When Lisa Harris Glass of Springfield became the CEO of Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick this summer, she thought she knew what she was getting into.
She went to that job, leading Hillel at the school with the largest Jewish undergraduate cohort in the country, feeling confident.
Ms. Glass has an impressive resume. She was the COO of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey when she left the Paramus-based organization where she’d spent 13 years to go to Hillel; before that, she’d been a regional director for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. She knows her way around the Jewish world.
The year started really well, she reported. “We had 500 students at our welcome-back barbecue. It was amazing. The feeling was that this was going to be a great semester. We finally were post-covid. We’d recovered. It was normal. There was a real feeling of joy.
“I note that this year’s college seniors were high-school seniors when the pandemic started,” Ms. Glass added. “They’d lost the end of their senior year of high school. They were going to be unencumbered seniors, and they deserve to have that experience.’
So everything seemed to be on track.
And then October 7 happened.
“It of course was Shabbat, so no one attending services in our building had a phone with them,” Ms. Glass said. “But a member of our team who uses electronics on Shabbat went to the building to inform them, and we were able to get extra police coverage — and the Rutgers University Police Department has been amazing.
“On that day, nobody knew what was really going on. We needed some time to think, to figure it out, to hear the news. All the things.
“It’s been an enormous learning curve, figuring out how to navigate something that we’ve never in this generation had to navigate.”
After those first few days, Hillel began to assess students’ needs and how to help them. “Thankfully, we have a member of our staff who is a social worker, we have a social work intern, and other members of our team have been trained in responding to trauma and crisis,” Ms. Glass said. “We had to offer triage, dealing with emotional, social, and psychological trauma.
“And, of course, that was just in the beginning.”
Next, “Students for Justice in Palestine organized around this issue,” Ms. Glass said. “National SJP sent them a toolkit that told them how to organize. One of the things it did was tell them how to justify what happened on October 7” — to justify what Hamas did when it murdered about 1,200 people, brutalizing, torturing, and raping many of them before they slaughtered them, and took another 240 or so into captivity, a state in which most of those hostages remain. “They did it by claiming that there are no innocent civilians in Israel. They are all settlers, and therefore they are military assets, and anything done in the name of resistance is justified.
“Then the SJP members are told to go and rally. They’re told that they are a part of the resistance, so anything they do” — that “anything” is left unspecified — “is justified.”
“The toolkit also tells them that they should be masked, and not provide their identity should they be challenged. They will tell you that they do it because they’re afraid of being doxed” — of having the details of their lives posted on the internet.
So, the situation was “that the rally was being called to take place in the middle of the campus, in the middle of the day, with masked participants, in possession of a toolkit that tells them that anything done in the name of resistance is justified.”
But Rutgers said that its hands were tied. Members of SJP share with everyone else the very basic constitutional right to freedom of speech.
That leaves Ms. Glass in a difficult position.
“Every day, I have to protect my students,” she said. “I feel responsible for them.
“I am new to academia, and so I am unfamiliar with the hierarchy of the university and its organizational chart. It has been a challenge to me to understand how you escalate an issue from one department to the next one over it.
“I have done the best that I can.”
On the other hand, she added, the lack of a bone-deep understanding of the university’s organizational chart can keep her from being too deferential.
That first SJP rally did not happen, Ms. Glass said, but since then “there are regular protests. There are teach-ins, which are unbelievably biased, and whose purpose is to influence people’s opinion about the conflict in general, and about the quote-unquote occupation.
“And a lot of those teach-ins are taught by tenured professors, even though they are not necessarily part of what those professors are hired to teach.
“That means that the university is allowing people to do this work, which means that the university is supporting this work, and the professors are not in my opinion meeting their academic obligations vis-à-vis education by providing opportunities for other perspectives to be taught. So if you have people on payroll who are creating these opportunities for one perspective to be taught, you ought to have people on payroll on the other side. But they do not.”
There have been a series of incidents on campus seemingly aimed at making Jewish students feel unsafe.
In early November, a student was arrested for posting a threat on YikYak, a social media platform that is highly localized and often toxic. This is the message that student, who has been charged with making terroristic threats, among other things, wrote:
“Palestinian protesters, there is an Israeli at AEPi go kill him.”
Hillel staffers found fake bullets in front of Hillel’s building one day. “We didn’t know they were fake when we found them,” Ms. Glass said. The next day, there was a propane tank. “It was empty, but we didn’t know that when we found it,” she added.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Glass said, this environment has affected Jewish students.
“I was at one of our vigils, and I saw a young woman at the back of the crowd, sobbing.
“I walked up to her, and I said, ‘I don’t know you, but I am a mom, and I feel like you need a hug from a mom.’ And she fell into my arms.
“I asked, ‘How can I help you?’ And she said, ‘My friend was murdered.’ And I thought, ‘How can I help you? What can I possibly do for you? I can’t bring your friend back.
“‘But I can hold you. And I can invite you into Hillel. For community. Because we can love one another and care about one another and console one another.’
“When things like this happen, it strengthens my determination,” Ms. Glass said. “I have ruffled a lot of feathers at the university. I am not proud of it, but I am not embarrassed by it either. I will do what I have to do to make sure that our students are physically and emotionally and psychologically safe.’
She tells some stories, carefully leaving out identifiers. “I went to one of the first SJP rallies, to support any of our students who might be walking by, and two things happened.
“I am across the street with three other women — one of them is a professor, two are administrators — and I say, ‘Oh, my heart is breaking,’ and the professor aggressively says to me, ‘Why?’
“I say, ‘Because I am looking at a generation that has been raised being taught and believing a history,’ and this professor comes very close to me and says, ‘Not believing. Knowing.’ “And I say, ‘Okay. You know your history. I know my history. Our histories do not align. Where do we go from here?’
“I was inviting an academic conversation. And she got angry and stormed off across the street.”
She tells another story, whose gist is that “whenever I am trying to be in dialogue and being really careful about my body language and my tone, I am accused of being aggressive, when I am the one in the meeting facing aggression. Being aggressed at.
“It is eye-opening that after all these years of building relationships at Rutgers — not me building relationships, I’ve only been here five minutes, but Hillel, and Jews in general — it’s eye-opening to see who hasn’t come to support us. Who hasn’t even asked how we’re doing.
“I call on all Jews to open our eyes. We’re so busy supporting every cause, because we think that we’re part of the great United States of America, but at this moment, who has come to stand with us? We have to support ourselves, to make sure that we are safe and secure and thriving.”
As for Hillel, “People tell me that I must have the students demonstrate, but the thing is that the students are not an army to be deployed,” Ms. Glass said. “Hillel’s role is to make manifest that which we want to do, and to support them. Which we do. I sometimes think that gets lost.”
What can the Jewish community do? “We’ve been working with the Jewish federations, with the AJC and the ADL, which all support us in all the different ways they have. I encourage everyone to support the organizations that are serving Jewish students on campus, including Hillel but not only Hillel.”
What about the future? What does Ms. Glass think is coming? “I would think that everyone is looking forward to winter break,” she said carefully.
Learn more about Rutgers Hillel at rutgershillel.org.