The longer the crisis in Israel goes on, the more I marvel at the complexities and paradoxes of life on campus. On the one hand, the tensions and challenges continue. There has been a solid week of anti-Israel programs put on by pro-Palestinian groups on campus: a panel, a film screening, and a workshop, culminating on Friday with a rally at Nassau Hall. All of this, however, happened against a backdrop of some hostages getting released and glimmers of hope for the Jewish people.
There were voices uttering extremist rhetoric on campus this week. But as the rhetoric raged on, there was also a remarkable panel at the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), where President Eisgruber was in conversation with Dean Amaney Jamal of SPIA and Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia. (See link at the bottom of the page). Both deans--a Palestinian and an Israeli--wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times a month ago, calling for civil discourse on campuses, and urged us all to work hard to lift up nuanced and informed conversation above the toxic and hateful rhetoric. At the CJL, we will continue to work hard to lift up the voices of civility and encourage dialogue that values facts and historical/geopolitical context.
On Monday evening, Jewish students gathered in a somber moment behind the Frist Student Center, to put up large signs of the remaining hostages, praying, singing and chanting together in sadness and in hope. At that vigil and elsewhere, I spoke to some students who are living with concern about a campus culture that too often feels relentlessly politicized, alienating and negative. Some students are concerned that any negative portrayal of Israel is potentially harmful, and others are concerned that there has to be a healthy place to be critical of some of Israel’s policies while still supporting Israel’s right to exist. The concerns are real, but so is the willingness of those concerned students to find ways of responding to this very difficult reality on campus with bravery, resolve and creativity.
During my open office hours this week, a student shared a sentiment that I found so moving. He said that he misses the experience of “Jewish joy”. He talked about the constant reminders everywhere of the loss, the pain and the anguish that our people are going through. He misses the simple experience of joy every time he gathers together with his Jewish community. We talked at length about this heartfelt feeling, and I pointed out that it’s not just at Hillel that we miss that unmitigated joy. It’s everywhere in the Jewish world right now. We all long to celebrate Jewish life in the way that we remember, before October 7th. I’m proud of this student for putting that longing out there into the world. It’s an ancient longing of the Jewish people that he experiences, a longing that has led us to envision a better world for centuries. And I’m proud of many other CJL students who are also longing to create a space here where we can affirm the joy of being Jewish--yes, perhaps alongside the sorrows--but also very definitively one of joy here as well at the CJL. Our students affirm joy every Shabbat when they gather to pray, to sing and to share a Shabbat meal together. They affirm joy in their study breaks, classes and programs here, and in their many casual moments of hanging out in the Jewish safe space that is the CJL. They affirm it as they discuss ways together of ensuring that all Jewish students, of all perspectives, feel at home at the CJL. They are planning wonderful celebrations of Hanukkah starting next week, where we will affirm together the light of our people, despite the darkness all around us--a light that no terrorism or war can diminish in us.
These are indeed complex and challenging times. But I am confident, more than ever, that we have the kind of students here who can lift up the light of who we are, a light that can inspire not just our Jewish students, but the whole campus to a higher and better way of living, of engaging in civil discourse together, of opposing hatred and rhetoric, and in finding reasons for hope and greater joy.
Shabbat Shalom -
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf '91
CJL Executive Director, Princeton Jewish Chaplain