After the OCR investigation of antisemitism, what’s next for Jewish life at UVM?
I want to share a story of one microcosm of one Hillel director’s experience on Passover this year, and what it can mean for thousands of Jewish students in a time of rising antisemitism.
A few days after the announcement of the resolution of the investigation into antisemitism at the University of Vermont by the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Hillel at UVM saw Passover RSVPs rising to unprecedented numbers. We had to add 30 last minute seats, but as Rueben and Rachel began to welcome their student peers to raise the first glass of kosher grape juice, I could breathe a short sigh of relief. We did it…or did we?
The first part of the seder was complete and we just finished putting out the last tray of potato kugel. The brisket was holding steady, the salmon and vegan sweet potato gratin had held through the orderly rush of hungry students eating a seder meal. Vermont Kosher had done it again! However, I had to double check the room of students for the details, we still had half the seder to go.
I took a walk through the Grand Maple Ballroom in the Dudley H. Davis Student Center eyeing tables to sense what supplies and other things we may need. I noticed a bottle of kosher grape juice sat empty. I noticed another, then another and another and another…and these were the big 64 oz bottles!
Students poured their first two ritual cups and of course, continued to drink more grape juice because why not? In all the myriad details of the day, we didn’t mention that the bottle on the table was meant to last for all four ritual cups.
I checked with our Assistant Director extraordinaire Lindsey Sigal, the point person and detail director for tonight…we were off-site…water and seltzer wasn’t gonna cut it. This was Passover. Hundreds of students chose to spend tonight with us. For so many students it was the first time they were ever away from their families on Passover. We had to get it done.
The call was either to run to the supermarket or back to UVM Hillel and raid the kitchen of the week’s lunch supplies. We quickly decided that the quickest solution was Hillel and not the sometimes-fruitless search across the five major grocery stores in Burlington.
Replace Burlington with any city where a Hillel exists and that’s the same story.
Even if kosher food options are rare, we get it done for our students. I saw so may social media posts of Hillel directors with carts full of last minute kosher for Passover foods and car trunks overflowing with the necessary items.
I don’t share all of this for congratulatory notes for my staff, colleagues in Hillel, or myself.
I’m sharing to give an insight into just a moment of what it takes to make Passover seder for hundreds on a university campus in 2023. This is just a series of moments among moments that built into a historic night on a historic week for Jewish students at UVM. This experience happens in different ways on 550 Hillel centers on college campuses across the world.
My personal apologies to anyone in South Burlington that went to the store Wednesday afternoon expecting a plethora of kosher candy fruit slices and macaroons for your Passover seder. I always leave a few items on the shelf each year this happens. Even as I know we have to feed hundreds of students, you might still need that one last thing for your own Passover seder. I hope you got that coconut flour chocolate chip parve cake I left for you!
I bolted out the door and drove to Hillel through the back way behind the hospital, ironically enough, past our old facility on 80 Colchester Ave. I laughed to myself with gratitude thinking about how we would possibly ever fit 300+ people inside that building. I thought back to my first year on campus where we interacted with about 300 people, total. Now the same amount of people were here in one room for one holiday.
Ten years ago when I moved to Vermont to lead this Hillel, I led the Passover seder for 140 students. Ten years later, students led every single part of the seder. Each reading, each song, each commentary was produced by students, led by students, for students, with Hillel’s support. What a journey especially after this past week to get to this moment in time with over 300 students.
Back in the present, I got to Hillel and threw the car into park, scanned my ID, and ran inside to the kitchen. We had three big bottles left…I looked to the top of the cabinets and lo (hey, it’s seasonally appropriate to say lo) and behold, cases of grape juice, but the tiny bottles! Nevertheless, we needed it all. I threw everything into one of the Hillel Fresh carry hot bags, heaved it over my shoulder and schlepped to the car.
Folks, I know what a 50lb. bag of chicken food feels like on my shoulder. My family and I have 70-something chickens on our little homestead in Vermont. This was easily not that, it was then some.
With the bag weighing down the backseat I drove back to the Davis Center and parked close enough so I wouldn’t get a ticket. Again lifted the massive sack of grape juice over my shoulder, slammed the car door with my foot, and began the trek inside.
Honestly, one knee started to buckle in the rain on my way to the door. But I had started to go to the Campus Rec facility this year as a Hillel program to engage a new group of students. I remembered the squat form, readjusted the weight, and continued to walk up the stairs.
Could I have taken the elevator? Sure, but that would have meant waiting and I knew we only had precious minutes before students stopped eating and the seder resumed with the third and fourth cups! I had to climb the stairs…again grateful for the bare minimum of cardio I have done this semester. I should get back to the gym…
As I climbed I heard a familiar song.
Roughly translated, if this was it, enough. Dayenu.
I’ve been privileged to hear this twice.
Once in the beginning of the COVID pandemic when we as a Hillel needed to figure out how to provide Passover for our community while keeping everyone safe.
I will never forget the first time I heard the sound of Dayenu from the fourth floor to my table on the first floor of the Davis Center in the worst of the early days. I sat there alone, because we had three staff for hundreds of students. This was the first big social event they had for the year.
An entire year spent in isolation, only knowing the people on their floor, finally coming together to celebrate. It was the first time they were allowed to celebrate Passover, let alone anything Jewish in community again. It’s not that long ago, but I will always remember what those isolation holidays felt like.
Students were alone on campus. Away from their family. But they all chose to show up in the Davis Center, masked, unmasked, but hungry for connection to be together as Jews because that’s just what we do.
We’ve had adversity.
We commit to never again.
It’s what we do no matter what.
As I sat on the bottom floor in 2020 to greet any last-minute student arrivals as our staff of three was spread throughout the building; running between floors making sure food and ritual items were ready, pausing for the briefest of moments to have a Passover reflection for themselves, I too paused.
I heard Dayenu like never before.
That song rang out from 10 different conference rooms. All students, restricted from gathering and having community and finding other Jewish people and friends could find that through Hillel in the Davis Center. Zoom and technology enabled small groups of students to be together in community even as they were separated from distance.
The song of Dayenu ringing out from the top of the Davis Center to the bottom. I sat in silence, with tears, as Jewish students and their friends and allies, despite adversity, were together for Passover.
That was 2020.
The song of “if this were it, that’s cool…it would be enough, but wow G-d, you really came through and look at this abundance even through all the suffering” being sung in the center of campus.
Now it’s 2023.
After a week where the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said that UVM needs to do more to help Jewish students feel equal and included, dayenu.
Dayenu that Jewish students were finally recognized for experiencing bias, harassment, and inaction, just for being Jewish.
Dayenu that so many Jewish students over the years experienced virulent, hateful antisemitism at UVM and today they don’t need to suffer in silence.
Dayenu, that Jewish students, parents, families, friends, and allies, know that if someone they care about experiences hatred because of who they are, someone will care enough to act so nobody else need experience that hatred.
Dayenu that someone will care.
Dayenu that someone will care and speak out.
Dayenu that someone will care and speak out and raise awareness.
Dayenu that someone will care and speak out and raise awareness and report their experience of antisemitism to their university.
Dayenu that someone will care and speak out and raise awareness and report their experience of antisemitism to their university and hear an apology.
Dayenu that someone will care and speak out and raise awareness and report their experience of antisemitism to their university and hear an apology and a commitment to do better.
Dayenu that someone will care and speak out and raise awareness and report their experience of antisemitism to their university and hear an apology and a commitment to do better and vow publicly that no student should experience bias and harassment because of their identity.
I heard Dayenu singing proudly and loudly as I trudged up the staircase in 2023 remembering 2020 and the years of struggle for recognition that Jewish students wanted for years before that.
From oppression to liberation.
From bondage to freedom.
I heard the last notes of Dayenu as I reached the top of the staircase and I knew at that point in the seder I had made it. We still had two cups to go.
Our staff and student leaders made it possible for me to get there in time because Dayenu.
Nearly out of breath. but committed to delivering, I staggered into the back of the ballroom and dropped the weight with a thud on the floor.As I lifted out the two bottles, the group of students around me began to cheer. I smiled and out of breath, I began to circulate the room distributing the bottles of grape juice and meeting the smiling faces of students thrilled to have more grape juice to complete their ritual, and also because they were thirsty.
This was my favorite part of the night.
Hillel, all of us… the student, staff, board parents, family, friends, and alumni…came through to provide these students what they needed in a time they needed it most.
Connection, ritual, familiarity in an unfamiliar world.
Kosher grape juice isn’t just kosher for Passover.
It’s home for these students.
It’s onegs and seders and juice boxes at camp.
It’s spills and salt on their bubbe’s bubbe’s tablecloth.
It’s connection to Jewish people across the centuries.
It’s what we provide through Hillel every day in conversation and writ large in massive communal celebrations.
I have not totaled the cost of the catering, three last minute food and supply runs, staff time, and resources that went into putting on this event this week.
I’m sure it will be the most we have ever spent on a single event at Hillel in my time here.
It was also so worth the cost and the work to see the joy from these students as they celebrated being Jewish in the center of their campus; as our tradition commands us, together.
It’s the first year that we could gather as one Jewish community together, in a full generation of college students. Four years is a lifetime for these young adults. A few students on campus still remember UVM then and now; from mitzrayim, the narrow place, to freedom.
More students in the future will remember what UVM is like today and going forward because of their predecessors’ years long fight to be recognized as deserving of equal treatment and a commitment to do better.
Next year in Jerusalem.
Next year in the Patrick Gym.
Next year wherever these incredible students want to be Jewish.
Our gorgeous Lake Champlain in Vermont evokes the shores of the Kinneret. From the rolling hills to the expansive water and even the cyanobacteria levels which both Israeli researchers and Vermonters are researching respectively. I love the symmetry of natural beauty in Israel and Vermont. This year’s Passover seder at UVM helped connect hundreds of students in Vermont to their historical and religious roots in our ancestors’ journey to their home in Israel.
The Passover season teaches us to be mindful of our past while looking ever forward in hope for our collective future. Here in Burlington, we will be mindful of the past ways Jewish students were treated at our university and look forward to a bright new future for Jewish life at UVM where inaction in the face of antisemitism is no longer an option.
I truly believe that UVM is one of the best places to be Jewish in the country. Then and now and forever we will speak out loudly and proudly that Jewish people have every right to be Jewish the way they want to be. Despite the headlines and investigation and resolution of the past few years, Jewish life at UVM is thriving and continues to get better each day, because of our students.
Next year, we’ll order way more grape juice…we’re going to need it.