Weatherbeaten but hopeful

Noah’s ark in New Haven

This week in synagogues all over the world, Jews will read the story of Noah and his ark: how it floated on the surface of the floodwaters, carrying the only remaining living things in the world through the tempest and delivering them safely on the other side. 

As in the time preceding the biblical flood, we find ourselves in a time when “the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:12). In this impossibly difficult moment of terror, war and threats to Jewish lives and interests everywhere, I liken the state of my campus Jewish community to the precariousness of Noah’s ark.

Our ark, the Jewish community at Yale, is floating, isolated in a vast sea of people and ideas that are uninformed about the Jewish experience and subject to their own inertia. For Jewish students, there is a sensation of being surrounded by a palpable neutrality — or worse — in our time of most acute need. 

The Yale Jewish ark must be water-tight, or it will sink. My job as the Hillel executive director is to make sure that every seam is filled with pitch outside and inside.This matters vitally because the future of the Jewish people — our children and grandchildren — at the most influential time of their lives, are inside. We desperately need the future to be better than the present, and a precious chance for that possibility lives in our ark.

There must have been chaos inside the biblical Noah’s ark: elephants trumpeting, gazelles leaping and lions prowling around, mice eating everyone’s food. The Yale Jewish community is a similarly raucous group, but last week was so much quieter. Everyone was profoundly sad. Stunned. Angry. In despair. A collection of memorial candles, small flames glowing, grew in our lobby. 

And at the same time, the seas threatened tempest. 

While we gathered in mourning for the victims of Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel, others celebrated our destruction. While we sought empathy from our friends, many of them were more worried about how everyone else would feel if they decried the savagery we experienced, and so chose in the end to stay silent. 

This is not a problem specific to Yale. In fact, Yale is doing far better at this right now than many of its peers. Our partnership with Yale is strong, and we have a courageous president who said much of what needed to be said. This sets Yale apart from the pack, and we are very deeply grateful. Going forward, however, our Jewish students here and at colleges and universities around the world need more support than they are getting. Actions speak louder than words.

At Yale the Jewish community works hard to be outstanding university citizens. We try to show up for others who have faced persecution, been reliable consultants to administrators who need to be sensitive to every affinity group and carried much of the load of the Jewish community’s needs ourselves. We have made sure to protect every visitor through a partnership with Yale Security and Yale Police. We have offered input into the choices Yale makes when it comes to public statements, and we constantly strive to represent the needs of our community without insisting our fears or concerns outweigh anyone else’s. We’ve made the Jewish community a model for meaningful and vibrant campus life. 

We thought that by being good partners, care would be reciprocated when our turn came. We thought that our public investments in campus culture within and beyond the Jewish community would show more dividends in the form of public allyship and support. I suppose that after all Jews have been through that we should have known better, but we were entranced by the notion that morality and ethics are an inevitable result of a robust education. Too often, however, it appears that having our friends at our side is conditional not on our pain, but on the pain that recognizing our pain might cause others

This is not the reality for which we had hoped, and it will all get far worse when the tide of public opinion inevitably turns further against us as our siblings in Israel fight back against murder, abduction and terror at the unthinkable cost of the lives of our relatives and friends. We join in mourning the deaths of many thousands of innocent residents of Gaza who did not choose this war any more than the Israeli victims did. Our lives are not more important than theirs, nor theirs than ours. As Jews, we feel diminished by the losses that we and they are sustaining in the war. 

At the same time, each call by professors or fellow students to support Hamas, calls that are protected as free speech without regard for the injury to our community, lands a new blow to our ark. The fear (of what, exactly?) prompting decision-makers at other institutions to consistently ignore or downplay the pain and suffering of Jews is a double standard that, I believe, serves as the death knell of the idea that the university can aspire to the best of human capacity. As wealthy as it is financially, the academy seems to be quite poor where it counts.

Maybe everyone else already knows this, and we’re late to the party. The Jewish community has actively participated in and led in so many institutions of higher learning because of the dream of being treated “like everyone else.” The cynic in me asks whether that dream is now officially over. The eternal optimist in me retorts — again — that there is always hope.

I’ve read the articles about prominent donors threatening to stop supporting universities. What if that support went to Hillels instead, to shore up more Jewish arks? Jews will continue to go to college because the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a paramount value of the Jewish people, and so my job remains to make sure that the ark endures. Our children are aboard, our most precious cargo. I hope the world that emerges when these waters recede will welcome them and care for them and those who follow them. I’m looking for the tell-tale rainbow.

Uri Cohen is the executive director of the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.