With summer as a time for reflection, I find myself thinking about our campus this past November and complex issues of identity. I love being Jewish. I stand in awe of Jewish history, spirituality, ritual, and culture. Yale has been an exciting place for me navigate this love in a wide array of contexts. As I walk through campus with a mini-kippa bouncing on my head, I feel grateful to be a Jew at Yale. As a student attending a university that historically excluded and discriminated against Jews, I do not take this feeling for granted.
At the same time, I know that my experience may be unique. I worry about the current spread of anti-Semitism, both worldwide and on campuses across America. I am concerned that stereotyping, both conscious and unconscious, persists and continues to be projected onto Jewish individuals and their concerns. And this continues to make us vulnerable.
As Social Justice Chair of Yale’s Hillel this year, I find myself recalling the pressure of the moment when a few Jewish students asked me how we might best support the racial justice activism that had electrified the campus. Together, we talked about the campaigns to better support the cultural houses, expand professional staff for students of color, and increase funding for explorations in ethnic studies. We thought about how Jewish students at Yale are fortunate to be sustained by Slifka’s space, staff, and resources, and about the generous alumni who had helped make this possible. We considered how these changes occurred given Yale’s history of Jewish exclusion, and pondered what lessons we could apply to current racial justice struggles.
With this in mind, a few students and I thought to facilitate a discussion about our community’s resources and how they could be understood in relation to the current campus conversation. In the heat of the moment, we framed this reality through the lens of societal privilege. However, this lens was imprecise. While the Jewish community at Yale enjoys different forms of support, Jewish people in our society do not have privilege as Jews (as opposed to, for example, “white privilege,” which comes at the expense of people of color). The language also inadvertently collapsed race, class, and ethnicity into an undifferentiated concept.
Understandably, this unintentional confusion stirred some Jewish students to feel as though their experiences with prejudice, and those of their fellow Jews, were being discounted. In the conversations that ensued, I realized how a desire to focus on the pain of other student groups had clouded awareness of narratives closer to home. Thus the event was reframed as an open conversation about different Jewish experiences at Yale and how they might relate to racial justice efforts. About a hundred students gathered and we organized into small, intimate groups to reflect. A wide spectrum of both positive and negatives experiences relating to Jewish identity at Yale and beyond were shared. The evening closed with words of Torah.
It can be hard to hold multiple truths. But we do. Since November, I have been listening to Jewish students and family members as they recount their unique histories. I continue to struggle with how to think about tensions in coalitional politics, the nuances of intersectional Jewish identities, and the power of language. The learning curve has been painful. But as the school year draws to an end, I am comforted by the words of the fabled mystic Rebbe Nachman: “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”