“Throughout my four years at Rutgers I have felt very comfortable and safe being outwardly Jewish,” said Samuel Iofel, a recent graduate and most recent president of Hillel.
The genetics major from Fort Lee is Orthodox and wore a kippah on campus. He noted that as Hillel president he was in a visible Jewish leadership position. He has manned tables on College Avenue in the heart of the main New Brunswick campus supporting Israel and proudly displaying an Israeli flag that attracted little more than interested students with questions.
Iofel’s experience was echoed by other student leaders and the leadership of campus Jewish organizations in phone conversations with The Jewish Link in the wake of a recent incident at the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) Jewish fraternity house where two cars of individuals waving Palestinian flags shouted antisemitic obscenities. That was followed by the house being egged on Yom HaShoah for the second year in a row.
Rutgers Police have concluded the individuals involved in the drive-by were not Rutgers students, although there have been no arrests. It was initially suspected they were students coming from a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) rally being held in nearby Brower Commons. Rutgers Police have increased patrols around the fraternity house.
“There’s a really great, close-knit Jewish community at Rutgers and I definitely feel very lucky to go to a school with a big Jewish community where I feel safe and protected,” said Rutgers Chabad President Rebecca Roberman, a rising junior linguistics and psychology major from East Brunswick.
However, she acknowledged Rutgers is not immune from sporadic antisemitic incidents such as those at AEPi and said concerns about these small incidents need to be brought to the university administration’s attention by parents and students.
“I think if there were any real antisemitism on campus we would have known it,” said Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, who has been executive director of Rutgers Chabad for 43 years. “Like any place in the world we have crazies who do stuff that makes people uncomfortable. But to call Rutgers a place that is not welcoming to Jewish students is absolutely not true or we wouldn’t have the largest Jewish population in the country and the largest Chabad House in the world.”
In a phone conversation from San Diego, Rabbi Carlebach said Chabad enjoys a close relationship with Rutgers Police and the administration and he had a meeting scheduled with Rutgers President Dr. Jonathan Holloway upon his return.
Joey Dresdner, a rising sophomore computer engineering major from West Orange and board member of Mesorah—the Orthodox student group of Hillel—said while it was upsetting to see incidents of violence and disparagement of people based on their race or religion, he has seen few examples at Rutgers.
“All the rabbis and leaders on campus make it an amazing environment for Jewish students,” he said. “My experience at Rutgers has been awesome. Most of my friends are Jewish, and most are Orthodox. I feel very safe living in my community. Antisemitism hasn’t had a huge impact except for the AEPi incidents. We’re still having events all the time and enjoying ourselves.”
Like Iofel, Dresdner always wears a kippah, which has attracted no negative comments, although a handful of students were curious about its religious meaning.
Rutgers Hillel Acting Executive Director Rabb Esther Reed said the overwhelming number of Jewish students have a “thriving Jewish life” and leave Rutgers “proud to be Jewish.”
“On college campuses with a lot of Jews, you will find antisemitic incidents can take place,” she said. “But the strong Jewish life and active Jewish community can make those campuses a very positive environment overall for Jewish students.”
Incoming Hillel President Michael Finkelstein, a rising junior industrial engineering major from Fair Lawn, said both student leaders and the university’s administration have gone out of their way to offer support to the campus Jewish community.
A roundtable meeting with student leaders of campus Jewish organizations and representatives of Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA), which had been scheduled a month before, was held May 3, about a week after the AEPi incident.
Finkelstein said those attending the two-hour meeting, which included Chabad, Hillel and Rutgers Jewish Xperience, received a strong pledge of support to fight antisemitism and an open ear to understanding their concerns. Finkelstein also met beforehand with RUSA’s president.
“We found we were all on the same page about everything,” he said. “No one liked the bad coverage Rutgers got for the AEPi incident. No one liked being on TV, although it was very important to get the coverage to bring these things out in the open.”
The Jewish students explained how opposition to Israel is too often conflated with being Jewish, and results in Jews being targeted with harassment and violence.
“We discussed how statements and emails are not enough, but they have to learn more and they want to learn more so they can better help us and they want to help us,” said Finkelstein. “They want to be more involved. They want us to have our events. In terms of antisemitism they want to help, but don’t know the best way yet. We are going to think of the best way to address these issues together.”
One of the matters discussed was the complex issue of whether the SJP rally triggered the AEPi incident and how to handle hateful speech, which is protected under the First Amendment.
Other issues discussed were whether Jewish students have problems obtaining kosher food or excused class absences necessary for religious practice and if Jewish organizations are receiving enough financial assistance.
Additionally, Finkelstein and the Hillel board also met with administration leaders, including an annual confab with Dr. Anne Newman, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students.
“Rutgers really is a great place to be Jewish,” said Finkelstein. “We have daily events for the Jewish community that people really enjoy no matter what community they are from, whether that is Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. We have speakers come in from around the world. We have a security guard but no one ever bothers us and sometimes President Holloway joins us.”
By Debra Rubin