Troubles at my alma mater
My alma mater was all over the Jewish news last week, but not for good reasons. Oberlin College, which I attended as an undergraduate some 30 years ago, has inexplicably seen a number of racist and anti-Semitic incidents in the past month.
On February 15, students found a note reading “Whites only” tacked above a water fountain. Less than two weeks later, a swastika appeared above the window of a lecture hall. More signs with epithets against African Americans and gay people proliferated. There’s a complete list here.
The events culminated on Monday of last week when, shortly after midnight, a student reported seeing someone walking through campus dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.
I say “inexplicable” about all this because Oberlin has long been one of the most tolerant campuses in the U.S., with a well deserved reputation for diversity and liberal activism. In 1835, it was the first college in the U.S. to admit black students. So where is all this hate speech coming from?
The college took an unprecedented step of canceling classes on Monday in favor of a “teach in” and all hands-on gathering. About 1,200 students attended (a big chunk of the total Oberlin student population of 3,000); there were speeches and music. I wasn’t there, but knowing Oberlin, people took things seriously.
Rabbi Shimon Brand was the Hillel rabbi when I was at Oberlin, and he’s still in the job. “It’s really strange and sad in such a lovely environment that someone would come in and do something so inflammatory in order to make Jews and other people feel uncomfortable,” he told the Cleveland Jewish News. A Jewish student was quoted in The Los Angeles Times, calling the painting of a swastika not far from his dorm an “existentially scary moment. I think to see it is to be reminded that maybe, just maybe…no matter how accepted Jews feel in society, it’s a reminder. There’s this doubt.”
Approximately 29% of Oberlin’s students are Jewish. The campus has a “kosher and halal” coop for those who wish to observe religious dietary laws.
There are a fair number of Obies in Israel, too; Rabbi Brand has been good at pushing Israel as a post-graduate option, especially the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where I spent a couple of formative years in the mid-1980’s. The college’s president, Marvin Krislov, is Jewish and visited Israel a few years ago, hosting a mini-reunion at the Bible Lands Museum.
I’m saddened that hate speech has appeared on a campus I have such fond memories of, as a place of peace and a time for non-judgmental exploration. I’m pretty sure this is just the work of a very few cowardly individuals and doesn’t reflect any kind of bigger trend. Still, as I plan my first trip back to Oberlin in years, for a college reunion in May, I suspect that the conversation will now always include a footnote of “wasn’t that the school that…” But knowing Oberlin, there will be an activist response: “yes, and here’s what we did…”