Recognizing Jewish Faith on Campus

by Dr. Cobretti D. Williams

Hillel House at the University of Connecticut

Hillel House at the University of Connecticut (Photo by Ken Wolter/Shutterstock)

May is Jewish Heritage Month, and unknown to most, the Jewish culture has a long and textured history in higher education. Over 97 years since the first Jewish student organization was created at the University of Pennsylvania, many campuses across the United States have thriving Jewish student centers and organizations that provide awareness and engagement about Jewish history and identity. However, the history of inclusion for Jewish students in higher education was not always welcoming.

To uncover more of this history and speak to the progress of Jewish faith and identity in higher education, I spoke with Rabbi Sue Laikin Silberberg. She attended Indiana University as an undergraduate, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work degree. Rabbi Sue attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and was ordained in 1988. During Rabbinical school, Sue served as the Hillel director at the University of Delaware. In August of 1989, following a year in Israel, Rabbi Sue returned to the United States to become the executive director of the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center at Indiana University.

Cobretti Williams: Looking at the History of Jewish faith and identity in higher education, inclusion on college campuses is very different now. Why do you think that is?

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: Exactly. You’re very right. It’s interesting because in the 1940s and 1950s, there were quotas as to how many Jews were allowed in different universities. So, it’s like we’ve gone from being discriminated against for being Jewish to now being discriminated against because Israel is a Jewish state.

Williams: Are there any notable trends in the treatment and inclusion of Jewish students that you can recall?

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: I think that there are many college campuses where Judaism is not seen as a minority or diversity question. Indiana University is very, very different. We as a Jewish community are viewed as a minority, and we have a lot of support within the community when there are issues of antisemitism that arise. I think that on a lot of college campuses there have been many places where Jews are not seen as a minority group. And instead, when issues of antisemitism occur, it’s kind of ignored. I don’t know about during the pandemic, but prior to the pandemic, there were more incidences of antisemitism recorded on college campuses than in any of the previous years.

Williams: I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more articles about this information.

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: Yeah, it’s been a huge problem. Again, this is not in Indiana. Where I am at, Indiana University, our university recognizes us as a minority group, and the issues of antisemitism have been very, very promptly addressed and it is not tolerated. But on a lot of campuses, that is what has happened in the last five to ten years.

Williams: I think it’s interesting that now we’re kind of at this political hot point where, yes, I think we’ve grown in our understanding of Judaism and the Jewish faith. However, we’re still seeing how different politics and policies, whether they’re in the US or abroad, are still impacting these populations of students. How are universities and organizations like Hillel addressing these incidents?

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: Yeah, I know that there are a lot of fellow campuses that are struggling with it. Again, we have a little bit of an issue but Indiana University is outstanding in terms of its approach to antisemitism and inclusion in general. I think they’re trying very, very hard. There are areas where every university falls very short, especially in the world that we’re living in today. Hillel on most college campuses is struggling with how to support the Jewish students who do face antisemitism on their campuses. Because I think you can be a Jewish college student in the United States and you can never face any kind of antisemitism throughout your college career, or you could get to a university and on the very first day you have somebody who discriminates against you because you ‘re Jewish. The Hillel is really the place on most college campuses where we work with an advocate with the university and work with the students who are facing discrimination.

Williams: So in lieu of that, how can higher education institutions become more aware and inclusive of the various concerns that your students may be having right now and partner more with Hillel as an organization?

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: That’s a great question. I believe that campuses should recognize that Jews are a minority group. The Jewish students in general, again, and not all because I can’t speak for every Jewish student and every Jewish student feels differently, but in general, Jewish students do face discrimination for being Jewish and recognizing that working with Hillels to help overcome that and, I think really learning more about Israel because that’s behind a lot of the modern antisemitism. It’s the vilification of Israel and Jewish students as an outgrowth of that. So, it’s really trying to learn more about the Jewish students and their needs and then also that Jewish college students aren’t responsible for the policies of the Israeli government, and that students need to be more educated about Israel in terms of what Israel is. , the country itself in general, as opposed to maybe whatever the media has to say.

Williams: Right. So, to that end, what are some of the strategic priorities for Hillel on your campus moving forward?

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: We work very well with the university. We are not funded by the university, but we are recognized as one of the cultural centers by most of the university, and they are very supportive. They’ve just reached out, which I think would be a great model for other campuses. They’ve reached out to me as the leader of Hillel and all the cultural centers on campus. They have the spirits and traditions of Indiana University, and they’ve always been very much sort of ‘what are the spirits and traditions that students have,’ but not really considering what are the spirits and traditions that every different minority group has. They reached out and said, “Look, we’re trying to be more inclusive.” What are the spirits and traditions that you have?” And they did that for all the different minorities and cultural groups. So, those are now going to be included in the spirits and traditions. So, it’s not just the average student who walks in and says, ”Oh yeah, I identify with that,” but rather looking and saying, ”Oh wait, this is something I identify with.” I think that was so insightful of IU. I was really proud of them and impressed with them. I think those kinds of things in recognizing, really beginning to look at how the institution can support all the students, and taking into account the different challenges that different students face. Because I think minority students face very different challenges that people don’t think about.

Williams: For students, or even staff and faculty, who want to learn more about Judaism and are interested in becoming more involved with Jewish organizations on campus, where would you recommend that they start?

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: At least on our campus, I would start at Hillel because we have so much going on every day. In the normal non-pandemic year, we have two or three different programs a day where you can either learn about Judaism or be with other Jewish students. We have a Jewish learning fellowship that students can take to learn more about Judaism and explore it. We have a basic Judaism class for people who are not Jewish, who can learn more about Judaism. We have courses, we’re very lucky because this doesn’t happen on most campuses, but we have courses that we teach at Hillel that are sponsored by the university that students can get university credit for and where they have the opportunity to come into Hillel and take courses and learn more about either if they’re Jewish, learn more about their Judaism, or if they’re not Jewish, just learn about Judaism. We also have a lot of different programs like a multicultural Shabbat dinner on some Friday nights where students can come in and just have a Shabbat dinner with us and learn more about Judaism, and you don’t have to be Jewish to attend.

I think the important caveat with that is that for some religious traditions when you say we want you to learn more, it means we’re trying to proselytize you. But in Judaism, it’s against Jewish law to try to convert people to Judaism. So, when we say please come in and learn, we genuinely mean we want to learn about you, and we want you to learn about us. It’s not kind of a bait and switch of we’re trying to convert you to Judaism. We really do a lot to try to educate. At our Hillel at least, we tried to do a lot to educate the campus community about what Judaism is and then also to help Jewish students explore their Judaism further in ways that are meaningful for them.

Williams: I love that.

Rabbi Sue Silberberg: Yeah. At our Hillel, we have about fifteen or so different clubs for Jewish students primarily, but of course, non-Jewish students are welcome. But for Jewish students where they can explore their Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We have a club for business students where we bring in businesspeople who are in the business world who can talk to them about what it is like for them. If they’re Jewish and they’re in accounting, they’ll talk about what they do as an accountant, but then they’ll also talk about what it means to them to be a Jewish accountant. Are there issues of antisemitism that they’ve faced? Are there things from their Jewish identity that influence what they do? Those kinds of questions but it’s also, more importantly, it’s an opportunity also for Jewish students to be together and to learn from one another.

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