Dear Jewish students of the class of 2022,
We did it! Through a global pandemic, we persevered. Sometimes we had zoom fatigue and turned off our camera mid-lecture to play Candy Crush or scroll on Instagram, but mostly we kept at it and persisted. Now we’re about to face a world that has evolved just as much as we have.
These are standard words of wisdom we’ve been hearing all season. But as a Jewish college student, I sometimes think they fall short. As a graduating senior at Mount Holyoke College, I can honestly say that the pitfalls of antisemitism have overshadowed much of my college experience, both online and in person, and I know this is true for many of my Jewish classmates across the country as well. As we achieve the milestone of graduation, I want to acknowledge how hard it has been to be a Jewish student on campus these past four years, and the deeper meaning of this achievement.
Of course, it has long been a difficult journey for Jewish students just to get to where we are today. The 1920s and 1930s saw Ivy League institutions and even Seven Sisters Schools (historically women’s colleges) putting quotas on Jewish students, limiting and blocking their admission. State universities and colleges followed suite, fearing that Jewish students would make these institutions unattractive for perspective WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), the elite students. Jews were weeded out for having higher scores and singled out in interviews as “crude” or “unrefined.” These methods of keeping Jewish students out showcase the blatant antisemitism felt within the United States, as we were seen as the unwanted “other.” Today, we are lucky enough to have the opportunities we do. The fact that we are even attending college and university is a big deal, one which we should not take for granted.
Yet we are still the “other.” As antisemitism continues to rise, those of us on campus felt its impacts all around us. Whether it was a swastika found graffitied outside an academic building or inside a residence hall, or online comments or threats from peers, Jewish students faced tremendous struggles just to be tolerated on campus.
Perhaps you didn’t have the same experience at your college or university. But all of the above did occur at my own institution during my time here. Some of it didn’t affect me as much as it did other members of the small Jewish community on campus. When a swastika was found graffitied outside a campus building, I had several friends check in to see if I was OK. I felt embarrassed to say that I felt nothing. This led me down the road of questioning myself. Why wasn’t I angrier? Why didn’t I feel it? Was I “not Jewish enough?” While for some of us the blatant, general incidents hit hardest, I realized that for me, it was the more personal experiences that hurt the most, like when my first-year roommate told me that it was “because I was Jewish that I was privileged.” These smaller moments of antisemitism were so hurtful because I began to internalize the comments, and start to rethink how and if I should express my Jewish identity on campus or in public. Don’t even get me started on Israel, as conversations surrounding the conflict with Palestine bordered on antisemitism and were almost impossible to conduct.
The question of whether we belonged on campus plagued many of us and, as was the case for me, these encounters with antisemitism made us question our own Jewish identities. For some of us, college was the first time we faced these experiences, and to encounter antisemitism in the very space where we were supposed to learn felt like a slap in the face. After many of these instances, we received institutional messages condemning what had occurred, but the lack of awareness at many of our colleges shone just as bright. From scheduling school-wide events on Jewish holidays or holding a campus “Christmastime concert” at the same time as Hanukkah and barely including any Hanukkah songs (not to mention the struggle to go kosher for Passover or get religious accommodations from professors), the lack of Jewish voices involved in making decisions spoke volumes.
But I was lucky to find a Jewish community during my time at my own institution. We united when our community was under attack, and we attempted to fight back and speak up, from making statements about antisemitism to even meeting with the office of equity and inclusion to discuss ways for Jewish voices to be heard. There were students who worked hard within these four years to craft a welcoming and safe community for Jewish students of all backgrounds. I want to especially credit the Jewish Student Union (JSU) at Mount Holyoke, as the student co-chairs did so much to make a space I could turn to when I needed to feel grounded. Whether that was holding a Pride Shabbat service or fighting for kosher foods in the dining hall for students celebrating Passover, the JSU was crucial in allowing me to feel at home at my school.
I am happy to report that my institution has changed a lot for the better for Jewish students. But we wouldn’t be where we are today without those students who spoke up these last four years, scheduling the meetings with the dean and diversity officers to ensure these spaces were equitable and accessible. And still, there is more work to be done — I look forward to seeing what the next classes bring to the Jewish future of these institutions.
I want to toast to you, a Jewish student at these institutions, for just being you. Yes, colleges and universities have changed; we are no longer barred from attending higher education and are actually encouraged. But we are not just a diversity quota to be filled to prove that these institutions are “diverse.” We are vibrant, shining bright, like the stars of David that hang around our necks. Our Jewish community on campus is multi-faceted, with queer Jews, Jews of color, and even those of us who converted during our college years. We graduate and follow in the footsteps of other Jews who have gone on to change the world. And although we may continue to face antisemitism throughout our lives, I know that we will face it together with the networks we have built within these walls. Mazel tov once again, and may you continue to persevere.