Standing up for themselves: Marquette students build ‘blossoming’ Jewish life despite divestment

   For Jewish students at Marquette University, academic year 2014-15 ended with what could have been a crisis.

   At the end of April, the student senate voted on a resolution that originally called for the university to divest from a handful of companies doing business with Israel. It was proposed by the MU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and several other student organizations, and was an example of the kind of thing SJP chapters have been doing at colleges and universities all over the country.

   Jewish students Michaela Bear and Seth Haines were members of this year’s student senate, and they helped work against passage of the resolution as SJP proposed it.

   The event proved divisive on the campus and exhausting for the students. “I definitely felt it affected my sleep and my social life,” Haines said. “The experience was very draining… I’m not sure I could undergo again something that long or continuous.”

   Bear said the situation “was very divisive for minority student groups.” The SJP, she said, created a coalition of minority students’ organizations to support the divestment resolution, and Jewish students “felt isolated from other students” as a result.

   Moreover, “Students in SJP started referring to all Jewish students and even non-Jewish students against divestment as ‘Zios’ [short for Zionists] in a degrading and demeaning manner,” Bear said.

   Anna Goldstein, co-president of MU’s Jewish Student Union with Bear, spoke at the student senate’s open hearing on the resolution before its closed session vote. She said she found that “people who knew I was Jewish assumed I was pro-Israel. I had to say I was pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace.”

 
Signs of growth

   Ultimately, their work succeeded. The senate on April 27 turned the resolution from a divestment demand to a general call for “socially responsible investing” by the university and in that form passed it 20-3. (The MU website lists 25 senate members.)

   Elana Kahn-Oren is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. She has worked with students, faculty and the MU administration on such issues and has followed the developments.

   “None of [these Jewish students] signed up for what they ended up facing,” she said. “Some of them really stepped up to counter some of the very vicious anti-Israel rhetoric on campus… They have been extraordinary advocates for themselves.”

   Nevertheless, all three of these students in conversations with The Chronicle said that the divestment controversy should not be allowed to overwhelm their experience of being at Marquette, a Catholic and Jesuit university that is one of Wisconsin’s oldest and largest private universities.

   In fact, largely because of their work, this academic year has also seen a blossoming of Jewish student life at MU, which has included the recent dedication of a room provided by the MU administration as the JSU’s headquarters.

   For all these reasons, Heidi Rattner, executive director of Hillel Milwaukee, nominated these three students — and two others, Isaac Vineburg and Jnana Konjit Martin, who couldn’t be interviewed at this time — for the Jewish National Fund’s Next Generation Leadership Honor. They will receive it at the Wisconsin Region JNF’s Tribute Dinner, scheduled for Sept. 2.

   All of these students are “really engaged in community and community issues,” Rattner told The Chronicle. “They came to campus wanting to connect to the Jewish community. Their enthusiasm has been contagious and so brought in other students.”

   The three interviewed students pointed to several Jewish activities that showed how, as Bear put it, “there has been a huge revival” at MU even though only about 45 undergraduates are Jews. (There is also an unknown number of Jewish graduate, law and dental students. The total student body is about 12,000.)

   For example, the MU Campus Ministry bought a sukkah for the Jewish students, and in the autumn, at JSU’s invitation, Jewish students, Hillel Milwaukee and members of the Lutheran Campus Ministry and MU Campus Ministry staff all helped build and decorate it, according to Goldstein.

   Moreover, said Goldstein, the JSU invited other campus religious groups to make use of the sukkah, and the Lutheran student group held a Halloween pumpkin carving in it. This is one example of how the JSU is “trying to make strides in interfaith cultural programming while still embracing Judaism,” she said.

   The students also regarded the MU Chanukah party as a significant success. More than 100 students attended.

   In the spring months, about 45 people attended the JSU’s Purim party, and another 55 attended its Passover seder, said Goldstein.

   Goldstein herself, however, is most pleased by a challah braiding event in February. Of the 25 people attending, 23 were Jewish. “There are not often that many” and this showed “we were able to connect with some students,” Goldstein said.

 
Three paths

   Each of these three Jewish students came to this Catholic university by a different path. Haines, who will be a sophomore in September, perhaps had the longest way to go physically and religiously.

   He was raised in Oconto Falls, “about a half-hour north of Green Bay.” While his mother had “Jewish ancestry,” he was “raised secular,” he said.

   He knew he wanted to study political science, and his college choices came down to MU and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He opted for the former because it was smaller and he felt he could receive more individual attention there.

   But it was at MU after meeting and talking with Goldstein that he became not only Jewishly active, but an active Jew. “Before, I just wanted to find out more about” Judaism and Jewish practice, he said. “Now I’m practicing fully.” He added that he puts on tefillin, is studying Hebrew and next year will begin preparing for a bar mitzvah ceremony.

   He also had his first encounter with anti-Semitism. During his second semester, “someone saw me wearing a Star of David, and they said I’m a Jew and I should burn,” Haines said. But he hasn’t had any similar experience since, he added.

   Goldstein will be a junior in the autumn. Her father is Jewish, and she was raised Reform originally in Buffalo Grove, Ill. Then her family moved to Lake Zurich, Ill., where she underwent a Jewish identity crisis.

   “I started keeping kosher because there were no Jews there,” Goldstein said. “I felt I was losing my Jewish identity.”

   She is no stranger to Wisconsin, having attended the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute camp in Oconomowoc for eight years and a seven-week Hebrew-immersion program there, she said.

   She chose Marquette partly because she likes Milwaukee and the “values education” that MU offers. Her experiences in Lake Zurich prepared her for MU, where it is also true that “being Jewish is unusual,” she said.

   Although taking a demanding academic program — Goldstein is majoring in social welfare and justice and minoring in both Spanish and political science — she also decided she had to be active in helping to make Jewish life on campus.

   “I had to make it what I wanted it to be,” she said. She worked with Hillel Milwaukee at UWM, becoming an engagement intern and leading Sabbath services, but “I wanted to see more [Jewish activity] on my campus.”

   Goldstein said she did not encounter much anti-Semitism, but a lot of ignorance. “I got a lot of questions, like, ‘Why come here when you are Jewish?’” she said. Many “grew up sheltered” and “I was the first Jew people met.”

   Bear, a political science major who will be a junior in the fall, is from the Milwaukee suburb of Fox Point and graduated from Nicolet High School and the religious school of Congregation Shalom.

   She chose MU partly because, “it was best to be close to my family and my support system,” and “Milwaukee is a great city to explore.” Like Goldstein, she also liked the concept that at MU one can “live and learn in a community based on values” like “leadership and service.”

   “I didn’t feel odd freshman year” because “I was so focused on adjusting,” said Bear. In her sophomore year, however, “I saw an increase in anti-Semitic remarks” from students and from some professors, though she emphasized that with the professors it was “outside of classes. I never had a problem in class.”

   “I’ve had friends make jokes at me about being a ‘greedy Jew,’ identifying me as ‘the Jew’ in place of my name, calling me a ‘dumb Jew,’” Bear said. However, when she confronts them about it, “they apologize and no longer make jokes or comments.”

   Despite the divestment controversy of this year and the likelihood that SJP will revive it next year, all three students said they will not only return to MU themselves, but would recommend it to other Jewish students.

   “Not going there is not the answer,” said Goldstein, who will be the sole JSU president next year. “We were just awarded a center; it would be just a waste if it were not used.”

   “A lot of good has come out of my religious identity at Marquette,” said Haines, who will be the JSU vice president of finance next year. “I don’t want it to be overshadowed by the divestment controversy.”

   “Academically, I had a wonderful time learning and growing,” said Bear. “I understand that there is a time to stand up for yourself, to be an advocate, but there is also a time to step back and realize a college education is four years and academics and bettering yourself are more important and need to be the focus.”

   Even so, said Bear, “I would not even fathom leaving the Jewish Student Union,” of which she will be the executive vice president next year. “This is one of the best growing organizations on campus.”