This was the first time I considered skipping my annual Thanksgiving Day column. As has become my custom, I find something to be particularly grateful for, given the times. This year, with the rise in antisemitism and fear pervading college campuses, it seemed time for me to take a pass.
This changed when I read a story last week about 100 universities offering expedited admissions to Jewish students feeling harassed at their universities. In what seems like a simple gesture, a coalition of 100 faith-based institutions, public and private, and historically Black colleges and universities joined forces to provide Jewish students a safe and supportive haven.
Since we are all the sum of our parts, their offer took me back to my roots — specifically, my siblings and I helping my parents in their small kosher grocery in Colorado, which served an orthodox community. It was a family affair as we would deliver groceries to our customers’ homes. Over many years, we developed relationships and got to know them.
One of my favorite customers was kind, often offering us something to nibble and never forgetting to tip us. At some point, I wondered why she didn’t have children, given her disposition. My dad explained that the numbers on her arm were from a concentration camp and that she was unable to have children because of what the Nazis did to her. She was one of our many customers who had survived the camps, meaning that for us, the Holocaust was not something we read about. We knew some of its victims.
Years later, when I got married, I learned that my father-in-law was nine, living in Stuttgart, when Kristallnacht happened. He was heading to school and noticed the broken glass. The street police sent him home, telling him school had been canceled for the day. He was to lose his family, though his parents and siblings made it to the United States in October 1939 after Poland had fallen.
There was also the stern principal in my Jewish day school who lost his entire family in the camps and came to the United States as a young man, committed to educating the next generation of Jewish students. It wasn’t the numbers on his arm that scared us. It was him. He had a seriousness and purpose as he created a first-ever Talmud guide for young kids, which grew into a finished product for day schools.
Common to all these stories is that I grew up knowing the devastating consequences of antisemitism. It wasn’t an old chapter from a history book — read today and gone tomorrow. My parents had given me the “beware” warning, which I didn’t take sufficiently to heart until October 7.
When October 7th happened, there was a new painful reality to my life, told by numbers and stories.
The numbers: In only two weeks post-October 7, there were 312 antisemitic incidents in the United States and 109 anti-Israel rallies that condoned Hamas’s violence against Jews in Israel. Those numbers continue to grow.
The stories: A Jewish woman, walking through Grand Central Station, was punched in the face by some random stranger because “You are Jewish,” he said. Over the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles hung a banner that read, “Honk if you know that Kanye was right about the Jews.” Kanye made highly public antisemitic statements that have resonated with far too many.
The above stories are modest compared to what I could have selected, but I chose “small incidences” that don’t grab headlines to show how commonplace and hurtful they are.
But back to the students. If you thought you were “lucky” enough to gain admission to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Cornell, or any of the most coveted universities, and you are Jewish, it’s likely that this Thanksgiving you will have a different take. You’ve seen and maybe experienced a degree of antisemitism that you didn’t think possible.
While you might recall reading chapters on the Holocaust, that was a different era. We’ve learned, you thought. “My university is steeped in history and has a moral compass.” Well, maybe not.
The safe-haven offer of universities, many of which are not Jewish in origin but caring and decent institutions, provides a glimmer of hope. Sometimes, it’s the simple act of decency that saves the day… and the column.
In John 15, it says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
To our non-Jewish friends who’ve shown up, thank you for loving us.