‘Traumatic’: TKE members band together in wake of Torah scroll desecration

Media Credit: File Photo by Skylar Epstein | Staff Photographer

University President Thomas LeBlanc denounced the incident as a “despicable” act of antisemitsm.

Updated: Nov. 8, 2021 at 1:02 p.m.

Tau Kappa Epsilon President Chris Osborne woke up to a string of texts from a fraternity brother at 3 a.m. last Sunday morning.

The interior of the TKE house had been vandalized and a Torah scroll was desecrated, the messages read. Osborne said the member who first discovered the vandalism was Jewish.

“I was outraged, I was upset hearing from Jewish brothers in the fraternity who were there to find it,” Osborne said. “Hearing them find the Torah destroyed was definitely disheartening.”

Since the desecration of the Torah shocked GW’s campus and cast TKE under the limelight of national media last week, members of TKE said they’ve turned to one another for support. Students in TKE said the University should increase its outreach to the Jewish community and tighten campus safety measures, like increased lighting and security cameras around the townhouse.

Several staff members were temporarily staying in the TKE house as officials increased GW Police Department patrols around the surrounding area last week as part of heightened security measures officials took after the vandalism.

Osborne said he was “shocked” when he read the messages about the antisemitic act early Sunday morning, and many residents of the TKE house felt “violated” after their home was vandalized. He said members of the fraternity have spent more time together during the past week, going out to dinner or playing flag football on the National Mall to support each other.

“It’s always up to us to come together and love each other and unite around each other,” Osborne said. “And that will always be stronger than those acts of hate. And so that’s really how the chapter is going about getting through this and making sure that the individual brothers who felt individually targeted by this, specifically our Jewish brothers, are getting through this.”

He said the GW community needs to unite and take action to address this kind of discrimination to create a more “inclusive” campus. He said many students feel that their safety is threatened on campus, especially after a GW staff member was assaulted in the G Street Garage last month. 

A student ​​reported their mezuzah was stolen off their door and later returned damaged last week, and another reported that she was harassed when an image of a swastika was slid under her door on the Mount Vernon Campus last month.  

Osborne said TKE members are also concerned about safety inside the townhouse without security guards or cameras to monitor dangerous behavior, making it easier for perpetrators to break into Greek life townhouses. He said he spoke with Brian Joyce, the directory of fraternity and sorority life, to increase police presence and street lighting on 22nd Street by the TKE house.

“Campus safety is also an issue here because this is not the first instance where the people have felt their safety is threatened,” Osborne said. “So we have to come together, we have to work with GWPD, we have to work with the administration who has shown interest in increasing safety around campus.”

Joshua Orenstein, a junior and member of TKE, said he has not received a “tremendous” indication that the University is implementing any immediate changes, like more lighting and security cameras, to ensure the safety of TKE members living in the townhouse. 

Orenstein applauded University President Thomas LeBlanc’s statement condemning the vandalism as an act of antisemitism, but he encouraged the University to reach out to Jewish organizations to determine the best ways to support Jewish students. He said officials have failed to match the same response to the Torah desecration during previous acts of antisemitism – like the Snapchat video capturing a student threatening to bomb Israel in 2019 and a swastika that was drawn on a students’ door in 2020.

“I would encourage the University to reach out specifically with Jewish organizations as to what they think the best foot forward is because that seems to be a recurring trend and the University does what it does every time,” Orenstein said. “I also am not wild about the fact that it seems like the extent to which the University cares about a particular incident is directly proportionate to the amount of outside attention that incident receives.”

Mark Schlager, a junior and member of TKE, said it has been difficult for him to process the “traumatic” event that his Jewish brothers had to face in his own fraternity. He said although he is not Jewish, coming to terms with the incident that has made his Jewish friends feel unsafe on campus has taken a toll on his mental health, while members of the chapter juggle with interview requests from national media outlets. 

“It really is still not really occurring to me that literally a hate crime occurred at my fraternity house where some of my best friends live,” he said. “So just something like that, being so personal, being so close to home really took a toll on me.”

He said residents of the TKE house were “somber” in the first few days after the event, but members like Osborne have handled the situation well in leading the fraternity and reaching out to members to offer support. Schlager said since the event, the fraternity members have remained “unified,” hosting group dinners and exchanging personal contact information in GroupMe’s for members to reach out if they are struggling. 

“Despite what happened, we’re still the same old TKE and we’re still brothers and we’re always going to be there to support our Jewish brothers, which make up a pretty good percentage of the Brotherhood,” he said. 

Sam Weinnerman, a sophomore and member of TKE, said he “could not believe his eyes” when he first saw the desecrated Torah.

“There was a few hours, but I’d say actually, not even hours, I’d say it’s like a day and a half of self pity, feeling a little bit upset about it,” he said. 

Weinnerman said Jewish students on campus wanted to take advantage of the solidarity created at the procession, which had a “great turnout” of about 400 students. Weinnerman, who held the Torah during the procession, said he was “stunned” by the support the members of TKE received at the procession and views the chapter as “optimistic” moving forward after the incident. 

“Upon seeing that, I was like, ‘Okay, wow, this is absolutely incredible,”’ he said at the procession last week. “And I knew right away they are going to support us and what we were trying to do here, and I think their reaction to how they acted tonight definitely showed that.”

This post was updated to clarify the following:
This post was updated to clarify that several staff members were temporarily staying in the TKE house last week after it was vandalized.

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