This year, during Hanukkah, I am thinking a lot about George Washington. It may seem odd so let me explain. A few years ago, after visiting our chapter at University of Rhode Island I took a trip to Newport to see the Touro synagogue. This synagogue, built in 1763, houses a letter from George Washington written in 1790. The letter is one of the first mentions that Jewish people specifically would be free from persecution in the newly formed nation. It goes on to say:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
These words have always resonated and made me proud to be an American. Like most AEPis my family came to this country as refugees, fleeing persecution and pogroms in search of a place where, as George Washington said, “gives to bigotry no sanction, and persecution no assistance”
Unfortunately, I am thinking of these words now because our students are experiencing a failure of this American promise. Working in the student space, we have seen and responded to antisemitism on campus often over the years. It has come in many forms, but we know it when we see it and the students know it when they experience it. A recent survey conducted by the Brandeis Center reported that 50% of Jewish students on campus feel the need to hide their Jewish identity. Respondents cited concerns about being attacked socially, verbally, and physically. Likewise, a recent AJC survey reports that 90% of American Jews believe that antisemitism is a problem. Even as someone who works on the front lines, I was shocked when the scale of the problem was quantified. I can assure you that this problem is equivalent if not greater for our students in Canada and the UK.
Our fraternity counters this scourge by providing a safe space for Jewish community and Identity to flourish. I get a great feeling of nachas when walking into an AEPi house or attending a chapter event. Our Brothers and their guests still feel proud to be Jewish and to express their identity in the “safe space” of AEPi. Brothers still wear identifying jewelry or clothing (including our AEPi letters) and many of our students speak out about antisemitism and fight back against it in all forms; including antisemitism veiled as anti-Zionism.
After reading the antisemitism data I am particularly happy that Hanukkah came on the early side this year because when Hanukkah falls during weeks where classes are in session another small miracle happens. We see an incredible rate of participation and expression of Jewish pride as students light the menorah and celebrate the holiday together. I would like to think that celebrating a military victory and a subsequent miracle is as inspiring to our students as it is to me. How could our chapters not be enthralled by the story of Jewish rebels leading a revolt and taking back their temple and restoring the right to Jewish practice? The battles may be different today, but we are still fighting for our right to exist.
This year, AEPi has been using the powerful message of Hanukkah to combat antisemitism by speaking up and showing pride in our Jewish identity. We have partnered with over sixty organizations across the Jewish community in an initiative called “Shine A Light.” Just as one single light can dispel darkness, each of us can shine a spotlight on antisemitism. Over the course of Hanukkah our chapters and alumni have been lighting the menorah in celebration together. If comfortable doing so I encourage you to join our efforts by posting pictures or videos of lighting your menorah and use the hashtags #shinealight and #AEPi. I look forward to seeing all of our brothers shining the light.
One final idea about how we can celebrate Hanukkah: Join with our Israeli Brothers on Sunday, December 5 at 12:00 p.m. EST/9:00 a.m. PST as they lead our AEPi community in a world-wide Menorah lighting ceremony on the last night of this year’s celebration.
The event is open to all on Zoom. Please register and feel free to invite your friends, family, and fellow AEPi Brothers to join with us!
My best wishes to all of you for a very happy, meaningful and illuminating last few nights of Hanukkah!