Following countless acts of antisemitism in and around the University of Florida campus in the new year alone, religious and academic institutions alike in Gainesville decided to take a stand.
UF Hillel and UF Chabad partnered with Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Adviser to the President Dr. Marsha McGriff to host an open forum at the Reitz Union Rion Ballroom on Wednesday evening to address concerns of bigotry and violence.
This event sought to expose some of the university’s authority figures to the fears that the Jewish community and friends of the Jewish community are currently facing.
Their hope: enact change.
Students and community members wrote down questions on notecards, and three panelists addressed each concern. The three have expertise in safety, diversity and inclusion and protection under the First Amendment.
Chanie Goldman of UF Chabad opened the discussion with thought-provoking words depicting the origins of antisemitism as stemming from hatred of oneself.
“How can we fight antisemitism? Well, how can we fix someone else’s existential emptiness?” she said.
As McGriff mediated the forum, she felt honored to share the Rion Ballroom with such passionate future changemakers.
“Our students really brought up excellent questions about First Amendment rights,” she said. “They learned about our campus’ commitment to their safety, security and happiness.”
Although the conversation on Wednesday was influential, the fight to combat antisemitism is far from over. Rather, it was a crucial first step in crafting a more inclusive culture, she said.
“I think it was a good first step toward building bridges to understanding, love and empathy for all of us,” she said. “We do not stand for hate here at UF, period.”
Rabbi Jonah Zinb of UF Hillel feels that the event was a meaningful next step as well. It signified the support that Jewish students and allies should provide to each other in times of fear, he said.
“This event was an opportunity for the campus community to come together to support one another and to be in dialogue about critical issues facing our entire campus community,” he said. “I think it was really inspiring and empowering.”
Zinb is optimistic surrounding what he and others hope is an ongoing effort on behalf of UF and Jewish organizations to promote equality.
“I’m excited to see how we move this forward to make sure that all students feel a greater sense of belonging at UF,” he said.
UF Jewish Student Union President Sam Hendler is deeply disheartened by the continuous acts of antisemitism on campus, despite UF housing the largest Jewish student population in the country.
Hendler elaborated on the necessity of this forum to educate leadership and additional community members on the harmful effects of this epidemic.
“This event was for students and other members of the Jewish community to share and voice their concerns with community and UF leadership” he said. “We all need to come together and see eye-to-eye so we can make campus a safer place for Jewish Gators.”
Although UF Chabad and Hillel have been instrumental in fighting against antisemitism and prioritizing the needs of impacted students, Hendler feels that more can be done to protect Jewish students and allies on campus.
“UF needs to add combating antisemitism to the forefront of its agenda,” he said. “Jewish students would like to see actual change from UF, informing and educating students on the detrimental impacts of antisemitism.”
Vulnerability in sharing personal experiences is conducive to maintaining a respectful environment, he said. Keeping the conversation productive with actionable accounts will hopefully result in the embracing of Jewish students through acknowledgment and appreciation.
Vice President of UF Chabad Leah Weintraub feels that the forum was successful in enabling student voices to be heard.
As antisemitism skyrockets nationally, honest conversation is the most effective way to rise above, she said.
“We need to be the bigger people and stand up to hate,” she said. “Everyone there learned something and left with a feeling of belonging in both the Jewish community and the student community at UF.”
Weintraub’s desire to become a student leader in the Jewish community was fueled in part by the fear of antisemitism.
“I felt morally obligated to do my part in ensuring a safe and welcoming space for Jewish students at UF,” she said. “It is important that we look out for each other because there will always be people that don’t.”
Antisemitism unfortunately resonates with many at UF. Whether it be in Gainesville or in students’ hometowns across the country, this issue continues to evoke fear and confusion in minds and hearts.
UF student Ben Panitch, 21, recently incurred the wrath of antisemites in the form of messages inside plastic bags on his driveway in Atlanta.
Despite this occurrence, which was far from his first time battling hatred, his spirit and devotion to Jewish activism will never be broken.
“It’s a scary world we live in that it’s so simple to promote antisemitism like that, and only a matter of time until these people come knocking on my door,” he said. “That is why events like this one matter so much, because they allow higher power to learn from what we have experienced.”
Panitch feels that campus-wide forums encouraging the spread of information and acceptance are vital in preserving the spirit of the Jewish people. He shared how powerful discussions surrounding antisemitism are in the best interests of strength as a group.
“We had the ability to stand in front of the administration and have them hear our stories, thoughts and wishes to make our lives just a little safer and easier,” he said. “I am beyond thankful for them taking the time to listen.”