July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Hillels of Westchester Look Back at This Academic Year

Hillels of Westchester Board Member and SUNY Council Member Haina Just-Michael (left) with SUNY-Purchase students at their Joyfully Jewish event.

Hillels of Westchester (HOW) is the only Jewish organization directly impacting Westchester’s college students of Iona, Manhattanville, Pace-Pleasantville, Sarah Lawrence, SUNY-Purchase and Westchester Community College.

After 10 years as executive director, Rachel Klein reflected on this past academic year, “The ‘Oy’ lately is SUNY- Purchase; the ‘Joy’ has been Iona, a Jesuit college.” Hillel’s newest local chapter serves Iona’s small Jewish student population.

HOW started at SUNY-Purchase 27 years ago. “It has been our flagship campus, the only campus with dedicated space, including an on-campus kosher kitchen. We had a superb relationship with the administration that completely shattered. An unregistered student organization ran roughshod, violating their Code of Conduct repeatedly, without consequence, including vandalism, bomb threats and threatening physical safety. They made Hillel synonymous with the Netanyahu government. Historically, SUNY-Purchase had 1.25 antisemitic incidents annually. When incidents happened, police investigated. If perpetrators were found, the DA prosecuted selected cases. There’s been zero insight into prevention.”

She had meetings with Student Affairs Vice President Dennis Craig. Before Yom HaShoah 2022, during a screening of Nancy Spielberg’s Warsaw Ghetto documentary, one faculty member forwarded an email campus-wide, promoting a political science club event. Flyers featured Donald Duck wearing a Nazi SS uniform and six swastikas. Klein explained, “It was clear who was responsible. Only select faculty have permission to send campus-wide emails. We were told this visiting professor’s contract was finishing, and two students were graduating. There’s no reason to intervene. We were assured that come the fall, we can begin antisemitism training with campus police and RAs, the most student-facing folks. This got pushed off and Craig retired.”

On September 14, 2023, Klein met the chief diversity officer, giving a brief history of antisemitism at SUNY-Purchase, as an opportunity for education. Klein’s request for such training was declined. The CDO said, “I can’t mandate training. If I do it for your group, I’ll have to do it for every group.” On September 20, an Israeli flag was vandalized with Free Palestine, Apartheid, baby killers and scum. “That incident kills me because the fight we’re having is between free speech and hate speech. September 20 was the biggest missed opportunity for this college. Saying Free Palestine and Apartheid are protected speech; ‘Baby killers’ and ‘scum’ are antisemitic. The college police investigated. I don’t believe they found the perpetrator and let it die.”

SUNY-Purchase HIllel members presenting Westchester County Executive George Latimer with citations from students for his support of Jewish initiatives on campus, include fighting antisemitism.

Klein added, “Around October 7, SUNY-Purchase’s Student Government changed the classification of a closet and the lounge housing the kosher kitchen Hillel used with the college’s permission for 15 years, declaring them government property and not college property, changing locks and blocking access to the sukkahs.”

On February 27, the student government president threw Hillel’s ritual objects and program materials into the hallway. “It doesn’t matter what it was, it was not her property, a clear violation of the college Code of Conduct. She wouldn’t be able to go into a dorm room, say we’ve decided this dorm room is now student government property and throw another student’s property into the hallway. There’s been no action taken against her.”

Campus police and the vice president responded to an incident report. In front of witnesses, this student made multiple antisemitic comments. She called Hillel students illegitimate occupiers of this space and privileged because the kitchen excluded other students. At an attempted mediation meeting the next day, she refused to make eye contact with Jewish students. Hillel’s president said, “Regardless of what you did to our property yesterday, I’m asking you to bring the entire student government to a Shabbat dinner before the end of the semester.” Hillel’s president also asked her to issue a correction that Hillel is not racist. Instead, the student government president, a person of color, broadcasted around campus that Hillel called the police on a student of color, and therefore, are racist. The Hillel President asked her to correct the record that the police were called because she threw our property into a hallway and it doesn’t matter what race you are. She refused, and in front of the college’s president, told Hillel students that Hillel was trying to control.”

Klein expressed, “Had the CDO accepted my plea in September for antisemitism training, perhaps the college’s president may have recognized that accusing Jews of controlling government and dehumanization of Jews just for being Jewish is antisemitism. This was not a counter-protest. They were just trying to do Hillel, not in any antagonistic way. “

Klein addressed two major themes this year. First, Jewish life is strong, with over 200 programs. Second, their allyship has completely abandoned them. The college has allowed Hillel to be maligned in ways they would never permit for another group. If somebody said the Asian and Pacific Islanders Club was a violent, racist, threatening harassing organization, the college would stop that immediately and specifically say, “Stop Asian hate” and “Here’s what we’re going to do.” For Hillel, the overarching message has been that good behavior is not rewarded but bad behavior is extraordinarily rewarded.” Klein cited SUNY-Purchase’s president giving protesters five hours of her time, but not giving the same to Hillel’s students, who’ve consistently reached out to her since September, naming problems and offering solutions.

At Sarah Lawrence College, “It’s nine years since Hillel could safely hold an Israel program without being protested or becoming fodder for social cancellation.” The Title VI complaint filed there describes a climate and culture led by students, faculty and administrators. “Any pro-Israel sentiment, even JStreet, is still not far enough left on that campus. You cannot have any pro-Israel public presence there. We’re not seeing encampments at Sarah Lawrence because they already run the place. They already canceled Israel and any pro-Israel sentiment. They’re lightyears ahead of Columbia— where the Columbia protesters wish they could get to.”

Klein summarized, “The Oys get headlines, the Joys don’t. There’s no reward for good behavior. They are completely allowing the identity-politics generation to decide who is a good Jew and who’s not a good Jew.”

To learn more about HOW activities on campus, visit https://www.hillelsofwestchester.org

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