Kenneth Ryesky

A Safe Haven in Steubenville for Jewish Students

For almost all of us, not a day goes by anymore without a report somewhere of how America’s college campuses are no longer safe places for Jewish students.  Following my blogpost in these pages a little more than a year ago, entitled “It all centers upon the university campus,” the incidents have skyrocketed not only in sheer numbers, but in severity.  College administrations are effectively taking a stance that while they do not necessarily agree with the discriminatory pronouncements and actions by their faculty against Jews and Israel, their hands are tied by their obligations to ensure “academic freedom.

Columbia University professor Shai Davidai has released a video in which he explicitly states that college administrators, including those of his own institution, are unwilling/unable to protect students (including and especially Jewish students), and advises parents to not send their children to such places for their higher educations.

In an apparent departure from the prevailing pervasively hostile campus climates, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, has offered itself as a “safe haven” for Jewish students at other universities, instituting “an expedited transfer process” to facilitate the students’ integration into the Franciscan University community.

Many Jewish students (and their parents) are very hesitant to buy into an education at an unabashedly Roman Catholic school.  While the Catholic Church’s past hostility towards Jews (including but not limited to the Crusades, the Inquisition, Pope Paul IV’s Cum Nimis Absurdum papal bull, and questions about Pope Pius’s actions and inactions during the Holocaust) is and ever will be relevant, this posting aims to give insight as to why such matters should not be dispositive in the decision of any student who considers taking up Franciscan University’s “Safe Haven” offer.


The previous posting on this Blog speaks of an experience from my MBA degree attainment.  I am quite proud to have earned my MBA from La Salle University in Philadelphia.  During the application process, I met with the then-Program Director, a Jewish guy named Lester Barenbaum, who assured me that anti-Semitism would not be an issue if I were to enroll.  It wasn’t (and in addition to Les, I had two other Jewish professors in the courses I took).

As its name indicates, La Salle is a school that is run by the Catholic order of the Christian Brothers, whose founder was Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (who should not be confused with René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who explored the Great Lakes and Mississippi valley regions; that La Salle University’s athletic teams are known as the La Salle Explorers is apparently due to the fact that many years ago, some Philadelphia newspaper sports reporter did just that in one of his articles, and the “Explorers” name has stuck).

A Jewish presence was to be found at La Salle long before my enrollment there.  My wife’s uncle did his undergraduate curriculum at La Salle, as did many other Jewish people of my parents’ generation.  Almost all of the Jewish people who expressed incredulity at my decision to attend La Salle had no connection with the institution.

Many of my instructors there were religious Catholics who respected me for my religious observance.  I never encountered any anti-Semitism during my time there.  In fact, the one incident that even remotely approached anti-Semitism was quite humorous.  It happened in John Lord’s class on Marketing Management, which effectively was a class on athletics during which marketing principles were discussed and tested upon.

During the Philadelphia college basketball “March Madness” period, La Salle was scheduled to play Villanova (a Catholic university run by the Augustinian order).  John Lord jokingly remarked that if La Salle would lose, we would all have to transfer to Villanova, St. Joseph’s University (a Jesuit school) or Drexel.  One of the students in the class chimed in, “We can’t go to Drexel, they’re pagan!” [And a deep dive into history reveals that Drexel is not totally “pagan” after all.].

Yes, there were instances when I was the only Jewish person in the class I was taking, but I never felt uncomfortable being Jewish at any time during my enrollment there.  Similarly, my wife earned her undergraduate and second master’s degrees at Jesuit-run universities, and speaks well of those schools.

My favorite La Salle story:  A now departed friend of mine, Joel Hochman, had the (mis)fortune to be named Interim Dean of the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University.  At the time, the school was undergoing transformation, and Joel had some empty teaching slots to fill, so I taught two courses there during one semester.

I saw that the Sy Syms School (and YU in general) had many parallels to the La Salle I had attended:  A religious-oriented school that was postured for expansion into a broader curriculum for a wider spectrum of students, and what it did or did not do during the period would determine the success or failure of the transformation (when I was at La Salle it was still La Salle College; it was accredited as La Salle University shortly after my graduation).

Upon making my observation known to Joel and other administrators, I was informed that the Sy Syms School had engaged La Salle’s Gregory Bruce as a consultant to guide it through the transition.  [Despite all that Greg did, the transition would soon become complicated by the well-publicized problems of the School’s board chairman, Mr. Madoff, whose fraud victims included many YU-connected people and entities.].


Father Dave Pivonka, the President of Franciscan University,  has stated that “Our community will welcome [Jewish students] with generosity and respect,” and that “Our religious differences will not cause any conflict.”

Based upon my experience at a Catholic school and those of my wife, I can give credence to Father Pivonka’s promises.  At the same time, I must admonish the prospective students that for their parts, they will need to (1) be proud of their Jewish background; (2) know about Jewish history and Jewish religious concepts and practices; and (3) be aware of relevant current developments.

Being a minority on a college campus does have its challenges, which can only be exacerbated if one considers oneself to somehow be inferior to the majority.  Remember that the first steps of oppressing Jews began by labelings as Untermenschen in Nazi Germany, and as dhimmi in Muslim countries.  Seeing that you are unfazed at being a minority will deter the majority from such labeling of you.

You will also need to have a strong knowledge of your Jewish religious practice and Jewish history.  Catholic clergy are very well informed about such things; the Church uses the Hebrew calendar to calculate when their Easter holiday is (not) celebrated, and the vestments worn by Catholic clergy (even the Pope himself) in many respects resemble those prescribed for the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem.  If your own background knowledge is limited (and even if it is broad), you would do well to regularly engage in studies of your Jewish religious practice and history, even if it is a weekly accession to a website such as (where you can subscribe to regularly receive informative e-mails) or Tzofia (geared to women, also has subscription option).


The term “situational awareness” is typically used in connection with matters such as withdrawing money from an ATM machine at night (or even during the daytime), traveling away from home for business (or pleasure), or workplace safety.  Here in Israel, the current situation requires us all to know where the shelters are as we go about our daily routines (we had two siren warnings today, each of which distracted me from writing this blogpost).  But “situational awareness” as pertains here entails far more than the familiar “If you see something, say something” mantra.

I have been around long enough to know that there are considerations at play beyond those explicitly stated in Father Dave’s “safe haven” announcement.  This is not a Catholic Church thing, it is dynamic that operates in all organizations (my MBA specialization at La Salle was in Management).  I have no “inside information” regarding the Franciscan University or the Catholic Church organizations, but I do read the newspapers and their online equivalents.

I know that the Catholic Church in general and the Franciscans in particular own significant parcels of real property in Israel.  And the Church is better postured to protect its property interests if the real estate is in a political entity governed by Jews than if it were in a territory governed under Islamic rule.  The Pope’s recent elevation of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, to the rank of Cardinal obviously enhances the Church’s influence with the Israeli government.  And Cardinal Pizzaballa is a Franciscan Friar.  I do not know whether or how the Cardinal’s Franciscan connection played into Father Dave’s decision to open Franciscan University to Jewish students who are dissatisfied with the security situations at their current colleges, but the “safe haven” is most certainly not inconsistent with the Vatican’s property interest protection imperative.

Another item on the Catholic Church’s agenda is to obtain and retain more members, including people of Jewish origin.  While the methods utilized to do so during the Inquisition have largely been discontinued, the Church has continued to use coercion even in relatively recent times, as exemplified by the Mortara affair and by the Church’s attempts to convert Jewish children it had sheltered during the Holocaust.  The Church continues to actively seek converts from the Jewish community.

And neither has the Catholic Church been immune from the scourge of sex-abuse scandal that has also hit the Jewish community.  As with the religious Jewish community, Catholic victims of abuse are leaving the fold of the faithful.  In such circumstances, one can safely presume that the Church not only wants to recover its membership numbers, but also wishes to reclaim the moral high ground it had previously held.  Again, I do not know whether or how this plays into Franciscan University’s “safe haven” initiative, but that initiative is in no way at odds with the Church’s quest to increase its flock and to regain the moral high ground.

And so, I highly recommend that Jewish students who take up “safe haven” offers such as the one from Franciscan University (Father Dave has specifically “invited presidents of other faithful Catholic universities to join Franciscan in [the] effort“) to be situationally aware of relevant current events.


Make no mistake about it, Jewish college students—any change in your educational trajectory will be stressful and will entail some risk-taking.  It is you who must decide what is best for you; I cannot tell you whether you should or should not start looking towards Franciscan University.  What I do tell you is that if you see fit to make any changes you will need to be strong-willed and informed, and consider all relevant factor and issues.

A Catholic college is reaching out to Jewish students.  What this means is that students and parents of all faiths are now witnessing, for the first time in many years, the administration of a college many have never heard of acting ethically towards the Jewish students, even as the administrators of the familiar highly-ranked schools are miserably failing to do so.

I applaud it!!!

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About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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