Do You Think They can Tell That I’m Jewish?

“Do you think they can tell that I’m Jewish?” a young 19-year-old asked her mother, her voice strained with fear.

This conversation took place in 2024, not 1944.

It’s a question that carries with it the weight of Jewish history, a history punctuated by persecution and pogroms. The mother, a dear friend of ours, who could hardly believe the scenario her daughter was describing, felt a cold shiver of the past manifesting itself onto the present.

In a time when history’s lessons loom large, the fears born from the darkest chapters of human history still resonate in the lives of Jews today.

Like many of the demonstrations taking place on campuses throughout the country that are supposedly pro-Palestinian, the atmosphere was not pro anything. These students are not demonstrating to help provide food to those in need in Gaza nor are they working to ensure independence for the Palestinian people.

Chants of “Death to Jews” and “Death to Israel” pierced the air making their intentions clear and transparent. Understandably, this young Jewish girl was terrified. What if they find out that she is a Jew?

As I listened to this mother sharing what was the most frightening moment of her life, with a heavy heart, it reminded me of the scene from ‘A Small Light’ where Margot Frank was trying to join her family in hiding passing the checkpoint undetected by the nazi guards. The fear lingering that they will see through her confidence and trying to fit in and find out the truth about who she is.

How are we back in the same place? How are we as a society allowing history to repeat itself yet again causing our children to hide their Jewish identity for fear of being assaulted?

More importantly, why are universities across the country allowing these campus encampments turning their campuses into breeding grounds of hate? This particular campus called in the police since their own security department couldn’t contain the vile “protests” yet they haven’t done anything to prevent or stop them from taking place in the first place. Jewish students still need to pass through areas where their fellow students, who are encamped, hurl hateful messages at them.

Campuses and communities must foster environments where political discourse does not devolve into hate speech or fearmongering. Educational institutions, communities, and individuals must work together to uphold principles of respect and understanding. Only through such efforts can we hope to prevent history’s darkest days from casting their long shadows over our present and future.

The timing of this incident during the Passover holiday—a time when Jews commemorate their liberation from slavery and oppression—adds a layer of historical irony and pain. Particularly during the second half of the holiday, which celebrates the splitting of the Red Sea, a symbol of overcoming insurmountable barriers and the pursuit of freedom, the contrast between the themes of Passover and the messages at the protest could not be more pronounced.

The distressing experiences of Jewish students on campuses need immediate attention and action. It is unacceptable that educational institutions, places meant for learning and growth, become arenas where students fear for their safety based on their identity. The rise of such incidents not only threatens the well-being of Jewish students but also undermines the integrity of our educational systems.

The echoes of history should serve as a stark reminder, not a repeated reality. We must take decisive steps to ensure our campuses are safe havens for all students, regardless of their background. The commitment to combatting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate must be unequivocal and manifest in proactive measures, not just after-the-fact responses.

In this moment, we are called upon not only to reflect but to act. Ensuring that no student ever has to whisper in fear about their identity is a fundamental responsibility of our society. As we continue to confront these challenges, let us be guided not by fear, but by the courage to stand up for what is right and just.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Lehrfield lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife, Sarah, and their five energetic children. He serves as the Director of the Jewish Outreach Initiative (JOI), a transformative program reshaping the Jewish landscape in Denver. JOI is dedicated to providing authentic Jewish experiences and learning opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds in a meaningful and engaging way. Additionally, Rabbi Lehrfield is the Co-director of SITE (the School of Integrative Torah Education), a Hebrew school alternative where Judaism is brought to life in a fun, camp-like atmosphere. He hosts the "Zero Percent” and "Dear Rabbi”podcasts and cohosts the "reConnect" podcast, further broadening his influence and connection with a global audience. Known for his warmth and genuine love for every Jew, Rabbi Lehrfield's approachable demeanor enables him to connect with people across all age groups and backgrounds. As a dynamic and engaging educator, he employs analogies and humor to make complex, profound ideas accessible and relatable to all, from novices to experts. Rabbi Lehrfield earned his M.Ed from Loyola University in Chicago and received two rabbinic ordinations; one from Yeshivas Beis Yisroel in Jerusalem, and another from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, the Chief Justice of the Jerusalem High Court. Beyond his professional pursuits, Rabbi Lehrfield is passionate about photography, baking, rock climbing, and snowboarding. These diverse interests allow him to engage with a broad spectrum of individuals and communities, furthering his mission to make Judaism relevant and meaningful for all Jews. You can follow Rabbi Lehrfield's activities and insights at @JOIdenver on Instagram and Facebook.
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