A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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‘Robust Semitism’ — Jewish college students’ secret weapon against hate


Over a month has passed since Hamas’s heinous terrorist attacks, shocking the world and leaving a gaping wound in Israeli society and the global Jewish community. 

What began as a horrifying massacre of 1,400 children, parents and families and some 240 hostages abducted into Gaza, has morphed into a state of anxiety and unease for Jews worldwide – a fear that Jewish people aren’t welcome or safe in any country’s public spaces.

Nowhere is this fear more pronounced than on college campuses, where free speech, hate speech and incitement have become blurred, and where anti-Israel gatherings have morphed into assaults.

Who can forget images of Jewish students cornered in the Cooper Union library as a mob of pro-Palestine protesters banged on the windows outside? Or the death threats issued against Jews at Cornell? Or how some university presidents were unwilling to unequivocally condemn Hamas?

Thankfully, most campuses in St. Louis are comparatively calm especially as compared to some on the coasts. Yet we are not immune to this wave of hate; some of this moral rot has spilled over into our city.

For example, at a pro-Gaza gathering at a local college, the language shifted from “Ceasefire Now” to “Israelis are crucifying Palestinians” to “From the River to the Sea Palestine will be Free.”

I’ve observed two general trends among the responses of Jewish college students to these new circumstances.

Some Jewish students have chosen to lay low, avoiding public displays of Judaism in response to the growing threats. This is an understandable reaction.

However, we have also seen numerous Jewish students opt for a different approach. Instead of hiding their Jewish and pro-Israel identity, they have chosen to embrace it with pride. Many have started wearing overtly Jewish and pro-Israel symbols to send the clear message: “We care and we are united.”

Indeed, judging by the record-setting crowds at the Chabad House, I feel that this group is quite strong at Washington University.

The Rebbe, of blessed memory, taught that when faced with antisemitism, we must increase our mitzvahs and acts of kindness. In simpler terms, rather than only fighting antisemitism directly, we battle antisemitism with a powerful force called “Robust Semitism.”

Stories are pouring in of Jews taking on new mitzvahs like wrapping tefillin, putting mezuzahs on their dorm rooms and lighting Shabbat candles for the first time. One student recently began wearing a yarmulke full time and convinced his brother to do so as well. These students almost instinctively realize mitzvahs are not just “commandments” or “good deeds,” but also tangible demonstrations of solidarity with Jewish people around the world.

As part of the campaign of Robust Semitism, I encourage students to take on one additional mitzvah.

For those unsure where to begin, I recommend incorporating the “Modeh Ani’’ prayer into their morning routines. This one-line statement means “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” This is an intentional reminder to be grateful for a new day. It is also a powerful act of defiance against the spirit of hatred represented by Hamas.

While additional mitzvot can elicit divine protection and blessings, the need for physical security is crucial. We have quintupled our security budget.

Our staff team meets regularly with university leadership, campus police and student affairs professionals to ensure the safety of students. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices and members of faculty and staff have a critical role in fostering a campus environment free from hateful ideologies.

Each one of us also has a role to play by staying informed with trustworthy news sources, checking in with Jewish students and supporting those on the front lines of Jewish campus life.

In the past month, I have witnessed students respond to challenges by proudly embracing their heritage, drawing strength from their peers and inspiring each other to advocate for Israel.

All of our incredible students give me hope for a better tomorrow.

Rabbi Hershey Novack is co-director of the Chabad on Campus Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University. (Evan Kominsky)
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