing and even the civil rights of Jewish college students. Much of this attention has resulted from a widespread sense that college campuses have become increasingly tolerant of and even provoking/encouraging anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment. Campuses have been called “hotspots of anti-Semitism.” The overall impression is one in which Jewish students are under attack by fellow student activists, fearful of voicing their opinions and expressing their Jewishness publicly. This impression, though supported by survey research and reported widely in the press, does not fully represent the experiences of Jewish students on campus. 


This study, based on in-depth interviews conducted with 66 students at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Stanford University, UCLA, and UC Irvine (each of these campuses is generally considered a challenging campus for Jewish students and pro-Israel activities), actually noted that Jewish students report “low levels of anti-Semitism” and feel safe on their campuses.


Researchers deliberately selected subjects who “were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses. What makes them interesting is that they don’t feel threatened by anti-Semitism. They notice it but don’t take it personally. Not a single one characterized their campus as anti-Semitic.”


When the students did encounter discomfort, they traced it not to the Israel/Palestine debate, but specifically to the tenor of the debate. Students told researchers repeatedly that activists on both sides had become too strident, and the terms of debate too divisive. They held both supporters and critics of Israel responsible for creating this environment. 


Sadly, the interviewees expressed frustration at being drawn into campus debates about the Israel-Palestine conflict simply because they were Jewish. The majority of interviewees parsed differences between being Jewish and supporting Israeli policy, and they objected to the expectation that their identity as Jews meant they held one kind of politics. The force of these expectations left them feeling marginalized in both activist communities and Jewish groups on campus. As a result, they often chose to avoid politics or organized Jewish life entirely.


In general: 


• Students feel safe on campus. 

• Students reject the conflation of Jewish and Israel. 

• Students struggle with Israel. Many feel an affinity to Israel, which they carry from their childhoods, but they also readily acknowledge that Israel’s politics and policies may contradict their own political values.

• Students find the tone of campus political activism in general, and around Israel and Palestine specifically, to be harsh, divisive, and alienating. 

• Students who wish to speak up often opt out, choosing silence and avoidance over direct engagement in a political arena that they find off-putting and unproductive. 

• The persistence of internal conflicts, the tenor of campus debate, and the expectations about what others think students should feel and how they should identify often result in student disengagement from both political discourse and from the campus Jewish community. 


Not a single one of the interviews characterized their campus as “anti-Semitic.” A few students even noted that they were aware of their school’s reputation as a bastion of anti-Semitism, but they rejected this reputation, claiming it misrepresented their schools. Students also shared occasional incidents they observed that did qualify as anti-Semitic, but they refused to let a few isolated events define their whole campus community. 


We must recognize that this is a small (yet important) sample from five west coast universities. Many campuses continue to have great challenges in regard to Israel, which are themselves seen as volatile surrogate battlefields to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


There is both good news and bad news from this study.


The good news is that (these) Jewish students do not feel concerned about anti-Semitism on their campuses. Anti-Semitism rarely exists outside of political talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and when it does, students see it in the context of other modes of careless student speech and not as a direct threat to them. Otherwise, they generally feel safe as students and as members of their campus communities.


The bad news is more complicated. Interventions into campus life that reinforce differences or seek to bolster one side of the debate would likely increase the sense of divisiveness and further strengthen impressions that discussion is both impossible and unpleasant. This is where our Hillel and Chabad programs on campus can make such a difference. We are fortunate to have a new campus shlicha from Israel, Hagit, whose goal is for greater Israel engagement!


Lots to think about. I am sure not everyone feels the same as these 66 students (and our campuses have their challenges), but let’s hope our college students have only positive experiences.


Shabbat shalom. And, with the High Holy Days beginning next Wednesday evening, please click here for a calendar listing of synagogue options.




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