Talking About Israel: An Inside Look at Oberlin College’s Thriving Jewish Community and Its Needs
Incidents of antisemitism are on the rise on US college campuses; this is well documented, and a matter of grave concern. But all too often, these incidents trigger labels that are damaging to those very Jewish communities and don’t paint a full or accurate picture.
Jewish communities on college campuses, like Oberlin, are built upon individuals whose understanding of Judaism stems from a variety of priorities, traditions, and backgrounds.
Students come to a campus community from all walks of life, and synagogues (or lack thereof) shape the way they understand their Judaism and the role it plays in their lives. Last year, the protest of a small number of students triggered labeling Oberlin as a bad place for Jewish students; and yet Oberlin’s Jewish community is thriving, with individuals exercising autonomy regarding the next steps in their religious and spiritual journeys.
Our college hosts an incredibly rich Jewish life, with many outlets for the diverse community that lives and works at Oberlin. Last year, Oberlin’s dining services began a partnership with Chabad in an effort to address the dietary needs of the Jewish community, and offered a certified “kosher for Passover” meal plan.
Each day of the week, students tap into the opportunity at Chabad to engage with their Judaism via a myriad of educational, social, and holiday events. Students fill Chabad house to capacity on Friday nights, enjoying home-cooked Shabbos dinner. And Chabad will move to a new building in the spring to better accommodate the large crowds.
Beyond the co-curricular, this year Oberlin expanded the Jewish Studies course offerings and hired several dynamic faculty members who have initiated programs at the Hebrew Heritage House, and created new energy and excitement. So why then have some cautioned Jewish students against coming to Oberlin?
The Jewish community generously offers both spiritual food for thought and kugel on Shabbos, yet it lacks dynamic conversation around Israel.
A healthy conversation requires space for multiple perspectives. Students who have connections to Israel can feel uncomfortable openly admitting their positive sentiments, along with feeling socially isolated and pressured to justify their position. This inhibits a diversity of views. To move forward, we must encourage students to speak out about their beliefs, or we risk silencing the vibrancy of what a well-rounded liberal arts education can offer. Oberlin encourages dialogue and facilitates conversations about so many topics — but we need to do more to further conversations around the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Furthermore, recognizing that Israel is more than its political situation is essential. For many, Israel is an ancestral homeland or a spiritual epicenter. Fostering a space for Jews whose identity involves those connections allows for a healthier and more inclusive campus community.
Oberlin’s tradition of tackling difficult debates head-on should be the motivation to foster a campus culture where diverse socio-political positions can coexist within a community. The administration can facilitate panels exhibiting a variety of opinions, allowing Oberlin students to witness healthy debate, synthesize the information, and then draw their own informed conclusions. These measures will, over time, enrich Oberlin’s campus by lending a voice to the silenced. Diving headfirst into the conversation around Israel could be a positive growth opportunity for the campus.
Should a Jewish student be cautioned against coming to Oberlin? Absolutely not! Let this serve as an invitation to action. Come to Oberlin, experience the richness of our Jewish life — and bring your voice and the great deal of variety that comes with it.
Open your mind to hear the perspectives of others, and learn how their life experiences have shaped their thoughts. This is a call to all invested parties, not just students, to make spaces where intellectual conquest can occur. This is an encouragement to further one’s education beyond sensational headlines and superficial buzzwords, and get deep into one of the world’s most intriguing matters. Finally, this is motivation to engage with one’s spiritual and cultural identity in a sophisticated manner.
Havi Carrillo-Klein is a second-year student at Oberlin College pursuing a double major in environmental studies and Jewish studies and a minor in economics. She is active in Jewish life on campus, serving on Chabad’s leadership board. She is a captain on Oberlin’s women and trans ultimate team and also works as a tour guide, a peer advising leader mentoring first year students, and conducts environmental justice research.
Rabbi Shlomo Elkan has served as co-director together with his wife, Devorah, of Chabad at Oberlin since October of 2010. Along with their family, they are committed to creating a warm and inviting space where Jewish students can learn, grow, and challenge themselves and their spiritual identities.