Debate over campus anti-Semitism misses the point

Rabbi Hershey Novack

By Rabbi Hershey Novack

The holiday of Shavuot (May 26 – 28), when we will celebrate the receiving of the Torah, is just around the corner. It is an appropriate time to reflect upon the importance of Jewish education, and the sharing of our national inheritance—the Torah —to the next generation.

On April 25, readers of this newspaper were treated to dueling commentaries on how the Jewish college student ought to deploy the protections included in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VI aims to prevent discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin,” and recently, the Obama Administration broadened the interpretation of national origin to include Jewish students. This sets the table for Jewish students facing persistent anti-Semitic harassment to file suit against their universities under this particular law, similar to other protected minority groups.

As a campus rabbi on the front lines I would like to put things in perspective: It is important that the American Jewish community fight anti-Semitism; at the same time, it is imperative for the community to realize that today in America there is a bigger concern that must also (and all the more so) be attended to. As I see it, the primary challenge facing American Jewish collegiates is lack of Judaic knowledge and apathy toward communal involvement.

It is true that on a handful of campuses, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel activity is a serious concern to students. On these campuses, we must take the intersection of anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitism seriously, using the courts, the university’s administration, public support, and yes, where applicable, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Students may also avail themselves of the courtroom of public opinion, reporting instances of anti-Semitism to the news media, drawing public attention and, hopefully, opprobrium. As Justice Brandeis famously put it, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

However, truly hostile anti-Israel activities on campuses are not commonplace in the U.S. In fact, today’s Jewish college students are generally safer from anti-Semitism than they have ever been. Until the late 1940s, anti-Semitism was pervasive and institutionalized on countless campuses nationwide. Quotas kept qualified Jews from attending top-tier universities, and even those who were admitted were barred from numerous campus activities such as participation in many Greek organizations.

The American Jewish community no longer faces these obstacles. If anything, the problem has been turned on its head: Jewish students, fully part of American society, are losing touch with the richness of their religion, history and culture.

Indeed, only a modest fraction of Jewish college students participate in communal Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Many, including even those who attended Jewish camps or day schools, cannot read, write or speak Hebrew proficiently, which distances them from the core texts and ideas of the Jewish people. While knowledgeable and committed Jewish students can be found on campuses across the country, these students are not representative of the larger Jewish campus population.

A dearth of compelling Jewish educational and spiritual experiences on campus is part of the reason for the disconnect between Jewish students and Jewish life. The Jewish community ought to seek out and invest in innovative approaches designed to engage Jewish students with the breadth and depth of Judaism.

While this is not the forum to draw public attention to particular programs that Chabad offers, given the context, one particular initiative is worthy of mention. The Sinai Scholars Society is an eight-week course that focuses on core Jewish ideas that emerge from the Ten Commandments. More than frontal learning, the course acts as the stimulus for students to discuss the very nature of life through a uniquely Jewish lens. For some of the class participants, this is the first time they have grappled with these issues since their bat or bar mitzvah.

A study by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz indicated that a significant majority of Sinai Scholars participants report a greater sense of Jewish belonging and a deeper intellectual understanding of Jewish life.

Programs such as this offer the knowledge and involvement that our students – and the broader American Jewish community – so desperately need.

Anti-Semitism is a scourge and we must employ all means to protect students. But focusing exclusively on anti-Semitism directed at students will neither directly strengthen the Jewish community on campus nor with it raise the Jewish self-identity of the individual college student.

Instead, we ought to focus our energies on the most pressing concerns: Educating a new generation of American Jews to be knowledgeable about Judaism and communally committed. This is the way to ensure the perpetuation of the inheritance we all received on Sinai over 3000 years ago.