Aside from being a staff writer for Fresh Ink for Teens, I’m also a member of a Jewish advocacy group, Write On For Israel, that educates young Jewish-Americans on how to battle, prepare, and defend themselves against the anti-Semitism they will experience on college campuses. I wish I didn’t have to write that sentence, but anti-Semitism is now so prevalent within higher education, especially in the United States, that during the week of Chanukah, a man lighting a menorah at the University of Kentucky had his leg run over by a car driven by a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs at him and seven out of nine lights were shot out in an anti-Semitic attack on the menorah at Dartmouth College.
What separates these anti-Semitic incidents from other hate crimes is the lack of outrage from the public, a palpable sentiment that has openly been acknowledged by many Jewish activists. In an age of brightly colored pastel infographics designed to grab and keep your attention with short blurbs on “how to help,” there seem to be initiatives acknowledging and fighting against every type of hate crime except anti-Semitism. It is scary and lonely to be a Jew in college right now – but some young Jewish activists have decided that this does not have to be the case.
Founded in July of this year, Jewish on Campus was started by Isaac de Castro, a student at Cornell University, and Julia Jassey, a sophomore at the University of Chicago. Initially designed to simply be a safe haven for Jewish college students to share and discuss their all too common stories of anti-Semitism, the project’s Instagram page has grown quickly. Now, with almost 26,000 followers, Jewish on Campus has filed for non-profit status, and is fighting to make sure Jewish students are not singled out and attacked for simply existing.
Jassey hails from Long Island, New York, and grew up in a setting where, according to her, “being Jewish is pretty normal,” and acceptance of the Jewish state’s existence is never questioned. Her father’s side of the family is Ashkenazi Jewish, and her mother’s side of the family is Sephardic and Mizrachi, from Iraq, Yemen, and Israel.
“I’ve always known [Israel] as the reason why I’m alive. It’s the reason my family’s alive. And that’s never been something I had to really think twice about, until I came to college,” Jassey told me during our interview. “And all of a sudden, it was, and it was this really weird situation where I tried, my first year of school, to kind of ignore the fact that I was being put in this position to kind of reject it or be rejected.”
Her position, unfortunately, is not one of unusual circumstances. Jewish students across the country have found themselves caught between a false dichotomy – many are forced to choose between liberal, progressive ideals and spaces they agree with, and their Jewish heritage. If they choose the former, they are often expected to completely drop all allegiance to the Jewish state, and are constantly questioned about their support for it. If they accept the latter, they can effectively be banned from those progressive spaces – and harassed for their choice.
Issac de Castro was also no stranger to this dichotomy. At Cornell, there have been the common anti-Semitic occurances: swastikas on the campus and swastikas drawn in the snow, “Nazi-esque flyers,” and BDS resolutions.
“When we started Jewish on Campus this summer, it was part of an effort to combat what’s been going on on college campuses for so long. But these stories, in first hand, have never been put out there,” de Castro said. “So we thought that doing this would really open the eyes of people who hadn’t seen what’s been going on, apart from kind of mirroring the other social justice movements that have been happening on social media as well.”
What began as an Instagram page soon grew into much more, with the exact effect that Jassey and de Castro initially wanted to have: helping to make Jewish students feel less alone. Sophie Frieden, now the director of the organization, had recently taken a trip to Israel, and had posted pictures of herself there. Students who began harassing and threatening her – all because she had taken a trip.
“I tweeted this thread after it happened, being like, ‘I don’t know what to do about this, but here’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s happened to me,’ and Isaac reached out to me,” Frieden said. She then joined a Zoom call later that night with Jassey and de Castro to discuss the organization and how they could continue to help.
Jewish on Campus has now grown exponentially, far beyond what the founders expected. “At a certain point there was a time we were growing like 1,000 followers a day. It was a wild and unexpected kind of growth,” Jassey said. “And we realized now that we have this platform with 25,000 people on Instagram, and more across different social media, that we have this opportunity to do more than just be a sound box, but to also create change.”
Apart from simply posting about different experiences of anti-Semitism, the organization is also keeping followers updated on current events, Jewish culture, and more. Jewish on Campus has more ambitious goals regarding creating change. Jassey says that some of these newer goals include “going to campuses to launch campaigns, to bring speakers, to give students not only a forum to voice their experiences, but also a resource to make changes because of those experiences.” They also recently had a meeting with Jewish leaders at Tufts University, discussing ways to block an anti-Semitic referendum proposed by the student government. (The motion, however, was eventually passed by the Student Government on December 21.)
While it’s certainly inspiring seeing all of the work Jewish on Campus has done in its short existence to combat anti-Semitism, it’s easy to be left feeling hopeless, worried, and concerned after seeing so many different stories of anti-Semitism across the country and the world. Jassey, however, says that doesn’t have to be the case.
“As much as there is hate that we’re fighting against, there’s love for what we’re fighting for. There is so much beautiful culture, and so much beautiful experience as well, that we are fighting to protect. And that’s why we’re doing it – not just because of the hate that we face, but because of the love that we have to fight for.”
You can follow Jewish on Campus at @jewishoncampus on Instagram, @JewishonCampus on Twitter, and @jewishontiktok on TikTok for more.