/ Notes for the Field

Notes for the Field

Heartbreak on Campus

Tilly Shemer (she/her) is the Senior Vice President of Wellspring at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. In this role she leads our work encouraging youth and young adults to grapple with key questions of Jewish identity, the challenges facing North American Jewish communities, and the North American Jewish relationship to Israel. Previously, she served as the Executive Director of University of Michigan Hillel since 2012, where she received the Richard M. Joel Exemplar

So many of us are watching all that Jewish college students and the professionals who support them are navigating with a mixture of pride and concern. In my daily work with teens, college students, and Hillel professionals, the feelings they are sharing are: heartbroken, angry, sad, exhausted, touched, moved, confused, crazy, alone, together, and guilty. The stories I am hearing are heartwarming, heartbreaking, and even heart-hardening, for the students and professionals having these experiences on the ground, and for those of us who are following and supporting their efforts.  

Students on campus are not our “future leaders.” They are the leaders of today, guiding their communities and themselves through complicated questions and challenges. College years are a critical time in which students explore and find their identities, their voices, and their beliefs, which continue to develop and change.  

For many students, this is their first strong “Jewish Moment.” They are showing up, in the thousands, to community vigils, student government meetings, processing sessions, and fundraisers. They are reaching out to the Israelis they know and love, from their Birthright trips, camps, and classrooms. They are finding their voices and using them to speak with their student governments and their university presidents and other administrators. They are setting tables for 200+ to raise awareness of the hostages being held by Hamas and to do what they can to bring them home.  

Campus professionals are working around the clock to support their students’ emotional needs, to advocate on their behalf to their administrations, and to make sure that all the joy of Jewish life is not forgotten in this moment. Though many statements from universities have fallen short, there are other examples of university presidents condemning the horrific massacre of October 7 and expressing empathy to the Jewish community on campus. On individual campuses, university professionals representing departments including deans’ offices, student counseling services, and religious life are reaching out in support.  

These are all heartwarming moments that make me feel proud to be part of the world of Jewish professionals and to support campus communities and leadership.  

And then, simultaneously, there are heartbreaking stories of students struggling through this time. Relationships are fracturing as friends—even siblings—take different sides on the war that is unfolding. Some Jewish students have been shocked to discover someone living in their sorority house or down the hall in their dorm who is justifying Hamas violence as legitimate resistance. Some have been unmoored by the leadership of an organization they belong to insisting that the group join a coalition of partners publicly against Israel’s actions.  

There are subtle and not so subtle moments of antisemitism. Talk of “power,” of “Hillel resources,” and of “donor influence” trickles into conversations with friends, in ways that leave students confused and unsure how to respond.  

These students feel like they are losing their friends and community because of their relationship with Israel. They feel like their Jewish identities and their values don’t matter to others on campus.  

And then there are the shocking, heart-hardening moments of silence, overt antisemitism, and threats of violence against Jews that leave us shaking our heads in disbelief. How is it that students have to explain that Hamas is a terrorist organization? That communities have to wait so long to hear condemnation of a horrific massacre that impacts students, faculty, and staff so closely and deeply? And when universities do make statements in support of the Jewish community in this moment of grief, why are they so often followed by swift and angry responses from faculty and student groups? Why can’t there be time to grieve before one has to defend their right to grieve?  

These moments are continuing and will continue to feel like they are piling on to grief that we are all still working through. Social media further amplifies our exposure to both the unsettling images of the October 7 massacre and ensuing war, and the extreme antisemitism and threats of violence on campus. 

What can we—students, campus professionals, and those watching with concern from afar—do to ensure we aren’t all left with hardened hearts? What are the best ways to support students and vibrant Jewish life on campus? We can begin by asking them. Listen to the stories of what feels heartwarming and what feels heartbreaking. Offer ways to connect to supportive resources on campus and in their communities. Focus on what students can do to feel empowered and supported. The only way we can push through this time will be by creating, seeking, and lifting up the heartwarming moments. 

Heartwarming moments are being created by student leaders every day on campus. Many students will find their identities through this challenging time. Those who never thought they’d feel motivated to stand in front of student government sharing their grief will feel called to do so. Those who never thought they’d step through the doors of Hillel will come to a processing session, and they will sit with a rabbi or an Israel Fellow who they’ve never met before and develop a connection. Those who never imagined they would care will find themselves raising money, baking challah, or tabling for a cause that didn’t exist three weeks ago.  

Though it is exhausting and troubling that this work is even necessary, creating these moments can feel empowering and uplifting. The work of Hillel professionals is critical in supporting students as they look for ways to have an impact, whether in Israel or locally on their campus or in their city. Hillels will also continue to build community and enrich students’ lives in countless other ways.  

Seeking out these heartwarming moments is hard. It requires vulnerability. It means asking someone to see the pain they are holding and giving them a chance to respond. It means reaching past the Instagram post and sending a message to say, “I haven’t heard from you and I’m really sad about what’s happening in Israel and not hearing from my friends. Can we talk?”  

Some students will reach out to people they disagree with to say, “There’s a lot of pain out there right now, pain that I see you’re feeling and that I’m feeling too. How are you?” Of course, this can be a risk and it takes strength. But if it’s a relationship worth saving, it’s possible to open the door a crack, to share the pain, and hopefully, to begin to rebuild trust and understanding. 

Ultimately, the university is responsible for students’ safety. On many campuses, the administration is reaching out to the Jewish community and showing support, but on other campuses, the onus is still on students and on Hillel to be clear about their needs. Students can initiate bias reports as a way of telling the university how it feels to be on campus right now. Hearing back from an administrator with an invitation that says, “Come meet me in my office, I want to hear how you’re doing and see how I can support you,” can make students feel seen and can underscore that their experience on campus matters.  

Finally, we all have a role to play to lift up the heartwarming stories of the good that is happening, and we need to do this for our own hearts as well as for our students. Share the uplifting stories, the messages of support from non-Jewish friends and campus leaders, the students who are advocating to student government or creating spaces to speak to their peers across their differences, the video of the Mi Sheberach (Jewish prayer for healing) playing on the campus carillon, etc., on social media, and in conversations.  

Yes, these are hard moments we are in. Tragic moments. Uplifting these stories and one another doesn’t mean we are ignoring what is so challenging. It means we are making a choice to focus on Jewish leadership, the proud student voices, the moments of allyship, and the ways young people are finding their identity, their community, their relationship with Israel, and their sense of responsibility to the Jewish people through this heartbreaking time. 

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