Campus to honor Jewish Heritage Week
At Central Michigan University students embrace diversity, culture and spread awareness of important histories. Hillel is a Jewish student organization at CMU.
For the first time since 2019, CMU will host events celebrating Jewish heritage and marking Holocaust Remembrance Day this month. However, getting the events on the calendar was challenging.
Elizabeth Slater, a CMU junior, had five events in mind for Jewish Heritage Week, which leads up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. She presented them to Multicultural Academic Student Services (MASS) in September for approval.
MASS advocates for diversity and inclusion and supports students in academic, cultural and social opportunities through scholarships, programs and mentoring.
“To empower and retain students, the MASS team provides and enhances a campus environment where diversity is understood and celebrated,” reads the MASS website.
The office offers the Multicultural Advancement and Cofers scholars program (MAC), holds celebrations for different cultural heritage months and funds events that spread awarness about diversity.
After two months' of conversation, MASS purportedly decided the events were too religious. The Division of Student Affairs got involved in early December, and eventually the events got full support.
Stan Shingles, assistant vice president of Student Affairs, said the miscommunication happened from both sides.
“There was a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication,” Shingles said, “but then we ... put all the folks in place to support it (events).”
Jamie Haisma, a CMU senior and president of Hillel at CMU, said five events will be on the week of Jan. 23: Soup and Substance: Antisemitism Discussion, Jewish culture through food, a Holocaust survivor guest speaker, a dreidel game night and Jewish culture trivia night.
What is Jewish Heritage Week?
Haisma said Jewish Heritage Week is a week of events Hillel plans before Holocaust Remembrance Day. According to the United Nations General Assembly, Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day to honor victims of the Holocaust -- 6 million Jewish people and others who died from Nazi persecution.
Haisma said her goals were to educate people about the Holocaust and share Jewish culture.
“It’s not like it's Christmas,” Haisma said. “It’s not like we are celebrating anything. It’s a day of remembrance.”
Another important thing that was driving Hillel at CMU to set events and bring awareness is a rise of antisemitism in the United States and people being uneducated about the Holocaust as a result of the lack of awareness. According to the New York-based think tank the Anti-Defamation League, in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 2,717 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States.
"This is a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents tabulated in 2020 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979," according to the league's "Audit of Antisemitic Incidents 2021."
Slater presented reasons for holding the events to MASS Assistant Director Alfred Harper III. She provided her presentation to Central Michigan Life.
In it, Slater argued that Jewish Heritage Week was important for Hillel members at CMU because there are “very few Jewish students on campus, with little representation or support.”
Andrew Frantz is a minister at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant. He said it is important for people to have representation in their communities, and that people without proper representation feel isolated.
“Living with this knowledge that (Jewish people) have been persecuted, the fear that could happen again, and that’s something that is true for all Jewish people," Frantz said. "It should be true for all humans; it should be something that’s fresh in our mind today.
"It happens when we let down our guard as human communities in terms of embracing one another in our differences. Expressions of heritage for different religious and cultural groups … is the antidote to the hatred and divisions.”
Slater also said there is a lack of sensitivity to correct language in some classes Cultural, including Global Studies, Race in Higher Education and Culture and Civilization of Spain, that she and her friends attended. For example, the difference between "Jew" and "Jewish," "semitism" and "antisemitism," or "race" and "ethnicity."
What events were planned?
Haisma said she and other Hillel members first met in-person with Harper in September when they introduced themselves and discussed Slater’s presentation.
Hillel had five events planned, one event for each day of the week.
“We weren’t trying to put (on) religious events, we wanted to advocate strictly for the cultural side of Judaism,” Haisma said. “We wanted to bring more awareness to (Judaism) and the differences, especially with the rising antisemitism, we wanted people to learn a little bit more about it.”
Frantz said it is important not only for a diversity group, but also to a whole community, to have events that brings awareness to other cultures.
“Any human community is diverse in what people believe,” Frantz said. “It’s important to have a diversity of religions within the community, and I think it enriches all of us. … It opens our minds and gives us new ideas and perceptions in life.”
Slater said Hillel wanted to get MASS support because Hillel at CMU is a small organization with around 15 members, and they were not able to put on any recent events. She said the office's support with events was a "general safety" to encourage MAC scholars to attend. MASS can help provide an organization with resources such as booking space, funding, promoting posters and having MAC scholars participate in the events.
Haisma said it is important for Hillel members to remember the Holocaust, share Jewish culture through food and dreidel and have people feel welcome to participate.
How did the conversation start?
Haisma said after meeting with Harper in September, she was under the impression that MASS would approve Hillel’s events, because Harper agreed to meet again and discuss organizing the events.
The conversation was followed with emails where Harper, Haisma and two other Hillel members were setting time to meet in person to discuss planning the events. Hillel members provided the emails to Central Michigan Life.
On Nov. 19, Harper replied that MASS office was not able to support Jewish Heritage Week events because the events seemed to be too religious. However, he still encouraged Haisma and her group to hold events as a registered student organization (RSO). According to the "Policy Manual and Guide to Running Student Organizations at Central Michigan University," Hillel is able to book a classroom and organize events.
Nevertheless, Harper wrote in an email to Haisma that he is open to “continuing to discuss these events to be available for (MAC Scholars) to attend for possible make-up credit, as they will occur during the semester.”
He told Central Michigan Life in an email that MASS is supporting the events.
"We are providing support as needed to assist Hillel with providing cultural education of the Jewish Heritage for our campus community," Harper wrote. "The MASS office will support this heritage week of cultural programming events by requiring our MAC scholars to attend events for their scholarship protocol."
Shingles supervises the office of Student Activities and Involvement and MASS office at CMU. He said Harper is new to the MASS office, and added that it is the first time events are being set for Jewish Heritage Week. Shingles said Harper was first trying to understand his role and if the administrative office could program proposed events.
“They've never been asked to do (Jewish Heritage Week) program before this year,” Shingles said. “They (the MASS office) were asked to do it and didn't really know that was an area that they should be programming. I think that's where some of the communication came in.”
In an email to Hillel members, Harper said that the reason why MASS would not support the events is that Jewish culture is too connected to a religion, and MASS does not work with religions.
“Jewish culture is an identity closely recognized to religion,” Harper said in the email. “As an office, we must be mindful of our entire student population regarding beliefs and how that can cause other faiths to want to be displayed.”
However, according to the MASS website, MASS approved Introduction to Ramadan and Ramadan Reflection events during the Arab Heritage Month. Ramadan is a religious holiday in Islam.
Shingles said Student Affairs does not program any religious events. Events for Ramadan were performed by students. He said it is different because students took the role of responsibility instead of the administrative office. Another example he gave was if Christ Central Choir were to sing for a Black History Month, that would be a student organization performing.
Haisma said that Hillel was not trying to promote any religious events.
“They aren't events that promote any sort of religious text or context or ideas that are used in Judaism,” Haisma said. “They're just about the culture of the people themselves, not the belief system.”
Differences between Jewish culture and religion
Frantz said that Jewish culture and religion are very connected. He said Judaism is more of an identity with people and tradition, rather than, say, Christianity that is associated with biblical studies. Judaism is an ethnic religion.
“My understanding of Judaism is that to be Jewish is to identify with people and with the traditions of those people,” Frantz said.
“Culture and religion are very closely connected, and we understand that,” Slater said. “We're not saying we want to take it away from other cultures to not share the religions. We just want to say that you're allowing other students and other cultures and religions to be represented.”
Frantz said that people in America are not used to openly talking and working with religions because of a separation of the church and state in American culture. He said that in contrast, talking about different religions openly would help people be open-minded and learn to embrace the diversity.
“I think that sometimes in the name of separation of church and state people take that a little too far and say that ‘we’re never going to talk about religion,'” Frantz said. “Whereas I think we should talk about religion in that open way. Not that ‘you have to believe what I believe,’ but ‘I’d love to hear what you believe.’ That’s not harmful if we are doing it in an open-minded way.”
How did MASS eventually decide to approve the events?
Haisma said that she talked to Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan (HCAM) Jewish Student Life Coordinator, Nicki Borovsky, who reported to HCAM Executive Director Cindy Hughey. Haisma said Hughey got support from CMU President Bob Davies, who asked MASS to work with Hillel.
Shingles said Hillel contacted different departments at CMU, such as the President’s Office, the Provost’s Office and the Division of Student Affairs. He said Student Affairs is the one that helps with issues such as students trying to set up events; that’s why Vice President of Student Affairs Reneé Watson appointed him to supervise the issue.
Shingles said as soon as he heard about the program, he assembled a meeting with Hillel and his office. It took place in the first week of December, and Student Affairs supported Hillel’s events.
“There’s challenges with planning every event we have on campus because it’s not a plug-and-play; it’s not an exact science,” Shingles said. “There’s people involved, there’s communication.”
Shingles said the Office of Student Activities and Involvement and MASS are assisting Hillel with the events. He said the office is helping with funding, facilities, setup and catering.
Where do we go from here?
Haisma said all events are taking place during Jewish Heritage Week. All five got approval, but only three of them will require MAC scholars' participation, Haisma said.
The events are:
- Soup & Substance: Antisemitism in the U.S.: 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 23, UC Rotunda.
- Jewish Cultural Food Night: 6 p.m. Jan. 24, UC Rotunda
- Holocaust Remembrance Night: 5 to 8 p.m. Jan. 25, Location TBA
- Dreidel Night: 5 to 6 p.m. Jan. 26, Location TBA
- Jewish Trivia: 1 to 2 p.m. Jan. 27, Kulhavi 141
Shingles said he and Hillel members will be having a meeting soon to finalize the events.
Segall said that the events are meaningful to her and she appreciated an opportunity to educate people and talk about how antisemitism effects the community.
“It’s frustrating that it needed to happen, but I am glad that we finally got to them (MASS), and they might be able to help in what is gonna be impactful events,” Segall said.
“I hope that this week is successful,” Shingles said. “I hope that the university community engages in it, and that there's a lot we learned about our Jewish students and our Hillel organization.
"We've got so many different cultures on this campus and so many different beliefs and values, we can inform others about our the world that we live in.”