Learning from our students

The dignity and poise they’ve demonstrated is beyond what one can reasonably ask under these circumstances.  

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Jewish DePaul University students stand up for Israel, in the face of anti-Israel protests earlier in the spring.

Imagine it's your first year of college. It's been a hard year- first, the horrifying violence of October 7 at the start of the school year. Then, the overwhelming presence of the encampments at the school year's close.  

Night after night, hundreds of people chant into the early morning hours, robbing you of sleep during midterms. In some classes, professors encourage walkouts, hold class at the encampment, or suggest you join class on Zoom if you feel uncomfortable. Imagery equating Zionists to Nazis, valorizing violence against Jews, and praising Hamas leaders follows you around campus.  

The protestors from the encampment don't care whether you feel strongly connected to Israel or not, or whether you support the current government or military actions or not. For them, if you're not on their side, you are pro-genocide.  

Jewish students have been intimidated, taunted, threatened, followed, shoved, and isolated socially. They've had their identities and experiences invalidated and ignored. They've been scared and angry, frustrated and hurt. What is happening on campus is appalling, yet our students continue to take my breath away. 

They walk each other to class, so that no one has to travel across campus alone. They check in on each other. They bring friends to Hillel to hang out, to cry, and to eat. Each time they are asked to share the stories of their experiences--with the administration, with our staff, with anyone we can make listen--they clearly, calmly, and movingly share what their life has been like lately. They talk about the disruption they've experienced, the betrayal they've felt from former friends. They insist on their right to the education they have paid for, continue to show up for, and remain focused on receiving.  

The dignity and poise they've demonstrated is beyond what one can reasonably ask under these circumstances.  

Hillel is doing whatever we can to help them. It has been our painful honor to accompany our students and offer support these past weeks and throughout the last year. We're bringing in food, so folks have a reason to rest in a place they call their own. More students and faculty are gathering together in solidarity than we've ever seen. As we all sit and chat, staff learn about incident after incident occurring on campus. While students have a snack, we help them submit bias reports to the university. We're more in contact, and better able to share updates in real time.  

Hillel's priority is and always has been to support Jewish students. At Hillel, we take care of students and build Jewish community. We've always referred students to mental health professionals and connected them to social service programs when needed. We've always helped students file bias reports with universities and nurtured their leadership.  

Now, in the extreme situation in which we now find ourselves, we're reaching for new ways to meet the unique needs of this moment. We're helping them file police reports, and preparing them to speak out about their experiences as Jewish students on larger stages than ever before.  

This moment calls for renewed commitment to our mission, which itself is unchanged-and it has been gratifying to see how the wider Jewish community has been moved to act. In this time of such division on campus, we are united in our support for the Jewish community at universities across Illinois.  

Rabbi Nicole Berne is the Assistant Director of Metro Chicago Hillel. 

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