Upset at the university? Invest in it 

Over the past seven weeks, Hillel professionals, members of Jewish studies departments and staff of other Jewish campus organizations across the nation have been working tirelessly. We have been there for students 24/7, helping mitigate the ongoing psychological toll of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and the subsequent war. We have been there to alleviate the worst fears of our students, often while still processing our own trauma and concerns about safety. We have been there to talk students through the history of the Jewish people, the meaning of Zionism, the modern state of Israel and the wider conflict. We have been there for them and we will continue to be there for them.

While the above-mentioned groups differ in both goals and methods, the overwhelming desire to create campus environments where both Jewish students and Jewish ideas can thrive is immediately evident and something we all share. 

Beyond the shock of the despicable atrocities of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack itself, concern over proliferation of antisemitism throughout the wider university landscape continues to grow. Between the explicit support for Hamas exhibited by student groups and fringe academics that tend to be the loudest in the room — mixed with an array of “all lives matter-esque” statements from so many universities across the country — there is certainly reason to be worried. There is real fear that the golden age of being a Jew in college seems to be coming to an end, and quickly.

But Jewish tradition is no stranger to the ebb and flow of antisemitic sentiment; and our tradition, with its central focus on human autonomy, certainly doesn’t lend itself to defeatism. The university is rapidly becoming an increasingly difficult space for Jews — and that is exactly why we must redouble our investments in it.

On Oct. 10, I taught my first Jewish studies class since Oct. 7. Coincidentally, we had spent the previous week studying the end of the First Temple period in the sixth century BCE, culminating in the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonian empire. I had noted in the class before the Hamas attacks that Jews continue to commemorate every year as a day of fasting and communal introspection, with a nod towards building the future. Next up for Oct. 10, according to the syllabus, was the prophet Jeremiah’s letter to the shocked and lachrymose Jewish community upon their exile from Israel and subsequent displacement in Babylonia. Attempting to mitigate the feelings of both hopelessness and bitter rage, Jeremiah’s letter provided both a radical and positive imperative for the recently exiled Jews:

“Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit… Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to God on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jeremiah 29).

The lesson for students was more poignant than anything I could come up with myself for this moment. We have been here before, Jeremiah seemed to be telling them from 2,500 years in the past. And the way we move on and thrive is to continue building and planting. The way that we move on is by continuing to pray for and investing in the city of exile. This demand becomes even more hard-hitting when one realizes that the very city the exiled Jews must pray for is a part of the very empire that caused the destruction in the first place.

The fear and anger over what is happening in universities for Jewish students is understandable and justified. But our reaction must be one that is both rooted in pragmatism and the wisdom of our tradition. No amount of angry phone calls, financial threats or petitions — however deserving — will lay the seeds for the real change that must occur. Houses take months to build and vineyards take years to grow. We have understood this as a Jewish community for thousands of years, and it is the guiding wisdom that has allowed us to continue to thrive long after our worst detractors have been lost to the halls of museums or history textbooks. 

If you truly care about the Jewish experience on campus, heed the voice of what Jeremiah would write in his letter today: Build Hillel houses. Plant the financial seeds for academic Jewish studies programs, and take advantage of what they have to offer. Encourage Jewish students to thrive and increase their participation in higher education, not give up. Seek the welfare of the universities that Jewish students attend and will continue to attend for generations to come, for in their prosperity we will all prosper.

Rabbi Daniel Levine is the campus rabbi for Orange County Hillel and an adjunct professor at University of California, Irvine.