Randall Fried

Indiana U: Reclaiming the Jewish Narrative

In the heart of Indiana University at Bloomington, the voices of Jewish students resonate powerfully against a diverse backdrop of stories and perspectives. Recent events, like the demonstration in support of Israel and the subsequent counter-rally, have unveiled both the immediate tensions and the broader struggle of Jewish students striving to uphold their identity amidst prevailing narratives.

With Jewish students making up 12% of the university’s population, their advocacy for Israel during turbulent times was conceived as a peaceful gesture. The decision to relocate their event to avoid potential confrontation highlighted their commitment to harmony. Still, their solidarity for Israel—echoed by a thousand voices—met with 100 counter-protesters, some of whom seemed less concerned about Palestinian rights and more aligned with an unsettling undercurrent of antisemitism.

The complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often reduced to overly simplistic narratives, much to the anguish of many Jewish students. Before the unprovoked massacre of Israeli civilians that triggered the recent war, a staggering one in three Jewish university students already felt targeted, adjusting their expressions of Judaism in response. The escalation of tensions only magnified these sentiments, exacerbated further by what some students felt was a hesitant stance by university administrators. For many Jewish students at IU, waiting for a clear, moral stand from the institution was a painful ordeal. Recognizing that this was the most severe attack against Jews since the Holocaust should be self-evident, not a point of contention.

One often turns to the symbols and traditions that have anchored the community over centuries to grasp the depth of Jewish identity. The Magen David, or the Shield of David, is one such emblem. My connection to this symbol deepened upon receiving a Star of David from my aunt. She unveiled its multi-layered symbolism—the star’s representation of the days of the week with Shabbat at its heart, its twelve facets echoing the twelve tribes, and the twin triangles depicting the balance of human endeavors and divine blessings. These interpretations testify to how action, community, and spirituality shape Jewish identity.

The path to reclaiming the Jewish narrative lies in education, engagement, and introspection:

  1. Inviting Interactions: Building bridges through shared experiences like a Shabbat dinner with non-Jewish peers can be a transformative step, fostering unity and mutual respect.
  2. Educate and Engage: Addressing misinformation and encouraging a deeper understanding of the situation in Israel can help cultivate genuine empathy. Many Jewish students have expressed dismay over the propagation of falsehoods, often by those who admit their own lack of knowledge on the subject.
  3. Engage in Conversations: Promote dialogues rooted in mutual respect. Recognize and challenge antisemitic sentiments, and remember that as a Jew, your perception of antisemitism should not be trivialized or invalidated by others.
  4. Self-Reflection: Explore the depths of your Jewish identity. Do the symbols, like the Star of David, resonate with you? Or is it the memories of lighting Shabbat candles with family, attending Jewish summer camps, imbibing values, or cherishing family legacies?

Embracing the rhythms of Jewish life—the symbols, sounds, texts, or even the food—can be invigorating. These shared experiences can profoundly guide and inspire, ensuring that the Jewish narrative continues to flourish. At IU, students are fortunate to have the support of both Chabad on campus and Hillel. These two vital organizations are pillars in sustaining and nurturing Jewish life.

In this ongoing journey of introspection, unity, and understanding, the richness of shared traditions, the strength of collective voices, and the depth of personal stories must weave together to ensure that the Jewish narrative at Indiana University remains authentic, vibrant, and enduring. While Chabad and Hillel have occasionally come together for significant events, such as the rally for Israel, it’s crucial, especially in challenging times, that they find more common ground. Regular collaboration between these organizations can serve as a powerful beacon of unity, demonstrating to Jewish students the importance of solidarity in reclaiming and reinforcing their narrative. It’s my fervent hope that these organizations recognize the potential they hold, together, in shaping the future of Jewish life on campus.

About the Author
Randy is the Director of Philanthropic Engagement & Communication at Tzedek America. For the past twenty years, Randy has also been engaged in Jewish education as an educator for teens and adults, specifically spending the past 15 years teaching Holocaust history and the Jewish history of Poland. Randy is a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps and Speakers Bureau. Through Randy's communal work, he has also become involved in local politics and community outreach and has advocated for both communal and Jewish interests at the City and State level.
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