Brandeis is different

Brandeis is different

Hillel’s student president, from Englewood, takes pride in his school’s response

Students from three local schools — Brandeis, MIT, and Harvard — come together for a kumsitz.(All photos courtesy Brandeis Hillel.)
Students from three local schools — Brandeis, MIT, and Harvard — come together for a kumsitz.(All photos courtesy Brandeis Hillel.)

On October 7, the world awoke to horrific news of terror attacks conducted by Hamas in Israel. Many had been murdered in the most barbaric ways, and hostages had been taken. It was the most deadly day for the Jewish people since the Shoah.

Many people, including me, were not watching the news because it was a holiday, Shemini Atzeret, and Shabbat as well. Still, slowly but surely, news started to spread in our community over Yom Tov. A Brandeis administrator who lives near campus came to tell us what had happened in person. We didn’t have the full story. We didn’t know what to think or feel. Israel often “mows the grass” in Gaza, the Iron Dome had intercepted a few rockets, a few Hamas buildings were destroyed. We are (sadly) used to it.

But when I saw an Israeli student crying in a corner later in the day, I knew that something was different this time.

As we prepared to start hakafos for Simchat Torah, I told the Brandeis Orthodox minyan what had happened. In partnership with the gabbaim of that minyan and from the Conservative minyan on campus, we came to the conclusion that the show must go on. We wouldn’t let evil Hamas terrorists extinguish a celebration of Torah, learning, and community. We continued our regular hakafos with extra kavana and tefillot, and we kept in mind those who were not able to celebrate because of the tragic events that Shabbat.

Students see off Orthodox Union educator Rav Ariel Cohen at the airport as he leaves to rejoin his IDF unit.

While we were dancing with the sifrei Torah, Brandeis University’s president, Ronald D. Liebowitz, sent an email to the entire Brandeis community:

“This morning we awoke to news of a deadly terrorist attack on Israel. Many of us in the Brandeis community have close family, friends, colleagues, and former classmates and students in the region, and many have spent a frightening day trying to reach those who live there. My thoughts are with all of those who are suffering in the wake of this outburst of violence. In terms of our current students, two are studying in Israel this semester, we have made contact with both of them, and will support them. We are also communicating with faculty in the region, and monitoring the situation to help community members who may need assistance.

“We condemn in the strongest way terrorism such as we have seen today perpetrated against innocent civilians; it has always been our belief at Brandeis that engaging and wrestling with divisive issues from a place of compassion is how we begin to heal our broken world.

“We have many faculty and staff in a number of academic departments with deep knowledge of the region and the conflict, and I encourage you to pursue learning in this area from those individuals. At the moment, many members of our community are hurting and worried. As has been true at other difficult times, I know you will support each other, and I urge anyone in need of additional support to make use of the campus resources ….”

Students see off Orthodox Union educator Rav Ariel Cohen at the airport as he leaves to rejoin his IDF unit.

Not every university president was willing to issue such an immediate, decisive condemnation of Hamas and terrorism. We at Brandeis are lucky to have a president who stands firm with Israel and his fellow Jews.

After chag ended, students and staff quickly connected and started brainstorming ways to respond. We were immediately concerned with the Israeli students on campus, some of whom were closely connected to people who had been killed or kidnapped, or to soldiers who were called up to defend Israel. Rabbi Seth Winberg, the executive director of Brandeis Hillel and university senior chaplain, announced that he would have open hours for any students who needed support and someone to talk to.

On Monday, October 9, we hosted a gathering in our Jewish chapel on campus; the room was packed with more than 150 participants, filling all the seats and every inch of standing room. People crowded in the garden outside to listen to the tefillot and remarks by campus rabbis and students, and a perek of tehillim read by President Liebowitz.

It was touching to see the community come together in a moment like this. Hearing the solemn yet hopeful sound of “Hatikvah” sung by 100 people was very comforting.

Students hold a candlelight vigil.

After the ceremony, students, faculty, staff, and administrators stayed around to talk, hug, and support one another. Zac Gondelman (’26) and Noah Simon (’25) led a song circle in the chapel.

The next day, Brandeis Hillel bused and Ubered 70 students to join a kumsitz with students from Harvard and MIT. More than 100 students, sitting outside, mourned together in slow shira, listening to speeches from Rav Ariel Cohen, our OU-JLIC educator, and Israeli students.

On Wednesday, Brandeis’ IAC-Mishelanu club — the Israeli students club — hosted a candlelight vigil outside. More than 100 students joined the vigil.

In the next days, students on campus organized multiple chesed drives, raising money for ZAKA, Hatzalah, Magen David Adom, and other organizations helping Israel. We wrote letters and recorded videos of support for our chayalim and chayalot in the IDF.

Brandeis’ president, Ron Liebowitz, joins students and faculty in Hillel’s chapel.

Brandeis held its 75th anniversary celebration on October 13-15. A moment of silence for Israel was included in many of the anniversary events, and Dr. Liebowitz mentioned the horrific attacks in his remarks at the celebration on Saturday night.

“I’m sure many of you are wondering if we thought about canceling this weekend celebration,” he said. “We did, briefly. But we decided not to, because we didn’t want terror to dictate how we commemorate the university’s great accomplishments or prevent us all from being together.

“Our history and the history of Israel are similar in some ways and they are intrinsically linked.”

The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the the Crown Center for Middle East Studies have hosted many academic panels for people who wanted to learn more about the situation from experts and professionals. The Schusterman Center held a teach-in with professors Jonathan D. Sarna, Eva Bellin, Alexander Kaye, Yuval Evri, Abdel Monem Said Aly, and Shai Feldman, where students and community members could ask questions and learn more about the conflict.

Students make donations and write letters to Israeli soldiers.

Crown Center professors Shai Feldman and Khalil Shikaki, as well as Abdel Monem Said Aly, have been teaching a class called “Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East” for 17 years. On October 18, they hosted a panel discussing their work. Former MK Yossi Shane, who is a special adviser to Dr. Liebowitz, came and hosted a roundtable with student leaders who were interested in learning more about the situation.

The attacks have also hit particularly close to home for Brandeis. Hamas terrorists murdered the daughter and son-in-law of the Schusterman Center’s founding director, Professor Ilan Troen. They are survived by their three children, one of whom was injured when terrorists invaded their home in the south of Israel.

Rav Ariel Cohen, our OU-JLIC educator, left to join his IDF unit on Thursday. The Brandeis community bought equipment and sent him off with several large duffel bags of essential supplies and equipment to distribute to his unit and other IDF reservists who are in dire need of basic gear. A few students, including myself, accompanied Rav Ariel to the airport. It was an incredibly difficult moment. I was sending someone who has been a close mentor and friend for the past three years off to war. I will never forget those moments.

His wife and three young children are still here, and our community has embraced them, started babysitting schedules, and offered to help with groceries and other household chores.

The Brandeis community has been nothing but supportive of the Jewish community in the past weeks. There have not been any Students for Justice for Palestine or Boycott Divestment and Sanctions protests on our campus, professors have been very accommodating to students who are particularly affected, and the administration has come out strong with extra security and support for Jewish events.

I’ve heard horror stories about other secular colleges across the United States — student clubs blaming Israel and Jews for the Hamas attacks, students being assaulted, and Hillel buildings being vandalized.

It’s deeply upsetting and troubling that Jews at colleges in the U.S. are unsafe and unwelcome, but at Brandeis Jews are welcome, Israel is celebrated, and Jewish students have felt nothing but support over the past few weeks.

Brandeis was founded in 1948 by the American Jewish community, which was reeling from the horrors of the Shoah. Created in part in reaction to discrimination against Jews in higher education, it was made to be a safe haven for Jewish students, and for all students, regardless of race, religion, nationality, or sex. Brandeis’s response to the the bloodiest day in Israel’s history, and in the history of the Jewish people since the Shoah, reaffirms its mission, purpose, and commitment to the Jewish people.

I think it’s especially important now to tell that story. Brandeis is one of the best-kept secrets in the Jewish world. It is during times like this that I am most proud to be a Brandeis student.

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