The Jewish Student Union (JSU) is a new organization at Ithaca College with the goal of amplifying Jewish student voices and creating an additional Jewish community on campus.
Senior Jordan Stecker, founder and president of the JSU, created the organization in July. JSU has been hosting Zoom meetings throughout the summer and into Fall 2020 to discuss anti-Semitism, Jewish identity and problems Jewish students face on campus. The JSU currently has five student board members, and 35 students have attended JSU virtual events. According to Hillel International, the largest Jewish college-campus organization in the world, 17% — around 1,000 — of undergraduate students at the college are Jewish, and that percentage has been increasing for several years.
Stecker said he created JSU in light of a rise in anti-Semitism both in Ithaca and around the world. Hillel at Ithaca College and Chabad of Ithaca College are also organizations at the college for Jewish students.
“In terms of Jewish life for me, this has probably been the worst season I have had as a Jew and as an Ithaca College student,” Stecker said. “It’s been shocking to me all the issues that have happened.”
A number of anti-Semitic incidents have taken place at the college, including a swastika being drawn outside a student’s dorm room and Stecker’s Mezuzah — a prayer scroll — being knocked off his dorm room’s door and damaged.
Anti-Semitism has been on the rise the past few years all over the world and has only increased during the pandemic. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there was a surge of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus, including false allegations that Israel bioengineered COVID-19 in order to advance global control.
Tel Aviv University released its annual report on global antisemtism in April, reporting an 18% rise in anti-Semitism in 2019 compared to 2018. Hillel International found that 178 anti-Semitic incidents occurred on college campuses during the 2019–20 academic year. This is an all-time high, even though most campuses were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July, Jewish on Campus, an Instagram page that collects anonymous anecdotes from Jewish college students about anti-Semitism, posted stories of seven different incidents of anti-Semtism experienced by Ithaca College and Cornell University students. One Ithaca College student said they were hanging out with people in a dorm when someone suggested a “Holocaust theme party.”
They wrote about the experience, “I had never felt more uncomfortable than in that moment but I had to remain silent because I knew Ithaca College wouldn’t care.”
President Shirley M. Collado replied to a comment on the Instagram post encouraging students who experience such incidents to fill out the college’s Bias Impact Reporting form, which Hillel echoed in its own comment.
“The first-hand accounts described here are horrendous, and acts that demonstrate intolerance, hate, and bias are condemned and not tolerated at Ithaca College,” Collado wrote.
Hillel has filed Bias Impact Reports about these incidents.
Bonnie Prunty, dean of students and member of the Bias Impact Resource Team, the group that addresses submitted reports of bias, said that she could not discuss the cases due to confidentiality. She said the role of the team is primarily to track patterns of bias and point individuals in a direction to file formal complaints.
“The bias reporting process is really about us institutionally collecting information about what’s happening and looking to identify patterns of behaviors that we’re concerned about and to be able to strategize about if there are things we should do,” she said. “I think when you realize that there are patterns of behavior, it helps to identify possible interventions that might be available.”
The JSU and the Student Governance Council wrote a statement July 29 that highlighted concerns from the Jewish community about issues on and off campus. The post referenced the anti-Semitic posts from Jewish on Campus, and mentioned that while the Ithaca College Bias Response Team was aware of such incidents, the college has given “no public acknowledgement or condemnation” of such acts.
“To our administration … we request that you provide our community with equitable treatment in caring for resources that are needed for Jewish students … To our campus community, we ask that you engage with us,” the post stated.
The statement referenced the college’s history of scheduling campus-wide events on Jewish holidays. This semester, one move-in weekend, Sept. 17–19, was set to fall on the weekend of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which took place from Sept. 18 to 20. The college decided to hold classes remotely for the semester, so there was no longer a conflict, but the college never acknowledged that a move-in weekend fell on a major Jewish holiday.
Stecker said he was grateful that the SGC was willing to help the JSU.
“The SGC did a very good job at showing their care for the Jewish community which was really powerful to see,” he said. “It shows students care so much, and it really moved me.”
Senior SGC President Connor Shea said he felt it was the SGC’s duty to support and advocate for the rights of Jewish students.
“The message is we don’t condone anti-Semitism,” he said. “It’s not welcome on our campus, or any organizations or space at our college.”
Sophomore Jason Monachello, vice president for Religious Advocacy and Affairs for JSU, said one of the main goals of the JSU is to raise awareness of anti-Semitic issues for both Jewish and non-Jewish students on campus.
“We really want to educate people on Jewish values and parts of the religion and give students resources that they might not have readily accessible to them,” he said. “Anti-Semitism has been overlooked and it’s unfortunate, but I’m hopeful people are starting to recognize the problem and become more aware.”
Stecker said he hopes to set the JSU apart because it is a student-led organization. While Hillel has a student board and interns, it also has a staff of adults. Chabad was also founded and led by adults as well.
“As a former board member [for Hillel], I can attest that a lot of decisions that are being made are being made by people who are not students,” he said. “It’s great to have an adult as an additional advocate, but when so much power is given to adults, sometimes students feel they can’t speak up and that’s always been a problem for me.”
Senior Aaron Segal, co-president of the Hillel Student Executive Board, said that in his experience, students in Hillel are given a large voice. Still, he said that he is happy to see another group for Jewish students.
“Hillel as an organization (like myself) always welcomes other affinities of Judaism,” he said via email. “JSU is going to help grow and expand the Jewish community on campus so I’m excited to see what they bring to the table.”
Skott Jones, associate professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology and advisor of the JSU, said he plans to let students fully take the reins of the organization. Jones said that the JSU is not trying to replace any existing Jewish organizations at the college.
“I think each organization has something different to offer and that this is a benefit for all Jewish students to help them find what they’re looking for,” he said. “There’s no one size fits all approach for any identity, and that includes religion.”
Hierald Osorto, director of Religious and Spiritual Life, said he is excited to see the JSU being formed and hopes this will open the door for collaborations with the other Jewish organizations on campus as well.
“One of the things that I love about IC is that it supports different student’s energy around creating spaces that are meaningful for them,” he said. “I think it’s great that there will be an additional group of students with a voice that will be part of this dynamic broader Jewish community of students.”