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Leah Bieler
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Don’t give up on college campuses

The rhetoric around this war can feel as if it is being engaged in by people who never took a humanities class
Demonstrators gather with signs near the Butler Library on the Columbia University campus in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City on October 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Demonstrators gather with signs near the Butler Library on the Columbia University campus in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City on October 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

We’ve all heard about the situation for Jewish kids on campus these days. There’s lots to be concerned about, and I’m not here to deny that there is tremendous work to be done. As the parent of a grad school student, two college students, and a high schooler, I take these issues seriously. 

But I also come from a family that takes education seriously. We have long lively discussions at the dinner table, at the shabbos table, loud enough that the untrained observer might call them “arguments.” We demand proof texts and pertinent examples, relevant etymologies and talmudic explications. And lest you think this is bragging, my husband and I, and three of our four kids, are not nearly as impressive when it comes to STEM. (Our one STEM kid seems to have hoarded all the recessive genes and will, I’m sure, be wildly successful, but will for the rest of her life be called upon to figure out why the computer is doing “that thing.”) It has been politely suggested to the rest of us that we focus on humanities. We major in things like African History, Sociology, Comparative Religions, Gender Studies. 

When fellow members of our community hear about our academic choices, they raise eyebrows, draw in quick breaths. Sometimes they literally laugh out loud. That we are wasting our time on frivolous pursuits, when we could be studying business, or engineering. We could be preparing to work in tech. Instead, we continuously hone our arguments, read longform articles, use frustrating amounts of nuance. 

So what does all this have to do with the situation that Jewish students find themselves in? There are two deeply troubling trends right now that have the potential to alter the posture of the Jewish community within the larger American one. The first, as I’ve already hinted at, is the degradation of the idea of humanities education, which is happening at high schools and universities across the country. Humanities is seen as essentially non-serious, a folly either available to wealthy dilettantes, or to the students who just can’t cut it in the more serious STEM disciplines.  

The decline in humanities education has been written about quite a lot, most recently in the New York Times. And the devaluing of this type of learning is not only seen at the university level. It bleeds into high schools, which in attempts to remain competitive pay more for labs and robotics programs, and fund humanities at the bare minimum. 

The results of this shift in focus couldn’t be clearer. We teach our kids that everything, like in math class, has a right or wrong answer. But in matters of politics, in matters of war, that is not always the case. Even your worst most sworn enemy has a baby who is entirely innocent.

Political arguments, when made correctly, have to be filled with nuance and exception, with context and compassion. It means acknowledging that your side has made mistakes, and that your opponent might sometimes have a solid point. It means not getting all your facts from propaganda, or hasbara, but being committed to learning in depth about the sweep of history, and the interconnectedness of communities and the values we share, and those that we very much don’t. It means acknowledging that there are many, and also no, correct answers. or at least never took one seriously. How we speak to one another matters. If we can’t manage to see the humanity in people who disagree with us, we risk losing our own. 

The second theme which is percolating in the Jewish sphere began, certainly, on the right. But it is now popping up in all sorts of Jewish spaces. It is a call to disengage entirely from universities. To reject the academy as an outdated mechanism of the radical left, indoctrinating impressionable young people and wasting our precious dollars. The question of whether the high price of a college education is worth it for everyone is a real one, and worth contemplating. 

But to give up on colleges completely would be a grave mistake. In fact, one could argue that universities have been the single biggest gift for the American Jewish community. They have, with all their flaws, been an instrument of immense social mobility, an incubator of liberal ideas, a home for countless Jewish academics and Nobel laureates. In short, Jews have achieved as much as they have in America because they have access to a university education. It would be incredibly short sighted and even dangerous to retreat from institutions that have been so important to us because we are now encountering problems, even complicated and difficult ones. We are unlikely to find anything that would even begin to take their place.  

When I was in college, a million years ago, I had a brilliant friend who lived down the hall, from rural Michigan. I was likely one of his first Jewish friends, certainly his first religious one. One day, while we were chatting, he glanced down and saw a book on my dorm bed that I had been reading for a history class. It was titled “Inside the Vicious Heart,” an account of first encounters by allied soldiers and journalists with the horrors of the Holocaust as they liberated death camps. To be honest, it was well written. But my own Holocaust education had been so brutal, so intense, that I don’t recall the book making an outsized impression. My friend asked to borrow it. 

That same friend returned to me only a few hours later, the book held tightly in his hand, tears streaming down his face. He was shaking his head, over and over.

“I didn’t know,” he kept repeating, “I didn’t know.” 

If we hadn’t lived down the hall from one another, would he have ever picked up that book? Would he even have learned anything about the horrors of the Shoah beyond what was mentioned in his high school textbook? And would I, stewed in my New York Jewish education, have imagined that there were truly smart, truly good people at top universities who had never really learned about the six million? 

Those kinds of face to face encounters are so important, and they become even more critical as we retreat into our internet bubbles, meeting people for a few minutes on Zoom, cameras off half the time, eyes on our phones. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to look someone in the eye, encounter their humanity, and speak about the things that are really important to us. To disagree, even profoundly, even righteously, while still understanding that the other person is more complex than any elegant and proper mathematical equation could ever possibly express.

When you’re in as much pain as many of us are right now, it can be hard to even contemplate hearing what the “other side” has to say. And certainly, we have no obligation to sit in dialogue with people who simply want us dead. To be honest, at the moment I am struggling to listen and learn from fellow Jews calling for immediate unconditional ceasefire. But I believe it’s important to hear what they have to say, even if I feel it to be misguided. Because maybe, possibly, I am a very tiny bit wrong, and they are a very tiny bit right. 

I will never apologize for worrying about my family first, and as Jews, we are obligated to take care of one another. But as I learned in my humanities education, sometimes we need to hold two things in our heads at the same time. As much hate, fear, and anger as I have in my heart – and as righteous as my position may be – I can still force myself to remember that we are all created in the image of the Divine. And while I may feel myself to be completely correct, and my enemies feel that they are, as well, humanity is not such a simple equation, and will never add up neatly to 100%. And that, in my well-researched opinion, is worth fighting for.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
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