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Supporting Jewish life at Mizzou

On Yom HaShoah, Mizzou Jewish students and Hillel staff read names of Holocaust victims in the center of campus. While one student shouted names and ages as loud as she could, other students handed out information about the Holocaust and the Yom HaShoah observance to those passing by. A young woman approached a table with additional information to talk to me. She looked up and pointedly asked, “How can I be an ally to Jewish students on this campus?”

 

The University of Missouri has been in the news a lot this past academic year, due in large part to minority-student led protests. Some small changes have begun — new administrative positions, some diversity requirements and additional guest speakers brought to campus. Throughout it all, Jewish students have worked hard to advocate for themselves and others, and as a minority group have benefited from the increased campus awareness of diversity issues. 

However, even as the university community continues to grapple with the realities of minority students’ experiences on campus, we have seen accusations from outside the campus community that the university has ignored anti-Semitism on campus even as they took Black student concerns seriously. As someone that works daily with Jewish students on campus, this is not my experience. I encourage those making such claims to remember that it’s vital to talk and listen to the students one claims to speak for.

After the fall protest, newly appointed administrators came and met with Jewish students to hear and address their concerns in person, including dismay by students that a stronger and more timely statement wasn’t issued in response to a swastika drawn in one of the residence halls. Concerns were taken seriously and when there was an incident this spring the administration issued a clear and prompt statement condemning anti-Semitism. Furthermore, leaders from student government, Greek life and the Residence Hall Association came to Hillel to talk about ways that these organizations could be more inclusive of Jewish students — including offering a new training on recognizing and responding to anti-Semitism that our Hillel is developing this summer.

As a definite minority on the Mizzou campus (Jews are only about 800 out of nearly 35,000 total students) self-advocacy would not be successful without additional allyship and support. We all read about national trends, or hear about specific incidents, but every campus situation is unique and in the more than three years that I have been with this Hillel it is this willingness to ask “how can I help?” from (non-Jewish) students, faculty, staff, administration and community members that has been so striking. Jewish life on campus is active, vibrant, and supported by the community.

Our Hillel holds weekly Shabbat services and dinner, hosts monthly Jewish cooking club programs, organizes Birthright Israel trips, hosts holiday observances and celebrations, and creates Jewish community daily by providing an open, inclusive and pluralistic space for all students. We work closely with Jewish Student Organization (JSO) leadership and our engagement internship program empowers students to build connections and grow Jewish life on campus. In addition to programs that Hillel and JSO sponsor, the University of Missouri has three Jewish Greek organizations as well as Students Supporting Israel and Chabad.

Mizzou Hillel and JSO programming is often co-sponsored or promoted by university departments, Student Affairs, or the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative. Last year JSO leadership worked with student government to pass a religious observance absence policy with Faculty Council and along with the Muslim Student Organization got a vegan dining station with separate dishes added to one of the dining halls, a first step toward kosher dining. With input and advocacy from our Hillel, this past fall Hebrew was re-added as an active class and beginning this summer there are now official University of Missouri study abroad programs at both Haifa and Tel Aviv Universities.

A week before Passover officially began, Mizzou Hillel hosted our annual Social Justice Seder in partnership with the University’s Women’s Center. A diverse group of over 80 students and community members joined together to acknowledge modern day plagues and the ways we can work for justice and support each other as one community. An alternative group of Four Questions had each table engage in conversation about identity and allyship. As I watched Jewish students share and celebrate their own tradition and, at the same time, work with other minority students in mutual support, I was struck once again by how amazing and vibrant our community is. 

Now that the semester has ended and as I reflect on the past academic year and continue to put the events in perspective, I can only reiterate how fortunate I am to work with dedicated students, administrators and community members to continue to build and strengthen Jewish life at Mizzou.

Jeanne Snodgrass is the executive director of Hillel at the University of Missouri. Additional information about Mizzou Hillel, including programming and student involvement opportunities, can be found at www.mizzouhillel.com.