The Spokesperson Blues
By ISJL Education Fellow Josh Altshuler
Picture the scene that awaits students arriving at college for the first time: discs gliding across the quad, a palpable nervous energy mushrooming through the air, and volunteers carrying mini-fridges and colorful couches en route to cozy dorm rooms everywhere. Ripe with social and intellectual transitions, the first weeks of starting college are tremendously overwhelming. The stressful atmosphere is only magnified when students encounter animosity or are badgered with intimate questions such as:
As multicultural and international institutions, colleges and universities are elevated by connecting voices of different backgrounds. This environment holds the important potential of empowering discussion and community-building. However, campus often can also be a divisive setting that puts students on the defensive as designated “spokespeople” for the Jewish people. This is particularly discomforting for undergraduates trying to adjust to a new stage of learning and development.
Before crossing the threshold into college, pupils may find it worthwhile to preemptively locate supportive resources. The professional staff at local synagogues and Jewish cultural spaces are excited to assist students navigating anti-Semitism and other testy, personal topics. These leaders’ expertise in religious and social matters encourages a great network for the Jewish community to specifically utilize. It should also be noted that many schools feature diversity and inclusion centers. Tasked with serving the student population at large, these institutional programs dedicate time and energy to further safe and thoughtful living and educational environments. Consulting with a representative of a diversity initiative promotes intergroup discussion before a problem or misunderstanding escalates.
Recognizing available outside resources is essential, but students can also practice a few different independent strategies to grow as an impactful Jewish voice on campus.
Some undergraduates may enjoy taking a Jewish Studies course. This is not to say that students need to take a Hebrew or Bible course to be properly “Jewish.” Rather, learning about Jewish culture, history, and heritage is a great elective for students as they mold their relationship with identity. Moreover, as these courses exist beyond the confines of a religious school classroom, young adults may discover a new, perhaps more enriching perspective on the Jewish community and faith. Staying educated about current events also aids amidst problematic conversations with peers. Understanding research and real-world stories advances a more productive discourse, which is often lacking in contentious arguments.
It is additionally meaningful to understand when to take a step away from an escalating conflict. While it initially feels gratifying to have the “last word,” dialogue loses value when it descends into petty quarrel. Pausing to enjoy a deep breath and pacifying our emotions is a lesson we all should retain in striving to model respect. Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s inspirational phrase, “When they go low, we go high,” reminds us to be calm mediators when faced with aggravating conditions. Indeed, choosing to postpone or leave an uncomfortable conversation is a right we all share. Maintaining composure and prioritizing individual wellness represent acts of resilience, necessary for interpersonal communication.
Navigating a college culture drives individuals to contend with ideas beyond their comfort zone and reasons to self-advocate. Dealing with unexpected challenges and encountering a diverse community are valuable, but students should not feel constantly compelled to defend their identity. Each arrival on campus is entitled to a college experience that is safe, successful, and memorable.