Simchat Torah massacre’s impact on campus: A call (not a statement) to the Jewish world

Over two weeks ago, on Simchat Torah, our Jewish people were plunged into profound despair and brokenness following Hamas’ horrific and unfathomable terrorist attack in Israel. When Jews are targeted by those seeking our destruction, our collective hearts brace for what may come next — more loss, more destruction and more devastation. More blaming of Jews and Israel, more binary perspectives, more indictments and moral superiority at the expense of those who are suffering.

College campuses often become hotbeds of proxy war activity during crises in Israel, and UCLA is right at the center of it. Our Hillel, like others, has been consumed by the unfolding horrors and the resulting emotional fallout. UCLA’s Jewish students face intense attacks on their identities, leading to palpable fear, anxiety and anguish.

In the wake of this destruction and devastation, we came together to support one another at a powerful community vigil on Oct. 11 at Bruin Plaza in the middle of campus. We offered strength to those who had lost loved ones or were worried about their safety, increasing facilitated discussions and structured time together. At the same time, all were grappling with a campus environment in which some celebrated Hamas’ barbarism and threatened our safety.

After an incredibly challenging week for our Bruin Jewish community, we had one simple request for our community: show up for Shabbat. 

And show up they did. Our students came and so too did the broader Hillel community, UCLA faculty and Hillel stakeholders. Seven members of the UCLA administration, including our chancellor, joined our Jewish community for our Shabbat meal. Their presence mattered to our students and made a difference to our community. Before we started our pre-meal blessings, the chancellor, who is Jewish, stood on a chair and addressed the students, expressing his deep condemnation about the chilling reports of Hamas’ attack and concern for the subsequent fiery activism on campus. He, along with other administrators, made it clear that they feel our community’s pain and they care for the students.

This presence was significant and necessary. It just so happened that almost immediately before the chancellor entered our Hillel for Shabbat, he had sent a second email to the UCLA community, explicitly condemning Hamas’ attack and the rise in intimidation against students. Yes, this was his second email: the initial email sent on Monday evening, offering broad condemnation without directly addressing the events, did not sit well with the Jewish community on campus, and it fared even worse outside. This dynamic was not unique to UCLA, but was echoed on many campuses and institutions across the country. In the wake of the deadliest and most gruesome attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, the American Jewish community became engrossed with how strongly our leaders, friends and allies condemned it.

This attack is a watershed moment for our people, combining age-old stories of Jewish persecution with the deep fears we had about the type of terror that Israel faced. As our brains processed the reality of the carnage, our hearts needed to know that the world around us categorically repudiates it. The Jewish community is in shock, devastated, mourning, and above all, angry. If there are people — especially leaders — who do not feel or see it the same way, we better know now because as we create our universe anew, we want to be acutely aware of who understands and supports us. History has taught us the consequences when the people we live among foster any biases against us.

UCLA students rally on campus in support of Israel. Photo by Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Perhaps you, like many Hillel professionals, were caught up in the mishegas of leadership statements, from celebrities, athletes, associations and politicians. On campuses, the same dynamic played out, as the dozens of emails amassed in my (and every other Hillel director’s) inbox prove. The statements — whether a university’s initial, second or even third version — ranged from ignorant and feeble to strong and profound.

Having spent over a decade in a community relations role at the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles before joining UCLA Hillel, I understand the critical role statements play in our work. I also recognize that for some, these statements are the barometer of our community’s acceptance, partnership and security. However, I see these statements as indicators of how well we, as a local partner, have connected and organized within the broader community. Statements are most potent when they are the result of ongoing collaborative efforts or when they help launch mutually beneficial collaborations. Standalone statements of allegiance tend to be the weakest.

Our Hillel at UCLA has been inundated with students and caring individuals reaching out, all asking the same question: How can I make an impact? As news and rumors of anti-Israel activities here spread, the question has evolved to: How can we fight this?

The answer is simple, though admittedly anticlimactic: We need to organize. It may seem anticlimactic because community organizing focuses on the long term and starts with those closest to us, and specifically does not always address the heat of the moment with those directly opposed to us.

The simplicity of community organizing — sharing your story and speaking your truth to those around you — can also be an uncomfortable change for some of our social norms. But the potential transformative impact has been proven time and time again. Tell your story to the person you always sit near in class, the new instructor in your department or the neighbor you’ve never talked to but see every Friday taking out the trash. Share your feelings about this difficult week and your fears. Respond to the dozens of text messages or emails from friends, acknowledging your uncertainty and expressing your desire to talk to them and then share your experiences.

Community organizing becomes most powerful when a collective group rallies around a common goal, utilizing individual voices to make the cause personal. While videos, graphics and statistics on social media help disseminate information and create a sense of unity, they cannot replace personal connections and sharing personal narratives. As demonstrated by our award-winning Perspectives Trip, in which we send a busload of Jewish and non-Jewish campus leaders to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the more people who share their personal narratives, the deeper and more enduring the change we can effect. 

If we all rise to the challenge together, we only need to worry about doing our part. We can rid ourselves of the burden, and possibly the guilt, we carry of honoring the lives lost and the innocent held captive. Each of us may feel that our world has crumbled, even shattered, in the course of the past two weeks; but we can rebuild a new world through a collective effort. Once we have completed the full effort of connecting, sharing and organizing then we will see the results in the statements — and actions — of our allies.

Dan Gold is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation chair and executive director for Hillel at UCLA.