Jewish community introspective after menorah vandalism

    “Nichnas yayin, yotse sod.”

    It’s a saying from the Talmud, explains Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein. He translates it to mean, “When the wine enters, your essence comes out.”

    The phrase comes to mind when he thinks of the vandalized menorah at the Tannenbaum Chabad House, when he struggles to account for the crime. The incident leaves a slew of possibilities — drunken prank, hate crime, something in between.

    As of Nov. 8, police have not officially determined that the vandalism was a hate crime, a ruling that may stay. There’s no way to identify a specific motivation for the vandalism, especially because the perpetrator(s) may never be caught, Klein says. Regardless, he says he believes the act was indeed a hate crime.

    “Some people, when they drink, unfortunately the stuff that comes out is not the nicest stuff in the world,” he says. “It looked to me that there was anger associated with it.”

    The vandalism of the menorah that stands outside the Chabad House has sparked campus discussion as well as introspection on the part of the Jewish community. While bias incidents are uncommon on campus, they’re not unheard of. As a result, some students and faculty are struggling to categorize a rare crime in an otherwise accepting climate.

    “It’s not about what you’re doing or not doing. It’s about who’s being affected by what you’ve done.”

    * * *

    This incident occurred in Michael Simon’s fourth month as executive director of Hillel. Like other members of the Northwestern community, he’s not sure how to characterize the vandalism, hesitant to give it too much or too little significance. He chooses his words carefully; after all, he says, Northwestern’s Jewish community is thriving, and the vandalism appears to be an isolated incident.

    “I characterize it definitively as a disrespectful act of destruction,” he says. “My overall response is to take seriously that this occurred, but also to put it in the context that the Jewish community is doing really well here.”

    Students echoed Simon’s attitude at a forum held Nov. 2 to discuss the vandalism. Jewish and non-Jewish students shared their opinions of the incident and evaluated Northwestern’s atmosphere of diversity. An overwhelming majority said Northwestern’s amount of tolerance is inspiring, stressing the Jewish community is welcomed on campus with open arms.

    Considering this exceptional tolerance, the vandalism was especially shocking for some students.

    “In general it’s very frustrating to me when people commit acts of vandalism,” says SESP senior Rachel Zinn, president of the Chabad Student Executive Board. “With something that’s so close to home and something that does have significance in the Jewish community, it felt especially hurtful.”

    Acts targeting the campus Jewish community are infrequent, but not unheard of, Klein says. He recalls an incident several years ago where a student put up a swastika in a residence hall. The student came forth and apologized, he says, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse it.

    “It’s not about what you’re doing or not doing. It’s about who’s being affected by what you’ve done,” Klein says. “You’re not taking into account how painful it is to the group that’s attacked.”

    The vandalism has been compared to other campus incidents from the past year that stirred emotions and heightened sensitivity and awareness — in particular, students in blackface last Halloween and SHIFT’s chalking images of the Prophet Muhammad on campus. Northwestern is no stranger to controversy, and the community is quick to respond.

    Klein acknowledges that Northwestern “truly embraces the needs” of its Jewish students — a generalization he couldn’t make 25 years ago, when there was no kosher program, no Jewish Studies program and no consideration of Jewish holidays in planning campus events or scheduling exams.

    “I never imagined that this would happen here.”

    In what Simon called “very unfortunate coincidental timing,” the vandalism occurred the day after terrorist threats were targeted at Jewish institutions in Chicago. Simon and Klein agree it’s important for students to feel safe on campus, but caution against drawing parallels between the two events.

    “When people are drawing those connections, they can create an atmosphere or impression that is really not borne out by facts on the ground and by the reality of people’s experiences,” Simon says. “We should be careful to look at individual things that happen in their own context.”

    In the days after the fact, Jewish students’ security remains a vital concern. Weinberg junior Camila Benaim, a member of the Chabad Student Executive Board, says the vandalism’s timing was unsettling. She’s reassured herself enough to feel safe again, she says, but the initial shock remains.

    “I just thought that at Northwestern we were safe in this environment because everyone’s so welcoming,” she says. “I never imagined that this would happen here.”

    Klein says he feels this was an isolated incident, one that doesn’t represent what Northwestern is about.

    “One of the sparkling things about Northwestern is its diversity,” he says. “Just because we as a whole embrace diversity and tolerance and caring and being supportive…nevertheless, you do have some individuals who don’t get it.”

    * * *

    Students and faculty will take different meanings from the vandalism at the Chabad House. For Benaim, the incident has reminded her that the real world can be tough. For Zinn, it means Jewish students from different backgrounds coming together as one. For those who attended the forum, it’s a time for reflection of university values and practices.

    An overarching theme is that responsibility to promote acceptance of differences ultimately lies with the student body.

    As attendants at the forum said, opening lines of communication between students of different faiths and communities can make all the difference. Students spoke in favor of interfaith campus events and casual conversation with friends about diversity as ways to educate one another about what distinguishes us.

    Campus religious leaders eating with students in dining halls, dorm-centric firesides about diversity, an upperclassmen version of an Essential NU about tolerance — these are just a few of Klein’s ideas about how to continually improve the atmosphere on campus.

    More importantly, he’d love to share them with anyone who asks. Communication of ideas is key, he says.

    “Students have the responsibility to learn, to react, to say what they’re feeling, be honest about their thoughts and feelings, and to deal with them,” he says. “Sometimes we have to venture outside of [our comfort zones] in order to be able to truly learn from each other and experience different things.”


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