A difficult school year, with hope and gratitude | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

A difficult school year, with hope and gratitude 

I accepted the job as executive director of Hillel Milwaukee just over a year ago because of my passion for Jewish learning, my love of building supportive Jewish communities, and my desire to have an impact on the future of Judaism by strengthening the next generation of Jewish leaders. And though Zionism and a love of Israel have always been central to my Jewish identity, and while I hope to use this position to help Jewish students discover and develop their own love for Israel, I have always wanted this to be framed positively. I want their relationship with Israel to be based on a love of its people, history and culture, not out of a need to defend it from offensive and absurd criticisms. I want them to think critically of Israel, acknowledging its shortcomings and mistakes and seeking to fix them out of a deep commitment to its character, not avoiding these conversations for fear of how their classmates will exploit them.   

Yet as I write these words, during a rapidly changing situation, Hillel students and staff are mired in a situation which has cast Jewish life on campus into the defensive. It began with protests just days after the Oct. 7 attack, which called for Israel’s destruction, robbing our students from the opportunity to mourn that horrific day before immediately being put on the defensive. It continued when a November panel, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, included disgusting antisemitic statements from a panelist invited by the university, in the presence of Chancellor Mark Mone, and the university’s refusal to acknowledge or apologize for the offensive remarks. In April, I was with a group of Jewish students and Hillel staff, who gathered to hand out lunch and listen to songs of peace performed by an Israeli singer. We were encircled by protesters calling for “intifada” until we needed police protection to flee campus. Then, an illegal encampment set up by protesters openly calling for Israel’s destruction was not only tolerated by the University, but each time it rained the protesters were given a warm room to ride out the storm before returning to their encampment. And most recently, the encampment has come down, disassembled by UWM employees paid for with taxpayer money. This was part of Chancellor Mone’s choice to capitulate to the protesters’ demands, while also adopting their hateful rhetoric in a May 12 public letter and agreement with encampment organizers.  

Unlike Chancellor Mone, I do not have a large degree of influence on the culture of UWM, but I am deeply invested in the culture of UWM’s Jewish student community. When I speak with the Jewish students at UWM every day, I often have two conflicting emotions. First is a deep sense of sadness, each time I see a student shrug off someone screaming an antisemitic epithet at them from a passing car or see a student leader post a call for intifada on social media. I am sad because while it clearly bothers them, they are so used to it, as hostility towards Jews has become so common on campus. But my other feeling is deep gratitude. Our students have continued to make attempts at dialogue with those who scream in their faces, demonstrating that they will not respond to hatred in kind. They have supported each other and created unique bonds with one another and with Jewish faculty and staff to face these challenges with the support of their campus community. And most of all, they continue to show up at Hillel to celebrate their heritage and find pride in their identity. 

I felt this most poignantly on the second day of the encampment. Students came to Hillel for our Mimouna celebration, the traditional Moroccan-Jewish celebration of the end of Passover. On their way to our building, some of them had to walk past the encampment for the first time. Several arrived in tears, not believing that such hate was proudly on display on their campus and being tolerated by the university. Yet only a few minutes later, and just a few feet away from the encampment, those same students were dancing to Israeli music, and held a joyful henna ceremony for two of our student leaders who just became engaged. Looking at our students dancing, and outside of our window seeing the encampment, I was struck by the dissonance. A protest mired in death, destruction and hate on the one side, and a celebration focused on life, community and joy on the other. One of these groups could set the tone for the culture on the UWM campus. Perhaps the chancellor ought to pay a bit more attention to the ones focused on learning, listening and engagement, and a bit less on those acting out of anger, outrage and hate.  

Our amazing students give me hope for the future, as does the support of our local Jewish community. Though I was born and raised in this community, I have returned to it after many years away, and am reminded of why I came back. This community supports one another in a way that is exemplary of what we endeavor to build and nourish at Hillel. While our staff and students have faced challenges, we at no point have faced them alone.  

When I spoke on that horrific panel in November, I saw the faces of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council leadership sitting in the audience to support me and our students. When we were encircled and harassed by antisemitic protesters on campus, I was comforted because I was with my congregation’s cantor, Hazzan Jeremy Stein, who had joined us to share his musical gifts at the event, and we were protected by Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Josh Martinson, who had joined us to keep us safe. I have received calls and advice from the leaders of every institution in town, including Jewish Family Services, the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, and the rabbis of nearly every congregation.  When we had to decide how to celebrate Shabbat at Hillel for the first time in earshot of the encampment, over sixty community members came to lend their support in numbers. Madison’s Hillel’s CEO, Greg Steinberger, has spent countless hours on the phone with me and leveraged every personal relationship he has to open doors for me to stakeholders and decision-makers who can help me to support my students, all while managing his own challenges on campus. And most of all, I have had a partner in Miryam Rosenzweig, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation president and CEO, who has supported, mentored, and advised me, and activated her entire staff and donor base to help me and my students weather this storm. 

I joined Hillel to build a beautiful Jewish community, and the experience of doing so in such trying times has led me to realize that I am only able to do so because of the beautiful Jewish community which raised me, and which currently supports me. Someday, soon I hope, the protests on campus will calm down and the university administrators who have acted improperly will be held accountable. Meanwhile, our students will continue to support one another and celebrate their Judaism. Despite all the challenges, as serious as they are, our amazing community and incredible students have me feeling something wonderful: I am grateful.

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Writer Rabbi Joshua Herman is executive director of Hillel Milwaukee, which serves students at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and other area schools.