Marianne Novak
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Yes, my son is staying at Columbia

Student-warriors taking on campus battles are to be applauded but Jewish kids who just want to go to school deserve support too
Low Library, Columbia University
Low Library, Columbia University

This year my son transferred to Columbia University to finish his undergraduate degree. He is a product of Yeshiva Day School education and Bnei Akiva camps. He spent a gap year (truncated by Covid) in Israel and spent two summers working in a children’s home in B’nai Brak. He is a proud Jew and a proud Zionist.

After October 7th and the ensuing uproar on the Columbia campus, many friends and family called me with genuine concern about his well-being. Most of these conversations went something like this:
Oy- the rise of antisemitism is terrible!
Don’t send Columbia any more money. Pull him out of the school!
Is your son aware of the antisemitism?
What is your son doing to advocate for Israel?
I hear the campus isn’t safe for Jewish students!

To be sure, as a typical Jewish mother, I had many of the same concerns. I was so sad that my son and other Jewish students were called upon again to advocate for the very existence of Israel and the Jewish people. I was disheartened to see my son stand on the same quad that I had stood on as a Barnard College student 36 years ago to advocate for Israel during the first Intifada.

Jewish students, my son included, are supremely aware of the antisemitism on campus. In some of their classes, they might feel silenced from speaking up. Many students have been effectively canceled by their non-Jewish peers and some of their Jewish peers as well. Some have taken up the very hard mantle of defending Israel.
They are experiencing all of this — and remember this is a group of students who are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and are trying also to heal from the overwhelming trauma of October 7th- while trying simply to go to school.

Many well-meaning parents and outside Jewish advocacy groups have swooped in with the supposed goal of supporting students by educating them and turning them into front-line warriors on the current situation, bemoaning the fact that the vast majority of Jewish students today are sadly ignorant of the history of Israel let alone their Jewish heritage beyond the events of the Holocaust.

While those students who want to take on this enormous task, should certainly be applauded, the rest of the Jewish students desperately need support and care from the Jewish community so that they can simply go to school.

They need the spaces on campus where they can experience college and Jewish life as joyfully as possible. Our children who are still healing from the harms of the intense isolation during Covid and the horrors of October 7th want to have the chance to go to class, to experience the educational and social opportunities that truly only exist in the university experience.

Thankfully, we are fortunate to have real heroes on campuses that provide the soft places for these students to land. The Hillels, Chabads, Jewish fraternities and sororities have been working tirelessly to help students live their Jewish lives proudly and joyfully so that they can simply go to school and get the education and experiences they so deserve, especially after so much was taken away from them. These institutions additionally are doing the advocacy with the administrations and faculties so that again- students can worry about what normal college students should be concerned about- those midterm papers that won’t write themselves, where to go for Shabbat dinner and making those intense friendships and connections that I would argue are what old alumnae like myself cherish the most about my college experience.

The Kraft Center at Columbia has been doing this valiantly and also has been providing students with opportunities to tangibly help Israel and the Jewish community with hands-on projects in Israel and here in the US for those who are not in the space to go scream on the steps of Low Library. Many students were not only beset with trauma during October 7th but also a sustained sense of helplessness- that resulted in a real protest fatigue or paralysis. By providing these avenues to aid the cause, students were and are able to find the right fit to help Israel and the Jewish people but maybe more importantly their mental wellbeing. During his winter break my son was able to go back to Achuzat Sarah Children’s Home in Bnei Brak to assist with the young children he had been a counselor to, now young men needing support as all the male counselors had been called up to serve. The warm embrace of those boys helped heal the helplessness my son felt at the beginning of the war.

Soon after October 7th, I read that some group -perhaps Chabad- brought cholent and a kumsitz gathering to beleaguered Jewish students. While I am admittedly not clear about the details, I know that this , the warm hug, from the Jewish community was just what these and perhaps all Jewish students needed more than anything else.

So to answer my well-meaning friends and colleagues’ questions :
Yes, my son is aware of antisemitism on campus –
He is not transferring again. As a proud Jew he (and his parents ) refuse to have terrorists and haters decide where he should get his education.
He wants to salvage his college experience that was initially crushed by Covid and then crushed again on October 7th.

He simply wants to go to school.

Let’s support him and his peers so that he can do just that.

Bring them cholent and kumsitz and a big hug.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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