The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Vanderbilt Students Light up the Night at Vigil for Israel

Several hundred Vanderbilt University students, faculty, and community members joined in prayer, song, and speech in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel. The vigil was organized by students from Vanderbilt Hillel and Vanderbilt Chabad, with leaders from the two groups drawing inspiration from the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville’s Israel Solidarity Rally. Veronica Grady is assistant director of Hillel. She says, “After the Federation’s event, the students were focused and driven. They convened that same evening.” 

Among the student organizers was senior Josh Weingarten who is involved with Chabad. He says the planning process was a true collaboration between the student groups. “Everyone was respectful of each other. We may have a different emphasis on how we practice [Judaism], but everything that everyone wanted was there.” He says what was most helpful was that the students all had some sort of personal connection to Israel, and they kept that at the forefront. Nathan Appelbaum, a senior who is involved in Hillel, said “In times like these we realize by talking to people that every Jew on campus, whether from Israel or not, has some connection to Israel.” 

Standing close together amid glowing candles, listening to strains of guitar and prayer, there were tears and words of hope and resolve. “Students are overcome with gratitude,” says Grady, “Many have reached out to say thank you and how much they needed that space. It was an honor to watch how they supported each other.” 

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Administration was absent from the vigil 

Notably absent from the vigil was anyone from the university’s administration. Chancellor Daniel Diermeier posted a statement on social media that received immediate pushback from students. The statement read, in part, “We know that for those with ties to the region – whether they are familial, religious or otherwise – this feels close to home and deeply personal.” According to Vanderbilt senior Maya Levenson, the statement was non-controversial and vague, and was followed by another, equally unsatisfactory statement. “The second statement was more wide-reaching, but I have yet to find a single student he spoke to,” she said. The follow-up statement called the October 7 attacks, “acts of terror and atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel. We at Vanderbilt are horrified by the reprehensible violence and bloodshed.” 

Student sentiment around safety is mixed 

Jewish student sentiment surrounding both the administration’s response to the terror attacks, and general feelings around safety and security on campus is varied. Weingarten says he feels generally safe but is sometimes uneasy. “I feel slightly unsafe now because of rallies in other bit cities. I feel there are people on campus who support what Hamas did.” He is referencing the planned rallies on college campuses by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and a Hamas Day of Rage that was to have occurred on October 13. Those events did not happen on Nashville or at Vanderbilt.  

Ryan Bauman, a senior who is involved in Chabad, says one of his friends is a leader with the campus’ SJP chapter. The friend happens to be Jewish. “We saw each other after the attacks happened and hugged. He has been working with SJP to remain tame. They are not planning any events.” Bauman says SJP was planning to release a statement, which was eventually posted to its social media. That statement reads in part, “We condemn the loss of innocent civilian lives; therefore, we are devastated by all the losses incurred this past week…We condemn the notion that one life is more valuable than another, or that one death toll outweighs another.” The statement encourages students to educate themselves about the “devastating losses and suffering Palestinians experience on a daily basis.” Despite the lack of planned events, Bauman says “A lot of Jews on campus don’t feel safe all the time.” 

“I like to be careful, but I also like to stay hopeful” 

Appelbaum believes the situation on campus will evolve as time passes and the war continues. “It will be difficult in the months ahead,” he says, “There has been more of a neutrality on campus. But depending on Israel’s response, the tide can shift.” He says he has experienced anti-Zionism, but mostly online. He says he has learned not to expect much from the administration. “It would be great to have the administration’s support, but we’ve learned not to lean on it. We’ve become self-reliant.” As to the chancellor’s statements, he says he wishes it had been stronger initially, but finds the follow up “respectable.” Overall, though he remains optimistic about how the campus culture will continue to provide a safe space for all students. “Vanderbilt is unique. We’re different than a lot of college campuses where there have been mass protests. I like to be careful, but I also like to stay hopeful.” 

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