May 2, 2024

Celebrating Resilience and the Small Victories

Rebekah Adelson Director of Hillel of Greater MetroWest NJ

Each morning when I wake up, at lunch time, and again as I’m laying in bed, I scroll through Instagram. My feed is clogged with post after post about the newest Gaza encampment to pop up on an American university campus, another university president letter addressing their student body about the deal they cut with pro-Hamas protesters, city police clearing out a building taken over by students adorned in keffiyehs, and the occasional video of a bird instigating a fight between two feral cats. I then check approximately 10 different social media accounts run by these anti-Israel groups on campus; groups like Montclair SJP, New Jersey SJP, Montclair State Confessions, SHU Palestinian Student Association, Rutgers Newark Law SJP and more. I take multiple screen shots of antisemitic posts that pop up in their stories and sometimes send them on to our Director of Security at Federation, Chip. From afar, we shake our heads in disgust, Chip ensures me that our students are safe, and I move on to the next daunting tasks of the day.

In light of the recent events surrounding the encampments and anti-Israel protests happening across the country and around the world right now, it’s easy to feel disheartened. These challenges have undoubtedly tested our resolve and unity as a Jewish community. As we near the end of the semester and students are buckling down (or not) to take their final exams and write their closing statements on their final papers, I find myself reflecting on the journey we’ve embarked over the past seven months. We’ve lost so much… loved ones on October 7, a sense of safety on campus, constructive dialogue with opposing organizations, and much of our joy. But, amidst all the noise and negativity, I believe it’s important to take a moment to celebrate the incredible work we’ve accomplished. It has truly been a period of extreme growth, resilience, and unwavering commitment to our mission of fostering strong Jewish community at these universities.

Across our campuses (Montclair State, NJIT, Rutgers-Newark, Seton Hall, Kean, and Fairleigh Dickinson- Madison) we’ve witnessed an outpouring of support and solidarity from students, faculty, and community members alike. People are eager to do more to help make campus better for our Jewish students and those dedicated to teaching them. We’ve had volunteers (specifically NCJW-Essex) make homemade kosher chicken soup for students for Shabbat, complete with messages of encouragement as they entered finals season last fall. They’ve also put together dozens of mishloach manot (gifts of treats) for students during Purim, and Hanukkah gifts for them to celebrate the Festival of Lights. Community members have rallied together on campus with their Israeli flags, showing students that they are not alone in their Jewish identity and ancestral tie to Israel. We’ve received a donation of tickets for a Broadway show and been offered many seats at private family Shabbat and seder tables. Students have been sent to various Israel organization’s conferences and we’ve had numerous clergy and Jewish professionals volunteer their time to speak at Hillel hosted events. The amount of time we’ve received from the community is truly spectacular.

While I don’t like to brag, I’m going to go ahead and brag for a moment. Phoebe Ellman (our Jewish life coordinator) and I have done so much for our Jewish students and university communities as a whole over the last seven months. We’ve organized (with student leadership help) bringing pro-Israel speakers to campus like Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid. We’ve organized panels with Jewish professionals with different expertise to discuss the impact of October 7 on college campuses. We’ve created spaces for Jewish students to come together and find comfort in community. We’ve organized a giant event with Artists4Israel in which close to 200 students got custom made graffiti t-shirts, made by trendy artists, all in the name of peace. We’ve set up a Shabbat table art installation, honoring the 134 hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza. On November 14, 2023, we sent staff and students to Washington, D.C. to march alongside hundreds of thousands of other pro-Israel folks and have continued to welcome pro-Israel rallies on our campuses since. There have been countless tables set up at various festivals on campus to celebrate Jewish culture. We’ve learned with dozens of students over lunch and had coffee (lots of coffee) with more than 50 individual students and faculty members. In November, we hosted a conference (Israel Unplugged) for student leaders from 14 different campuses across the tri-state area to come together to learn about combatting antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus. At Israel Unplugged, students made blankets for displaced Israeli children, laughed with interfaith comedy troupe Comedy 4 Peace, ate delicious Israeli food, learned from experts in the Israel activism field, and formed friendships that will last a lifetime. We are exhausted, but this valuable and crucial work keeps us going each day.

Despite all we’ve done for the students on campus, the most inspiring aspect of our work during the past seven months has been the way our students have risen to the occasion. Despite facing adversity, they have demonstrated remarkable leadership and resilience through their advocacy efforts, cultural celebrations, and pure acts of kindness. These students have truly found their voices, and we love to hear them sing. Their backbones are strong, and we must remember that these students are the leaders who will take us into the future. For that reason, I am more optimistic about Jewish life than I was before. Yes, we certainly have challenges ahead. They’re not going anywhere. But the upcoming leaders of the Jewish community are ready to face it, head on.

As we look forward, it’s essential to remain focused on the positive impact we can make as a community. While the road ahead is uncertain, and is sure to be filled with massive potholes and roadblocks, I am confident that we will come out stronger in the end. I am confident that the work we are doing on these six campuses is more important than ever, and that a small but loud encampment will not stop us from moving forward. Yes, the spring semester ends in just a few short days, but our work on campus continues beyond the confines of exams. We’ll be here, supporting our Jewish communities on campus and bringing back the once lost Jewish joy.