MADISON — The University of Wisconsin – Madison campus is a place where you can Jewishly connect as much as you like and can even immerse yourself in a Jewish bubble.
But there can be moments of ignorance and even some rare episodes of anti-Semitism on campus.
Interviews with several students on campus reveal a vibrant campus Jewish life, including students who say they feel safe displaying their Jewishness. They’ll wear a Jewish T-shirt and nobody says a thing, at least nothing negative.
Rebekah Lear, 22, from Minneapolis, a senior majoring in management and human resources, said she feels safe and Jewishly supported here, despite her brief brush with anti-Semitism.
“There’s a lot of options here for Jewish people to be involved with,” she said. “That’s something that I really, really appreciated, going into college.”
“I would 100 percent recommend coming here.”
Yet in October, she said, a mezzuzah was ripped off her door and off the door of another apartment here. Around the same time a Nazi symbol was carved into the wall by the elevator door on her floor, she said.
A student reported it to the private apartment managers, but not to police, she said.
She felt angry and confused. “I didn’t really think anti-Semitism was that intense where we were to be honest,” she said.
Several other students interviewed said they feel completely safe as Jews on campus and had no stories like Lear’s. A few noted that Swastikas had been found in public places on campus, but that they didn’t feel individually targeted.
Sydney Ellis, 21, a senior journalism and strategic communications major, from Simsbury, Connecticut, wears her Star of David necklace – out and proud – on campus.
“I’ve had people look at it and not say anything,” she said, but they’ve also said, “I love that you’re wearing that.”
“I have not personally experienced any discrimination,” said Gilad Segal, 22, a senior and microbiology major from St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s in Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish-themed fraternity.
Students said Greek life can create a strong network of Jewish life here, with several fraternities and sororities a part of the Jewish universe. But they’re not the only option. Students said there are a variety of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations with plenty to do.
The Jewish bubble
Lear is one of those who said she lives in a Jewish bubble, with so many of her friends and activities connected with the Jewish community. Segal said he lives in a Jewish bubble, but doesn’t want it to be his whole world.
Talia Subar, 19, a freshman interested in medical school, attended a high school in Los Angeles that was “half Jewish” and is used to a world that leans more to the left. To her, Madison seems – brace yourself – conservative.
She feels she’s had to explain things more in Madison, but she, like others, said she feels safe on campus.
“I’ve never really faced any anti-Semitism.”
Despite that the undergraduate student body is 13 percent Jewish, according to the Hillel International College Guide, Ellis said she’s met people who just don’t know what Jews are. “There’s a difference between ignorance and intolerance,” she said.
“I’ve met some people who haven’t really encountered any Jews in their life,” said Lexi Hilton, 18, a freshman from St. Paul, Minnesota who is thinking about either teaching or nursing. She’s encountered ignorance, including Jewish jokes, “but it’s not funny.” She’s been told she doesn’t “look Jewish,” even though, of course, a Jew can look like anybody.
When having conversations with students who are unfamiliar with Judaism, it’s “a weird thing,” she said, “because their perception of Judaism is based solely off of me.” In that moment, she becomes an ambassador for all of us.
“It makes me realize how hard it must be to be a Jew in other places.”