'Intergroup solidarity is common when you're under attack'

US Jewish campus groups become a haven for students facing post-Oct. 7 hostility

Attendance surges at Hillel, Chabad houses nationwide as students seek refuge from an increasingly unwelcoming atmosphere amid strident, and often antisemitic, anti-Israel protests

The Harvard campus Hillel House welcomes students into its 'safe space,' in Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 12, 2023. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)
The Harvard campus Hillel House welcomes students into its 'safe space,' in Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 12, 2023. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

NEW YORK — There was a time when Sabrina Soffer felt safe on campus at George Washington University. But after October 7, that changed.

In the subsequent months, she said, her Jewish friends were spat on, a peer was laughed at during class when she revealed that an Israeli relative was killed, and, in an incident that made headlines, antisemitic messages were projected onto the wall of the college library.

Soffer’s mother was so frightened she urged her daughter to remove her Star of David necklace while walking around the Washington, DC, campus.

Many Jewish college students around the United States shared similar experiences as antisemitism on campus has soared in the months following the October 7 massacre, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel and butchered 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and kidnapped 253 more to the Gaza Strip.

But a growing number of US students, including Soffer, are finding camaraderie and support in campus groups such as Chabad and Hillel in the months since October 7 as anti-Israel protests on campus continue to intensify.

Inspired by ongoing protests at Columbia that saw over 100 students arrested last week, university students from Massachusetts to California have gathered in the hundreds and set up tent camps in demonstrations that some students say veer into antisemitism and make them afraid to set foot on campus. This has prompted a heavier response from university administrations that has not been seen in the six months of the Israel-Hamas conflict and has in some cases resulted in clashes with police.

“Shabbat dinners at Chabad are the highlight of my week,” Soffer, who spoke at the massive March on Washington pro-Israel rally in November, told The Times of Israel shortly before the campus occupations began on April 17. “After October 7, more people started coming.”

Sabrina Soffer is a student at George Washington University in Washington, DC. (Courtesy)

Soffer describes the atmosphere as “a homey place where everyone comes together and we spend hours talking… It feels good to be in a place where we are all supporting each other.”

A hub – and a refuge – for Jewish students

Leaders of Chabad and Hillel houses nationwide say they’ve boosted programming in recent months to serve as a hub for Jewish life on campus and refuge for those who want to gather for healing in a time of crisis. They’re helping students cope with their emotions related to the brutal onslaught on Israel as well as to rising on-campus hostility to students perceived as supporting the Jewish state.

They have pushed back against the hate on campus with more social activities, learning opportunities and challah bakes, which are drawing greater numbers of participants. They have also brought in therapists for students who need to talk about their emotions related to the violence in Israel or the hate on campus.

For the Passover holiday, which this year runs from April 22 to April 30, the Chabad House at Columbia University hosted a large seder for students and hired extra security to escort students to their dorms from the Chabad center. The group is also distributing matzah and kosher for Passover meals throughout the week.

In an open letter to students, the Chabad House wrote, “It is our life mission to support the Jewish students at Columbia University, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Students eat Passover lunch at the Hillel House on campus at Northwestern University, April 25, 2024. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The Jewish outreach organization operating under the auspices of the Chabad Hasidic movement has increased its activities at its centers on nearly 900 campuses around the country and has organized several hundred events following the outbreak of the war in Israel, said Avi Weinstein, Chief Operating Officer of Chabad on Campus International.

“We were able to measure an increase of over 40 percent in new students coming through our Chabad House doors since October 7,” he said.

In the first three months following the Hamas-led massacre, antisemitic incidents in the US increased 360%, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), climbing to 3,283. Roughly 505 of those incidents occurred on college campuses. In addition, nearly 75% of US Jewish college students have reported experiencing or witnessing antisemitism on their campuses since the current school year started. These incidents ranged from vandalism to physical violence, said the ADL.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters march outside Columbia University in New York City on April 18, 2024. (Kena Betancur / AFP)

Many Jewish college students have as a result struggled with anxiety or isolation. Some responded by hiding their Star of David necklaces, removing their head coverings or retreating to their dorms.

Others have found refuge in Jewish gatherings on campus.

As for how many of these students will continue to be involved in Jewish life, Leonard Saxe, professor of contemporary Jewish studies and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said it’s difficult to gauge the long-term impact of this apparent trend.

“I can say that it’s not an uncommon phenomenon that there’s intergroup solidarity when your group is under attack,” he said, adding that it’s up to Jewish organizations to do something with this opportunity.

“They can, for example, support programs like Birthright Israel that allow students to travel to Israel so that they can bear witness and better understand the situation,” said Saxe. “Jewish organizations have an opening to make a lifelong difference.”

A campus vigil for the victims of the October 7 massacre organized by a local Hillel House, in autumn of 2023. (Courtesy of Hillel International)

A port in the storm

Dani van Creveld, a sophomore at Texas A&M University, said she was in shock after waking up to the terrible news of the Hamas massacre on October 7. “I have close friends and family in Israel. It was very hard,” she said.

For days she walked around in a fog, before turning to Chabad for comfort.

“It’s the most warm and loving environment,” she said, adding that the campus Chabad rabbi scheduled extra activities and brought in therapists for anyone who needed to talk.

Van Creveld said didn’t grow up particularly religious, but in the weeks following October 7, she found it meaningful to attend Shabbat services at Chabad and made it her mission to bring other Jewish classmates with her, drawn by the warmth and camaraderie as she and her peers felt alienated by the growing Jew-hatred.

“Going every week offers me a sense of normalcy and helps take my mind off what’s going on in the world,” she said. The center also holds events for Jewish holidays and even hosts an interfaith night inviting outsiders to come ask the rabbi questions about Judaism or Israel. “Everyone is welcome here,” Van Creveld said. “Nobody is judged.”

Jewish students gather at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, February 13, 2024. (AP/Michael Conroy)

With Hillel chapters serving nearly 1,000 college campuses around the world, the organization is on track to break its record for highest student participation in its 100-year history, with more than 180,000 students engaged this school year, according to Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International.

At the University of Wisconsin, many more students have come into the building since Oct. 7, observed Greg Steinberger, CEO of UW Hillel Foundation. “At first, everyone was shell-shocked and felt stuck,” he said.

“We went to college leaders and spoke to them about this being a monumental crisis in a way that the rest of the world didn’t recognize. Our students were shattered but life was going on as normal all around them,” said Steinberger. “It took time for them to get their bearings, but now students are coming forward and want to do things to promote Jewish causes and Israel. Some haven’t been leaders before and we provided the support for them.”

Hillels around the country organized vigils, put up hostage posters, hosted Israel-related discussions and organized activities for Jewish holidays such as hamantaschen bakes, which all seemed to take on a new meaning, he said.

“Countering antisemitism on campus has been a core piece of Hillel’s work for decades, and has been even more critical this school year in the face of rising campus antisemitism,” said Hillel International CEO Adam Lehman in a statement.

“With growing encampments and other aggressive protest tactics spreading on many campuses, we’re insisting that all college and university leaders take more forceful action to re-take control of their campuses and ensure the safety and campus experiences of their Jewish students and other students being subjected to harassment, threats, risks, and other abuses,” said Lehman.

Students can let their true selves out

John Schmalzbauer, a professor of religion at Missouri State University, led a 2023 study that explored groups such as Chabad and Hillel. It found that students seek places where they can be with like-minded individuals and where they can “be their most authentic selves.”

Hillary Haine, left, sings with Kim Gabriel at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. (AP/Michael Conroy)

“The story of these groups is part of a longer story in American campus life that goes back nearly a century. Groups such as Hillel and Chabad and Jewish fraternities and sororities have all served as havens for Jewish students in higher education during difficult times in Jewish American history,” said Schmalzbauer.

“The Hillel at the University of Minnesota came about in a city that was infamous for antisemitism in the 1930s,” he said.

Although the study didn’t address earlier crisis moments of Jewish history — such as Israel’s wars in 1967 or 1973 — it found that students tend to gravitate to their own communities during times of crisis.

For example, after Kanye West made his antisemitic statements in 2022, Jewish students sought each other out, Schmalzbauer said.

“Our study found that students across all religious groups seek a place with others who have similar experiences. Our researchers found that all students want to be safe and seen,” he said.

Gali Polichuk, a senior at the University of Florida, said she’s grateful to have found an oasis on campus.

“Hillel was super welcoming. I made my closest friends there,” she said. “I’m lucky to have a place to go with allies and where it feels like home.”

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