BLOOMINGTON — In a time of healing and seeking solutions, Indiana University's Hillel Center has opened a new Jewish Culture Center.
It's been a troubling academic year for the more than 4,000 Jewish students on the Bloomington campus, where several antisemitic incidents have happened.
In the last 9 months, Rabbi Sue Laikin Silberberg says she has seen both the most and the worst antisemitism in her 32 years at IU.
Silberberg, the executive director of IU Hillel, tells WRTV that aside from a couple of isolated incidents now and again, there were almost no antisemitic attacks up until this year.
"I've been on campus now for 32 years, and I just had not seen or heard these kinds of sustained and virulent antisemitic attacks," Silberberg said.
The outbreak of racist incidents targeting Jewish students at IU and residents of Bloomington is a reflection of a 2022 Anti-Defamation League report that found a 34% increase in antisemitic attacks in the United States from 2020 to 2021.
Silberberg says there were incidences of Jewish students being harassed in the halls of their dormitory, and shares that mezuzahs were ripped off of students' doorways
Police are still investigating four separate cases of swastikas that were drawn around town, near the campus area.
In February, the most recent reported attacks happened when an anonymous person posted racist comments about IU's Jewish fraternities and students on "Greek Rank," an online platform for rating and reviewing fraternity and sorority chapters.
"It was really horrible," Silberberg said. "Some of the comments were worse than many that I had ever heard."
Although there was a period when Jewish students felt unsafe, vulnerable, and scared this year, Silberberg says they've since turned to action. In the fall, the "Antisemitism Prevention Task Force" was formed.
And now, that same group of students has helped create a new culture center.
"It's really important to work together as a community to learn more about each other and to promote understanding because I think once we get to know each other, we can celebrate our differences, as opposed to being afraid of them," Silberberg said.
What to expect of IU's Jewish Culture Center
IU's Hillel Center was founded in 1938 to serve the needs of Jewish students exclusively.
Following the creation of the Antisemitism Prevention Task Force, students requested an extension of the Hillel Center to be formed in an effort to share their culture with non-Jewish students on campus.
Silberberg says these students saw what the Bloomington campus's five other cultural centers (the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, LGBTQ+ Culture Center, Asian Culture Center, Latino Cultural Center, and the First Nations Educational & Cultural Center) were able to accomplish by sharing their cultures. They wanted to share theirs similarly.
"Judaism is really more than a religion. It's a culture, it's a way of life, it's a community," Silberberg explained.
The IU Jewish Culture Center will be a place for both Jewish and non-Jewish students to participate in learning activities, including art, Holocaust education programs, and a display that will help define antisemitism.
The center will also be inviting the community to join them forJewish cooking, Jewish foods, and celebrating Jewish holidays.
"In my mind, the more that people learn about Judaism, then that's really the way to break down barriers and to promote understanding and so hopefully, to decrease antisemitism," Silberberg added.
The Rabbi addedthat she looks forward to partnering with the other cultural centers on campus to promote that it's possible for people from different backgrounds can work together in a diverse community.
"For many [students], it's their first opportunity to learn about people who are different from themselves. People who aren't the same — that we aren't all the same. And, in my mind, each one of us has so much that we can offer in terms of teaching and understanding and learning and breaking down the barriers to hate," Silberberg said.
Silberberg thinks this academic school year's rash of antisemitic incidents is due to the general acceptance of hate against various minority groups over the last few years.
The Rabbi says hate has become more "commonplace."
"I think it has become a little bit more acceptable over the last few years to both say and act upon horrible ideas and stereotypes; (things that were) at least not acceptable to do before," Silberberg said.
According to Silberberg, with the creation of the Task Force and the Culture Center, Jewish students have felt more calm and safe.
The outpouring of support from the university — such as strong statements from President Pamela Whitten and Provost Rahul Shrivastav condemning antisemitism and the compassion of other students — hasmade Jewish students feel accepted by their Hoosier community.
Forexample, Silberberg says the Student Union made a banner following these attacks. It read "#StopTheHate" and was displayed in the Indiana Memorial Union. That banner now has so many black ink signatures in support of their Jewish cohorts that the red background can barely be seen.
"There has always been antisemitism and sadly, there probably always will be. But at least this helped put it into the perspective that there are more people who celebrate and accept who we are," Silberberg said.
You can learn more about IU's Jewish Culture Center at iuhillel.org.
WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.