This past semester was one with lots of ups and downs. The highest “up” for me was being elected Illini Hillel’s student board president, giving me the opportunity to spend my time helping grow this organization that has given me so many friends, opportunities, and a home away from home. One of the lowest “downs” for me was the week leading up to October 23. That day sticks in my mind because it was the day of Hillel’s barn dance, which is a UIUC tradition in which students within an organization get together in a barn and dance the night away. I promise, it’s less weird, and more fun than it sounds. As the social chair of Hillel at the time, I was throwing myself into the planning and advertising for the dance, hoping to make it the best one yet. That was, until, I got word of a resolution that was being proposed to the Illinois Student Government.
The resolution was to create a definition of antisemitism that would be the student government’s new standard for how discrimination of Jews can be identified on campus. On the surface, this seems fine, but there were a lot of problems with this resolution. Personally, I thought the biggest issue with this resolution was the no Jews were consulted in the process of writing this definition, taking away the right for us to identify our own discrimination and sense of safety. The second problem I recognized was that the resolution was being voted on the evening of October 23, during Barn Dance! Obviously, I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I had started planning the dance months before, and now this bout of antisemitism on campus was going to take it away from me. Once I took a deep breath and readjusted my priorities, I got to work.
The rest of the week blurred together as I felt like I was running a mile a minute trying to advertise to the Jewish community to attend both the student government meeting, and the barn dance, which my excitement for was dwindling quickly. First, Jeremy Spiegel, Hillel’s Director of Jewish Student Life and I changed the timing of the dance, and went back and forth switching the bus pick up location to try to optimize the amount of students we could round up in order to give them a fun night after a difficult evening. Then, I spoke to other Jewish student leaders to try to understand their plan for the Jewish community to walk out of the senate meeting, as it appeared that the resolution would pass no matter what. I proceeded to contact around two hundred students begging them to attend the senate meeting, and lightly suggesting that they attend the Barn Dance right after. Throughout the week, Hillel staff members were set up around campus willing to speak to confused and upset Jewish students trying to wrap their heads around what was going on. I also spoke to a number of my friends who wanted to hear my opinion on the matter. In and out of meetings, texting students, posting advertisements, and studying for two midterms, I was barely holding on to my sanity. Thankfully, I had Hillel. Not only was each staff member also trying to get the word out to students about the senate meeting, they also made time for me and my peers to talk to them about our concerns for the safety of outspoken Jewish leader on campus, our overwhelming schedule, and just whatever else we needed to rant about.
Finally, doomsday arrived. It was October 23, I had a midterm exam, a shift at work, and then I sprinted to the student senate meeting. Around four hundred Jewish students were there. The room was at capacity when I got there, so I was stuck outside talking to other late Jewish students and texting those who were inside asking for updates every five seconds. Then, the doors opened and a flood of Jewish students poured out the door. We gathered together on a nearby quad, and had a vigil to remember all those who have lost their lives to antisemitism in the past year. We stood in a huge circle, Jewish students from all kinds of backgrounds, across the political spectrum, and even from competing Greek houses, united by our shared Jewish identities. We listened to many beautiful and heartbreaking speeches from passionate students, but eventually it ended. I had never felt more like I was part of something truly meaningful. My heart was simultaneously breaking because the resolution inside that room was passed, but full from witnessing the incredible strength of the Jewish community. Without having much time to revel in the moment, I ran to Hillel, dressed up in overalls and a flannel, printed out a list of songs for the DJ, and waited for people to start loading the buses to go to barn dance. Every single Hillel staff member checked in with me, knowing I had a rough week, and that this was the final stretch. Eventually, we got to the barn and everyone went straight to the dance floor. It had been a hard night, but then we could let it all go and celebrate a happier gathering of the Jewish community. Because of Hillel, a hopeless night became filled with hope, and a stressful week led to a stress-relieving party. That night, Hillel exposed me to the power of the Jewish community, and now has given me the opportunity to act as a voice within the community.