Matt Vogel

The Commonality of College is Isolation

Visual display of empty chairs in front of Hillel at UVM
Visual display of empty chairs in front of Hillel at UVM

These are impossible days for Jewish people.

Since the encampment went up on UVM’s campus this past Saturday, I’ve spent many hours in Hillel, at the encampment, and on campus engaged in deep conversation with Jewish students. I’ve talked with Zionists. I’ve talked with anti-Zionists. I’ve talked with students who deem themselves radical revolutionaries and I’ve talked with students who are staunchly pro-Israel advocates. I’ve talked with students who come from  families of Holocaust survivors that are appalled by the protests in their name. I’ve talked with students who are scared and I’ve talked with students who are proud. There is one commonality I’ve discovered across all of these ideological differences.

These students feel alone.

This generation of students began college in COVID isolation and they are ending their college experience with social isolation from their friends. Lifelong friendships are ending because of political and ideological differences about one single issue, Israel-Palestine. Student have been forced to move out of their residence halls and places of safety because they are harassed in the place they live for their beliefs. Romantic relationships fracture because one partner’s lived experience calls for siding with oppression, or terrorism or whatever words are used in place of recognizing our shared humanity. The social fissures that are occurring are real, and they are painful, and they hurt on the deepest levels of their emotions.

Isolation is the common thread between a Zionist Jew and an anti-Zionist Jew, and it’s painful for everyone. Every day since October 7th, a student has been in tears in our Hillel offices because of the impact rampant antisemitism has on their psyche. Our staff has become triage experts in processing the emotional grief that occurs when friends are lost, values are attacked, and one’s identity is questioned. Every day this past week I have heard from students who are unable to study because of the protest noise and the hateful rhetoric emanating from chants and mock blood covered posters. All of these students are hurting.

But I am starting to wonder, how much listening is too much listening? The impact of hearing “intifada UVM” chanted ceaselessly is draining for a Jewish student with family in Israel. Do we need to be present at the encampment to witness the antisemitic rhetoric first hand? Do we need to engage with those who don’t believe we have a right to exist? Maybe…because we’re Jews we keep engaging in the eternal conversation and we keep struggling with the living Torah we are confronted with each day. We must keep listening, even as it gets more painful each day.

I’m still listening, I’m still learning, I’m still engaging with every Jewish student who wants to engage with Hillel’s vision of a rich life infused with Jewish life, learning, and Israel. I’m listening to deeply involved Hillel leaders who tell me they are uncomfortable with an Israeli flag in the office but firmly stand behind Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. I’m listening to pro-Israel advocates that say we need to do more. It’s why we put up 130 chairs on our lawn this week to remember the hostages. I’m listening to pro-Palestinian students that also say we need to do more, it’s why I keep showing up at the encampment to observe and think about how to appropriately recognize and honor the suffering of innocent people in this war.

We need to believe students when they say they experience antisemitic bias and harassment. We need to believe the students in the encampment who say they aren’t going anywhere. They aren’t. They are dug in. We need to believe people when they speak their truths that this encampment is causing harm to students. How many listening sessions must the university hold while its policies continue to be violated and the learning environment is disrupted? How many reports must the AEO office intake about Jewish harassment? How much listening is too much? I’m not sure…but I’m still here listening even as what I hear gets more troubling by the day. I’m still listening as my staff and I carry the vicarious trauma of hundreds of Jewish students.

The social isolation occurring today on campus will have lasting effects throughout the lives of these young adults. We are just now beginning to see the impacts of two years of COVID isolation and how that plays out in these mass public gatherings for social causes. I worry about this generation of students. I worry that perhaps they feel the time for listening has passed. I worry that finals are around the corner and their stress and anxiety levels are at all-time highs. I worry for my staff who wakes up every day willing and able to be fully present for every student we encounter. Presence requires so much strength and true presence can be so hard to maintain every day, day after day. I worry that the era of dialogue across difference for the sake of greater understanding seems to be withering each day these encampments remain.

To be clear, I believe that every Jewish student deserves a safe and supportive community of peers. Groups like UVM Jews for Liberation and Students Supporting Israel – while on opposite ideological ends of the spectrum – deserve to develop their communities in safety and security. Every Jewish student needs a supportive and safe Jewish community, now more than ever. No student should be so isolated that they feel alone in the world, yet it’s happening every day.

Identity and connection will evolve over time. Today’s lefties become tomorrow’s conservatives. It’s imperative that we still lead with empathy and an open heart for every Jewish student during this intensity of isolation.

These are impossible times to be Jewish. We will keep listening and learning and supporting every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning, and Israel…whatever that means to them, always.

About the Author
Matt Vogel is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Vermont and has spent his career supporting Jewish students on campus.
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