Campus menorah lighting should be more inclusive and reflect diverse Jewish traditions on campus

COURTESY PHOTO // WM.EDU

Rebekah Cohodas ’24 is majoring in neuroscience and minoring in public policy. In addition to serving on Hillel board, Rebekah is a member of Tribe Guard and conducts research in a psychology lab. Email Rebekah at rncohodas@email.wm.edu.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

On Monday night, the Chabad of Williamsburg hosted a public candle lighting in the Sunken Garden.  This event was posted in “Student Happenings” to invite Jews and non-Jews.

To my fellow Jewish students, I want to share my concerns about the messaging of this public menorah lighting event. I felt ostracized by much of the sentiments of the event and want to make one thing clear: I do not believe that this represents the beliefs of the Jewish student body on campus.

This event was arranged by the Chabad of Williamsburg rather than any student Jewish organizations on campus. It does a disservice to the organization of Hillel at William & Mary by attaching their name to an event that was in many ways the antithesis of what the student body represents. For starters, the event featured only men, mostly Orthodox, which matches the traditional beliefs of gender roles in a Chabad, but does not reflect the Hillel. Our Hillel has equal roles among genders both in leadership and religious practices to reflect both modern times and the pluralistic nature of various sects of Judaism from its students coming together. 

Furthermore, the messaging surrounding the speakers was highly problematic to Jews who do not endorse the Orthodox Hasidic movement. Calling up a student to light the candles with the explanation of his selection on both his basis of involvement with the Chabad synagogue and also for wrapping tefillin daily paints a narrow picture of what it means to be Jewish and what to emulate. Personally, as a woman, the tradition of wrapping tefillin is not intended for me, and celebrating an act reserved mainly for Orthodox men is exclusionary of differing gender identities. Of course, choosing to wrap tefillin is a personal choice and should not be judged, but choosing which types of Jews we publicly praise should be scrutinized for its larger implications. Second, as an agnostic Jew (yes, we exist), I take serious issue with the notion that Jews do what is “right” primarily because G-d said so, not because it is the morally correct thing to do. Jews are not morally-neutral robots following orders, yet this is the notion presented to the public in the speech by Rabbi Heber.  

To the non-Jewish members who had the opportunity to come to the candle lighting and to those who did not, I am saddened that this is your exposure to the Jewish people of the Williamsburg area. Although not always in agreement with the leaders of the Jewish people and their actions, I still claim Judaism as a part of my cultural identity, and this event falsely represents many Jewish people. I am grateful that a campus that has experienced antisemitism lately hosted an event that exposes non-Jewish people to our culture, but not like this. Not in a way that does not explain the meaning of the holiday. Not in a way that excludes many Jews from the narrative. Not in a way that appears publicly to be inclusive and welcoming, but falls short in action.  

The Hillel executive board also saw a need to bring in non-Jews to our cultural events to expose people to Judaism in a welcoming and engaging way. We, too, are planning an event open to the campus in conjunction with Challah for Hunger and Alpha Epsilon Pi, both of which are other Jewish organizations on campus. The difference is that this would be planned by the Jewish students on campus with the intention of presenting an image of Judaism that reflects the modern diversity of relationships held within Judaism as expressed by the students themselves. 

However, most concerning was the proselytizing nature of much of the rhetoric.  Chanting “am yisrael chai” and collecting people’s contact information under the guise of a raffle not only reinforces harmful Jewish stereotypes, but harms the messaging of the Jewish people. For clarification, “am yisrael chai” means the “Jewish people live,” which is in the spirit of Chanukah and has nothing to do with the state of Israel, but could be easily misunderstood by people attending. I have experienced multiple interactions with antisemitism on this campus, and harmful rhetoric only fuels the fire. 

This is not what Jews stand for as a whole. I want to celebrate Chanukah during a time of the year when Jews can feel ostracized from the general Christmas spirit of society. Not convert you. Not push my political agenda on you. Not collect your contact information. 

Please know this: the Jews at the College of William and Mary are accepting and diverse. 

3 COMMENTS

  1. If you think the chant Am Yisrael chai is insulting then it’s clear to me that it’s you who is the problem. It’s not for jews to eliminate their cultural traditions to appease those who react with repulsion from our mere existence. Please reread your article and do some introspection, because it’s jews like you that help non jews with the proliferation of jew hatred.

    • It seems like you might be the one who needs to reread this article. As I read it, it doesn’t talk claim the chant “Am Yisrael Chai” is insulting; it’s more focused on the proselytizing nature of a repeat-after-me chant of “Am Yisrael Chai” in which the Hebrew was not clearly translated for those who may not have understood it and may have felt taken advantage of. Additionally, I believe the “proselytizing nature” comment also refers to the collecting of people’s contact information via a raffle. From my interpretation, the author doesn’t appear to be against the phrase “Am Yisrael Chai” or it’s importance within Judaism, more so how the phrase was presented in this context.

  2. So to clarify, WM Jews are diverse and accepting of others as long as they believe what the author believes.

    Okey dokey!

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