Hillel International has gotten into the fight against antisemitism in the University of Wisconsin system, enrolling administrators in a free educational program and presenting to the UW System Board of Regents.
It’s not clear if there has been a speaker before at a board of regents, on antisemitism, at a large public university anywhere. If so, it’s likely a rarity.
“We were pleased to provide Hillel the opportunity to address the board,” said Mark Pitsch, spokesman for the UW-System. “It’s critical we identify issues so we can educate and sensitize our university communities to these issues.”
Board of Regents
Mark B. Rotenberg, vice president, university initiatives & legal affairs for Hillel International, delivered remarks at the UW System Board of Regents meeting, Nov. 10, 2022: “Addressing Campus Antisemitism: Awareness, Allyship, Action.”
“I thought it was very positive,” recalled Michael Blumenfeld, the executive director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, who was in the room. “You look around and people weren’t looking at their phones. They were looking at the presentation.”
Rotenberg opened by explaining that the Jewish people include those of lower incomes, Jews of color, and people who identify as having “no religion.” He said that even for those who say “no religion,” there can be a “broader cultural identification” that “can be felt very strongly.”
He discussed the rise in antisemitism and that data shows many students don’t know how to report antisemitic incidents on campus. He also talked about how criticism of Israeli policy is not necessarily antisemitic, but the nature of the criticism can turn antisemitic, as when Israelis are drawn with exaggerated physical features. Greg Steinberger, president and CEO of Madison Hillel, assisted with the presentation and mentioned various antisemitic incidents, including “Jews out of Wisconsin” stickers on Madison-area garbage cans.
The Jewish people are a “community that feels assaulted in many ways globally,” Steinberger said. “These things have led Jewish students to say: I don’t publicly feel comfortable wearing a Star of David around my neck.”
Wisconsin Regent President Karen Walsh was shaken. “It’s hard to hear some of the things that you’re saying,” she said.
Walsh asked if Rotenberg had any advice on how make it easier for students to report acts of antisemitism. Rotenberg suggested naming the hate – is it sexual violence? Anti-Black hate?
“A 19-year-old needs to hear: that’s what the university is asking, that’s what the university needs to hear,” Rotenberg responded. “… you’ll get a better, more honest display of what’s actually going on around your campus.”
Campus Climate Initiative
The Campus Climate Initiative is a program for college administrators. Groups of professionals from different schools gather data related to the climate of Jewish students; learn to better understand the needs of Jewish students; and create and adopt best practice policies.
“We are now in our third cohort of schools,” said Rotenberg, who also runs Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative. “The idea is that schools will go through the program together so that they learn from each other.”
Both administrators from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the UW System have signed up to participate. The UW Madison cohort started in September and still has about a year of sessions to go, according to Hillel International.
The Campus Climate Initiative works with third-party social scientists to run focus groups of students on campus and otherwise collect data, for the group to analyze and learn from. “We don’t just come in and say, here’s what we think,” Rotenberg said
The services are generally costly but free to the schools.
In April, about 40 university teams, including Madison, will gather at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a two-day meeting, to share what has been learned.
“We’re there to help them understand the Jewish community and its needs. Why are some students asking for hard keys as opposed to magnetic keys for Saturdays and Fridays? …. Why do students have all these special dietary needs over Passover?” were examples he offered, from the perspective of administrators. “So improving the climate for Jewish students on campus is not simply about punishing people who put swastikas in bathroom stalls. It’s a whole array of conditions that Jewish students face on campus. And Hillel is there to help these universities learn and get better.”