On Monday, Dr. Jacob Labendz hosted a free kosher lunch with faculty and students, where past and modern antisemitism was discussed at great length in a question-and-answer format. “Discussion of Contemporary Antisemitism: Hillel and the Gross Center for Yom HaShoah” addressed a variety of topics, ranging from how Ramapo has supported its Jewish community to the ongoing debates about Israel.
When Labendz, director of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, asked students if there were any issues on-campus students may want help with, one student responded saying “just a better understanding around holiday time, and what that might look like in terms of taking time off of school… a little more open-mindedness and understanding and flexibility.”
Labendz continued to explain this as a “structural barrier” that he and the school will work on, and we cannot assume that Ramapo or any institution that does not get it right every time is inherently antisemitic. Since he came to Ramapo in 2020, Labendz expressed how he’s been impressed with the student body’s eagerness to learn and educate about antisemitism in the community.
“There was interest during the whole Kanye West thing to bring someone in to [speak about] antisemitism,” he said. “And this was expressed from the students, not from faculty, not from EDIC. That was amazing to me because everyone was saying we’re in a crisis, and I’m getting students coming up to me asking for names to consider for the Diversity Convocation.“
Another point that was brought up during the discussion was how the Student Government Association went to Labendz to draft a resolution to put better lighting around a Holocaust statue on campus, and that the school is progressing on the issue. “So while everyone is talking about antisemitism on college campuses, my experience here has been very good,” he said.
One of the concerns expressed by attending students was that during Passover and Ramadan, which take place at the same time, the dining hall initially only provided boxed food for Ramadan. According to the student, the president of the Chabad Club had to send multiple emails to the dining staff to implement and have kosher food available for Passover, which did eventually go through.
“That’s an unfair struggle,” Labendz said in response. “This is part of the problem… This costs you time and emotion for you to get your lunch. Having to ask for it multiple times, and to make the case, that means it’s not automatic… it’s not egregious, but you shouldn’t have to do that.”
Prior to the lunch, students and faculty were given a tour of the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, located in LC215 in the Learning Commons. On display were three paintings by well-known artist Marcia Marx, which are gifts from the MetroWest Jewish Federation.
Labendz noted that the Gross Center will become a digital resource center with 136 Holocaust testimonies being recorded there. In addition, you can watch all 5,000 Holocaust testimonies collected by the Fortunoff Archives at Yale University anywhere on campus with a VPN in the Gross Center’s network. Last semester, students enrolled in Labendz’s Holocaust course used the testimonies to create StoryMaps of Kristallnacht survivors.
At the end of the tour, Labendz showed attendees a late 18th-century Torah scroll from the Czech town of Kolín that survived the Holocaust. The scroll was given to Ramapo on a permanent loan, which means it’s in Ramapo’s possession for as long as they pay the annual maintenance fee of $360.
One thing of note is that the scroll is damaged and would be inappropriate to use in service. Labendz requested it specifically because he wouldn’t want to have a usable scroll on display. “I’d want to return it to a community,” he said. “This scroll would have cost so much money to fix that in most communities, it would have been buried, discarded appropriately… Instead, because of its historical value, it’s going to be on display here.”
On Monday, May 1, the Gross Center will officially welcome and display the Torah scroll with a ceremony in Friends Hall. The event will feature remarks from President Cindy Jebb and Labendz as well as a musical performance by recording artist Naomi Miller.
Featured photo by William Jackson