A year ago, alt-right protesters marched through the University of Virginia chanting Nazi slogans. White nationalists have for the last two years been posting anti-Semitic banners on campuses. On Saturday, an avowed anti-Semite killed 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
For Hillel, Saturday's tragedy prompted quick action, as campus centers for Jewish students opened for counseling and discussions on Sunday. A Pittsburgh Hillel center that serves students at local campuses, several of which are near the site of the synagogue shootings, is among those that opened on Sunday. Many campus Hillel chapters are planning vigils to honor the victims of Pittsburgh.
Hillel has been stepping up efforts to train its campus leaders on how to respond to safety threats.
Matthew Berger, vice president of communications for Hillel International, said in an interview Sunday that "in the last two years, we have strengthened our efforts to prepare professionals for mitigating and addressing potential threats and strengthened our relationship with university law enforcement and community partners to better prepare for and mitigate" incidents of violence. "The safety of our students is our highest priority."
In many college towns, Hillel centers are the most visible Jewish organization in the community. So Berger said that the national organization has been doing workshops for campus leaders, including drills and simulations for how to respond if a center faces a threat.
Challenges include the generally open nature of Hillels and of campuses generally. In addition, he noted, many Hillel centers are located just off campus but are not technically on campus. So one thing Hillel has encouraged all of its campus organizations to do is to determine the exact role of campus and local law enforcement in the event of any safety issue.
Berger said that this work has been a priority because of public events like Charlottesville, but also because of many others -- such as incidents of vandalism of Hillel centers -- that have not attracted as much attention.
Hillel is part of the Secure Community Network, a coalition of Jewish organizations focused on safety issues they face in the current environment. One project of that network was the creation of a Student Guide to Staying Secure on Campus.
Berger said that campus leaders will be listening to students -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- and planning responses to their concerns. "The best thing right now is to have a strong community."
A backdrop for Hillel's efforts has been national trends about incidents on campuses:
- The Anti-Defamation League reported in February that 2017 saw 204 anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses, an 89 percent increase from the previous year. The ADL counts incidents as involving "harassment (where a Jewish person or group of people feel harassed by the perceived anti-Semitic words, spoken or written, or actions of someone else); vandalism (where property is damaged in a manner that indicates the presence of anti-Semitic animus or in a manner that victimizes Jews for their religious affiliation), and assault (where people’s bodies are targeted with violence accompanied by expressions of anti-Semitic animus)."
- Postings of white supremacist propaganda -- some of it with Nazi themes -- increased by 77 percent during the 2017-18 academic year over the prior year. Many of the posters appear to be from off-campus organizations whose members put up posters in the middle of the night.
Victims With Campus Ties
Two of those shot Saturday -- one of whom was shot fatally -- had ties to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, was a physician who was on the family medicine faculty of the medical center.
Daniel Leger, 70, is a nurse and chaplain at the medical center. He was shot and was listed as in critical condition late Saturday.
Also killed Saturday was Joyce Fienberg, 75, who had previously worked as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, and who was the widow of Stephen Fienberg, a professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University. The Facebook page of the learning center at Pitt described her as "an engaging, elegant, and warm person" who had made key contributions to several long-term research projects while working there from 1983 until she retired in 2008.