The Claremont University Consortium is a conglomeration of five undergraduate colleges and two graduate universities near the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. It is mostly known for its five prestigious liberal arts colleges: Pomona, Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Pitzer. These institutions, colloquially known as the 5Cs, have gone on par with the Ivy League schools in terms of admissions rate, high rankings on Forbes and U.S. News, and have acquired a substantial reputation in higher education as a result.
Claremont also has a decent Jewish community, but unfortunately, it is not a very vibrant one. Despite the existence of a Hillel and a Chabad, as well as a handful of Jewish-centric groups, the majority of the Jewish student body hides their Judaism under the rug. In the last three years that I have been in Claremont, attendance in the Hillel has dropped, membership and organization in a few of the Jewish groups is dangerously low, and the danger of Jewish students losing sight of their roots and their cultural is all too real. For me, I was fortunate to have found Claremont Students for Israel (CSI) early in my freshman year. Having done Zionist activism since my freshman year at high school, CSI opened me up to my future participation in the Hillel, the Chabad, and, eventually, becoming a founding father of the Chi Chi chapter of AEPi.
Now AEPi has had a history in the Claremont Colleges, but it was a rather short one. It tried to start up during my freshman year, only to disappear into thin air before my sophomore year. This year, a group of nearly thirty Jewish boys, hailing from San Diego to New York City and everywhere in between, came together in the hopes of fostering a secular Jewish community. In other words, they wanted to create a center for Jewish life that was not centered entirely on the religious side of our culture, something that was not as vibrant in Claremont. By founding AEPi in the Claremont bubble, we would open the door to a silent majority of Jews on the campuses, who has since been drawn away from their cultural hubs and have begun to lose track of what it means to be Jewish. Following initiation last week, there is no doubt in my mind that I am in the good company of young Jewish men who are willing to turn that majority into a minority. Best of all, we have the support of some of the alumni of some of the colleges.
A few of the brothers, including myself, met with Howard Jacobson, an alum from the Claremont McKenna College Class of 1979 and a practicing Jew based out of Newport Beach. Having spent his Alumni Weekend with the Chabad Rabbi, he took the opportunity to spend his Sunday afternoon meeting with us about how he incorporated his Jewish identity into his life and gave us great advice about how to grow the Jewish community in Claremont. He stated that the growing liberal environment of Claremont can penetrate a Jewish student’s judgment on issues such as the Israeli-Arab conflict, assimilation, and the potential renouncement of their faith. He took the point home that it is easy to succumb to the mainstream political trends of our liberal campuses, and that it is imperative that AEPi and other committed members of the Jewish student body recognize the signs and help save the Claremont Jewish community from disappearing. Though some of my brothers were not surprised by these dangers, I know that it is more realistic than my freshmen brethren can imagine.
Since I started getting active in Claremont Students for Israel, I have seen three troubling moments arise: the founding of J Street U, the emergence of Jewish Voices for Peace, and the inception of the grossly false and absurdly anti-Semitic Israeli Apartheid Week. Despite the fact that J Street U’s Claremont chapter often separates themselves from the mother organization, I know that there are non-Zionists and Jewish students who are very critical of Israel and are vocal members of J Street U. In addition, the fact that Jewish students have actively participated in Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as Jewish Voices for Peace, is even more grotesque and subsequently becoming more popular, especially in the liberally bent Pitzer and Pomona Colleges. But when you see that Israeli Apartheid Week draws out the anti-Semites in force, then that is the moment when you realize that Jewish students have a better incentive to sweep their ethnic background under the rug and pretend that they are not part of our community.
This cannot happen any longer. The silent Jewish community of Claremont eventually needs to have its voice heard once more. We, the Jewish people, survived because we looked out for each other, defended each other, and reminded each other about why it is important to hold onto our culture. That was why our books were never destroyed, rather reproduced. That was why our cultures never died out without a fight or the fear of persecution and genocide. But if AEPi is going to be a mechanism that the silent Jewish student body can finally emerge from the shadows and feel comfortable being in a secular Jewish environment, then I know that AEPi Chi Chi has the chance to do so. There is plenty of work to be done, but if we wish to foster and continue any Jewish community in Claremont, it starts with the burning desire of about thirty young Jewish men willing to climb a hurdle over the overwhelming attack of the liberal attitudes towards religion, Israel, and most importantly, Judaism.