Members of the Jewish community at the University of Florida are standing together with support from peers, parents, faculty and alumni in the weeks after an antisemitic message was displayed at a football game.
Rabbi Jonah Zinn said he received texts from many disturbed students on Oct. 29. That night, the message “Kanye is right about the Jews!!!” was projected multiple times in Jacksonville during the Gators’ matchup against the University of Georgia.
Zinn is the executive director of UF Hillel, which is an on-campus Jewish organization. He said antisemitism is nothing new, but this escalation is an example of people becoming more empowered to threaten others, even at college sporting events.
“Football games are supposed to be fun, and seeing people perpetuate messages of hate is really upsetting,” Zinn said.
He said this latest incident inspired him and other UF Hillel staff to launch the Chomp Hate campaign. He said “Chomp Hate” does not only apply to antisemitism. It also acts as a more general message to combat all acts of hate occurring on the university’s campus like the defacement of the Divine Nine Peace Garden, which honors Black fraternities and sororities at UF.
“This creates an opportunity for people to show solidarity and also talk about what’s going on – the issues facing the Jewish community and hate more broadly,” Zinn said.
UF Hillel staff are hosting several events in an effort to engage with the community amid the response from students. They have reached out to students as a resource for support or counsel. Staff and students also tabled in Turlington to spread the campaign by passing out flyers, stickers and pins.
UF Hillel organized meetings with administrators where students could talk about their concerns and suggestions to make the campus a safer and more welcoming place for Jewish students. Hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish students and community members attended a solidarity Shabbat on Nov. 4.
On Nov. 12, dozens of students, parents and alumni attended UF Hillel’s Chomp Hate Solidarity Tailgate at the last home game of the season. For many parents, this was the first time they have been able to see their children since the incident in Jacksonville.
For them, it was an opportunity to reunite and check in as well as connect with other families. The Hillel at the University of Florida is one of the largest in the country. Hillel International reports there are 6,500 Jewish students at UF, accounting for 19% of the student population.
According to a list from hillel.org, UF ranks as the No. 1 top public university by the Jewish student population. This is the same list that Carrie Scheiner, 53, consulted while thinking about schools for her daughter.
“When we were looking for schools in Florida, I wanted to make sure it was in the top 60 list,” Scheiner said. “I think it’s important to have a community that has similar cultural experiences as you.”
Her daughter Felicia, a sophomore advertising major, was in Jacksonville on Oct. 29. Scheiner said she was surprised to hear Felicia telling her about the message.
“It was very concerning that there would be language that targets a college event,” Scheiner said. “In today’s world, it is concerning to have children in college anywhere now that there’s school shootings, racism and antisemitism.”
Scheiner said she still feels comfortable with her daughter going to UF.
“I would never question whether the University of Florida is a safe place for Jewish students,” Scheiner said.
She said that as soon as the incident happened, Rabbi Zinn connected with the entire university community, which resulted in deans, campus organizations and fraternities and sororities denouncing it. Scheiner said it was great to see the support from the university, administration and student organizations.
“From a reactive perspective, I think the community did a reasonable job of responding to that situation,” Scheiner said. “From a proactive perspective, the Jewish community is doing a lot, but I’m not sure about the general community at large.”
From the point of view of a student, Felicia said this antisemitic incident made her feel unsafe. She said her friends stopped wearing necklaces with the Star of David or their Hebrew name on it, and she considered doing the same.
“A part of me wants to because that’s how people survive, but the other part of me doesn’t want to because I don’t want to be afraid of it,” Felicia said. “I feel like I have a strong enough community here that I shouldn’t have to take it off, so I haven’t yet.”
Now that it’s been a few weeks since, Felicia said the shock and fear has begun to wear off, which has a lot to do with how active UF Hillel has been.
“The Hillel here has definitely lived up to and exceeded my expectations,” Felicia said. “I have a strong enough community around me that I’m not really scared, and I like all that the UF Hillel has been doing to help.”
UF Alumni Association President James Gadsby has attended a few of UF Hillel’s solidarity events in support of their mission to chomp hate. He said he wants to see every student thrive.
“Everyone is created in the image of God and has infinite worth and value, so students and people of all backgrounds should have opportunities to be able to enjoy the UF experience,” Gadsby said.
He said he fully supports the university’s statement denouncing antisemitism. He said he takes his position seriously and hopes to help students feel more welcome.
“We don’t want any student to feel unsafe or in a place where they’re not supported or cared about,” Gadsby said.
Since the joint statement, the University of Florida has not released another one about antisemitism. When reached out to about continued efforts to support Jewish students, strategic communications officials did not comment.
Even without further declared action from the university, parents said they are not discouraged.
“I think they’ve done a good job so far regarding the response,” Scheiner said. “I think that UF does a great job at trying to keep all of its community safe and respected and appreciated.”