Jewish student organizations unite to process impact of Torah desecration

Media Credit: Danielle Towers | Assistant Photo Editor

GW Hillel has held events and opened their doors for the Jewish community on campus after the desecration of a Torah scroll over the weekend.

Members of the Jewish community on campus have grappled with emotional shock after a Torah scroll owned by Tau Kappa Epsilon was desecrated in the fraternity’s on-campus house this weekend during a reported break in.

Leaders from Jewish student organizations, including GW Hillel and GW for Israel, said they were “disheartened” and “shocked” by the incident, emphasizing the occurrence as a reminder of how antisemitism has persisted on campus and across the country in recent years. Students said they hope officials will take action to prevent hate crimes on campus with more antisemitism education that goes beyond recent statements of condemnation.

Ezra Meyer – the president of GW for Israel – said he experienced both shock and fear after hearing about the vandalism in the TKE house. He said with antisemitism on the ​​rise at universities across the country, it is a “scary time to be a Jew on a college campus.”

“On many college campuses across this country, we’ve seen antisemitism come in the form of violence against students,” he said. “So it’s truly a scary time for us, and this weekend’s incident was a sobering reminder of that fact.”

Members of TKE said the incident happened early Sunday morning when someone broke into the house on 22nd Street. They found hot sauce smeared over the kitchen counter and fire alarms ripped out of the walls while the fraternity’s other religious texts were left unharmed.

The Metropolitan Police Department is investigating the incident as a suspected hate crime.

Meyer said antisemitic incidents on campus have become “expected” in his three years at GW.

Previous incidents of antisemitism on campus at GW include a Snapchat video ​​posted in 2019, and allegations of a class assignment ​​analyzing  an anti-Semitic metaphor.

Students ​​recorded on their respective campuses 25 incidents of antisemitism on campus at GW in 2020, the second highest number of reports nationwide, second to New York University where 30 reports were filed, according to a 2020 Jewish on Campus report.

“We receive these platitude-filled condemnations or statements of condemnation whenever something happens, which as I said, are appreciated, but there’s clearly some sort of substantive follow up that is lacking,” he said. “If there weren’t, then these would have stopped happening. But I’ve been here for three years now, and it’s become routine at this point.”

University President Thomas LeBlanc condemned the incident as an act of antisemitism in a statement Sunday night, saying all acts of antisemitism are an “attack on the entire GW community.”

Meyer said the administrators must add education about antisemitism to the mandatory diversity and inclusion training that all students are required to complete, because the current training modules don’t spend “much time on antisemitism if any at all.”

“The University needs to take steps to educate the student body about it,” Meyer said. “Because a lot of hate comes from a place of not being educated, not being knowledgeable.”

He said the University should also create a position or task force to combat antisemitism on campus to find the “root” of incidents, like the desecration of the Torah. The Student Association created an antisemitism task force in fall 2019 to improve accessibility for bias incident report systems and encourage officials to incorporate religion in diversity modules.

“Whatever they’ve done so far isn’t working,” he said. “It also hasn’t been clear what they’ve done. Every time something happens, we get a statement and they stand in solidarity with us, which I don’t doubt they do. But they need to take actions to study this and find out where it’s coming from and find out how to cut it off at its source.”

Rose Kesselman, the co-president of the Jewish Student Association, said she was “heartbroken” to learn about the incident. She said although the incident was extremely upsetting, it did not surprise her because of GW’s history with antisemitic issues on campus.

“On our campus, it was hard to see, and I would not say it’s unbelievable, but things like this keep happening at our school,” she said. “So while it’s not totally hard to believe, it’s extremely upsetting.

She said she was grateful for support from Jewish and non-Jewish communities that attended a procession through campus Monday, where students denounced the incident at the TKE house. She said the fraternity received support from student organizations that posted statements on social media, like the GW Panhellenic Association.

Other student organizations like GW Democrats and GW Republicans released statements condemning the desecration of the Torah scroll at the TKE townhouse.

“I have been really thankful for my Jewish community on campus and non Jewish allies who have stood up and posted responses to this incident on social media and have reached out to us” she said. “They’ve been super supportive.”

She said GW Hillel hosted an open talking space on Monday from 4 to 5 p.m., which any student on campus could attend, voice their feelings and “hold each other up” to support one another.

Jessica Carr, the other co-president of the JSA, said the vandalism at the TKE house appeared “very intentional” because no other religious texts were damaged.  She said while the incident was “extremely upsetting,” the GW community and other student organizations reached out to GW Hillel to stand in solidarity with the Jewish population on campus.

“It’s just really upsetting to me that someone within our community at GW would do such a thing, but it was very comforting to find the positive response from the GW community and all the outreach that we’ve gotten,” she said.

Carr said the GW Hillel building is open to students from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and staff are available to students in the building five days a week. She said administrators like Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Cissy Petty also attended the conversation with students Monday.

“We’re open to speaking to any student in the Jewish community and in the greater GW community, and the same goes for our entire executive board on the Jewish Student Association,” she said. “We will continue to host, and we will open to conversations like the one we had today to continue to make sure that this dialogue continues.”

The Jewish Law Student Association released a statement Sunday denouncing the act of vandalism as a “blatant” act of antisemitism. The executive board said in the statement that they contacted members of TKE to offer their support and reached out to the administration to discuss how to make Jewish students feel safer on campus.

“To desecrate a sacred Torah is a despicable and insulting act,” the statement reads. “We stand in complete solidarity with the students impacted and wholeheartedly condemn this blatant act of anti-Semitism.”

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