NEW YORK — Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, describes itself as “intensely Catholic,” but Jewish students who no longer feel comfortable attending their own colleges may soon be trickling onto the sprawling campus located an hour from Pittsburgh.
Since the October 7 massacres perpetrated by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel — in which 1,400 people were killed, including about 1,000 civilians slaughtered amid horrific atrocities — and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war on Hamas, Jewish students have faced intensifying persecution on American campuses. Barricaded inside school buildings or beaten with flagpoles, Jewish students throughout the US — including at what are commonly thought of as the top institutions in the country — report they do not feel safe.
As part of an initiative spearheaded by the New York-based Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University, Franciscan joined a coalition of 100 organizations including “a diverse group of public and private, faith-based, and historically Black colleges and universities.”
“This is a whole network of schools standing in solidarity,” said Stephen Hildebrand, Franciscan University’s vice president for campus affairs.
All of the schools promised to offer “expedited” transfer for Jewish students without bureaucratic delay, Hildebrand told The Times of Israel. Collectively, they “condemned the brutal actions of Hamas,” calling Israel’s war against Hamas “a fight against evil, akin to the fight against ISIS,” according to a coalition statement.
“It just seemed so obvious, the right thing to do,” Hildebrand said. “To make our Jewish brethren aware if they need help that we are here as a safe haven.”
Several months ago, Franciscan University and The Philos Project began to organize a conference on resurgent antisemitism, said Hildebrand. The conference was set for the last week of October, but coordinators “never imagined the tragic timeliness their event would take on,” said the university.
So far, several Jewish students have reached out to Franciscan expressing interest in a transfer, said Hildebrand, who added that part of the coalition’s goal is to enable students to transfer to universities close to home, if desired.
“We are doing this because of our Catholic faith, not in spite of it,” said Hildebrand, who likened Hamas terrorists to “pagans” and compared the October 7 massacres to the ISIS slaughters of Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis.
“We see this as a small way, a small thing we can do, to really love our Jewish brethren and to have solidarity with them, to let them know that we recognize what is happening to them and that not only do we oppose it, but we’re willing to help them,” said Hildebrand.
Franciscan University was founded after World War II. Most members of the first class served in the army and made use of the GI Bill to pay for their education. The class included 258 students — including seven women — and the university was then called the College of Steubenville.
‘We’ve been down this road before’
At the forefront of his mind during the planning process, said Hildebrand, were images of people who offered to hide Jews during the Holocaust.
“We’ve been down this road before and we want to do what’s right and loving this time,” said Hildebrand. “We wanted to be on the right side of things,” he added, referring to what he called the Catholic Church’s “mixed” role during the Holocaust.
In Loretta, Pennsylvania, Saint Francis University joined Franciscan University, its sister school, in the growing coalition.
“As an institution deeply driven by Catholic, Franciscan mission and values, we stand in solidarity with Israel and the people suffering under Hamas’s cruel rule. It is essential for universities to unite against terrorism, promoting peace, understanding, and the protection of our campus communities,” said Saint Francis University President Malachi Van Tassell.
On October 23, Walsh University — a Roman Catholic college in Ohio — announced it would join the coalition. The university head also published a defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza since October 7.
“Israel has a moral right to national defense and the moral duty to resist and punish any attempts to engage in the eradication of the Jewish nation. The acts of Hamas on October 7 are, in every way, immoral,” said Walsh University president Tim Collins.
Many coalition schools issued their own condemnations of antisemitism in the US, sometimes alongside guidance for Christians of all denominations to combat antisemitism.
Hildebrand said this activism might include “agitating for your alma mater not to treat the Jews this way or to be complicit in antisemitism,” while Franciscan University’s president called out colleges for not doing enough to deal with Jew-hatred.
“With our fellow Christians around the world, we are praying for justice and peace,” said Father Dave Pivonka, president of Franciscan University.
“But with too many universities preaching tolerance but practicing prejudice, we feel compelled to do more. We are witnessing a very troubling spike in antisemitism and serious threats against Jewish students. We want to offer them the chance to transfer immediately to Franciscan,” said Pivonka.
“Our community will welcome [Jewish students] with generosity and respect,” said Pivonka. “Our religious differences will not cause any conflict. On the contrary, at Franciscan, our radical fidelity to Christ and the Catholic faith demands of us fraternal charity toward our Jewish brothers and sisters, as it does toward all people,” he said.
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