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November 13 Letter to Duke’s Jewish Alumni, Parents, & Friends Regarding Campus Culture

Home Blog November 13 Letter to Duke’s Jewish Alumni, Parents, & Friends Regarding Campus Culture

November 13 Letter to Duke’s Jewish Alumni, Parents, & Friends Regarding Campus Culture

The following message was sent to Duke’s Jewish alumni and parent community on November 13, 2023 from Jewish Life at Duke Director Joyce Gordon:

November 13, 2023

Dear Jewish Life at Duke Alumni, Parents, and Friends,

This morning, sleepy Duke students are boarding buses to head to Washington, DC for the national March for Israel. I know a number of you will be there – please be on the lookout for us! We’ll be wearing our “Duke” in Hebrew t-shirts, awake and energized! 

Student participation at tomorrow’s march – an opportunity to show support for the people of Israel, demand that the hostages be safely released, and condemn and counter antisemitism on campus and in society –  is part of our ongoing strategy for supporting Jewish students.

Two weekends ago, during Duke’s Family Weekend, I invited parents to join me for an in-person conversation regarding our strategy for supporting students during this time. I want to share with you what I shared with them, and how you can continue to help. 

We are approaching student support work in the following ways:

1. Empowering students: Since October 7, we have been in constant communication with student leaders, coaching them through event planning and numerous activities. We advise seven student groups, four of which are Israel-focused, and we’ve been providing coaching, space, and funding for them as they seek to lead, educate, and program in this moment. Student groups are planning speaker events, advocacy work, and more – and are planning prospectively for the spring semester.

Just yesterday, with our support and funding, our students arranged a moving “Empty Shabbat Dinner” display on the Bryan Center Plaza, a symbol for hope for the hostages taken seeking a safe return to their homes and Shabbat tables.

2. Responding to concerns: I regularly meet with students who are considering whether to submit a bias report through Duke’s bias reporting system, and I help students think through their options and their reports. I have also been referring students to the university ombudsperson. The ombuds is a confidential, informal resource that helps students navigate resolutions in a variety of ways. Rabbi Elana has continued to provide pastoral care, and our engagement team provides essential 1:1 and small group support. Finally, if none of these is the right fit for the moment, and with permission of students, I speak with another person, party, or group on campus on behalf of students. 

3. Safeguarding students to the best of our ability: I am in regular, frequent conversations with Duke’s Police Department and other safety officials on campus, discussing and planning safety and security measures for both the Freeman Center and other spaces and events on campus. I receive the local, regional, and statewide alerts that Jewish community organizations receive, related to safety and security, and I relay those to Duke’s teams, as well.

4. Partnering with university leadership: I am at the table in a variety of meetings and groups to both advocate for Jewish students and to help leadership think through how various activities impact the Jewish student community. JLD is not only a Hillel – we are a university department, so university leadership are our colleagues; they trust JLD and turn to us frequently across a host of issues, and in the past month, this has only amplified. We are sharing our community’s concerns with leadership, and they are being heard. During Family Weekend, University President Vincent Price visited our Bagel Brunch gathering and stayed for over an hour and a half, listening and talking to families and students in person.

5. Educating students and the wider university community: Education takes many, many forms. Since last fall, a hallmark program of ours is “Antisemitism 101 for Duke Colleagues.” This program is a 2.5 hour session for staff and faculty, diving deep into the roots of antisemitism, how it manifests today, impacts on students, and what we can do about it. Over 175 faculty and staff have attended to date, and we have more scheduled throughout the academic year. Next, we regularly partner with the Center for Jewish Studies on speaker events, and promote their classes to students: we need more Jewish literacy! JLD offers our own educational programs, as well. For example, this month, we’re running a Monday-night series called “Let’s Talk About Israel” with guest speakers and experts. We have been offering our popular Jewish Learning Fellowship for years, and we have more educational programming to come.

6. Celebrating our Jewish identity: Celebrating Jewish moments is something we prioritize at Jewish Life at Duke. Given the trend of rising antisemitism around the world, we are at a truly difficult moment for the Jewish community; at the same time, if the message that our students are receiving about their Jewish identity is all about antisemitism, and if we don’t give them access to Jewish culture, spirituality, tradition, innovation, celebration – if we leave this out at this crucial moment – then what are we fighting for? We need to provide our students with a rich array of Jewish experience, we need to invite them to strengthen – and to enjoy – their Jewish identities – or else we run the risk of doing the antisemites’ work for them: a diminishment at best, or an eradication, at worst, of the next Jewish generation. Therefore, you will see us continue to prioritize joyful programming for students! We will celebrate Shabbat, we will celebrate holidays, we will “yarn with the yentes” (our crafting club!). This is an important part of our holistic approach to student support work.

Our presence at today’s march is thanks to alumni and parents who have underwritten the cost of the buses and other needs. I am deeply grateful to our Duke community for enabling Jewish students to be present with the greater national Jewish community tomorrow.

Many of you have asked, how can I help? I very much appreciate your support and the all-hands-on-deck spirit that our Duke community has embraced at this moment!

It’s important to note that Jewish Life at Duke is 100% donor funded. While we are a university department and an accredited Hillel, we do not receive operational support from Duke or Hillel; we rely on the generosity of our donor community. So many of you have already made generous donations to support our work. I am deeply grateful for your partnership.

So, how can you help? Our priorities right now, to support our student support surge, educational programming, and advocacy work, are as follows:

Donations to our General Support Fund, or Unrestricted Funding:

This is the most flexible funding that we can use to respond right away to needs and emerging issues. This includes everything from antisemitism programming and education and student events to staff and maintaining our physical space, a space which has been more necessary than ever in these last several weeks. This is the fund which allows us to say “yes.”

Shabbat Dinner Funding & Sponsorships:

$3,600 sponsors a Shabbat dinner for around 130 students. We have already exhausted our allocated funding for weekly Shabbat dinners this year, a beautiful indication of how much students want to be together in community right now. You can make a gift here, noting “Shabbat dinner” in the comment section, and your gift will enable Jewish students to celebrate in community with one another. 

Israel Programming Fund Support:

This fund supports both JLD programming and grants to student groups for Israel-focused programming. This programming is both responsive to the current moment as well as proactive, including educational initiatives about Israeli culture, history, and more, spearheaded by our full-time Heyman Winter Israel Fellow professional staff.

Those of you who know me know that I am an optimist. I am also a pragmatist, which is why I am sorry to say that the challenges of this moment aren’t going to diminish soon. This year, more than ever, our students are looking for a place of comfort, understanding, and Jewish pride. Jewish Life at Duke is that place – and we are able to here for our students when they need us most, thanks to the strength and support of our community.

I am truly grateful for your partnership and help as we engage in what I believe is not just necessary work, but holy work. 


Joyce Gordon
Director, Jewish Life at Duke

Empty Shabbat Dinner honoring victims of Oct 7th attack.

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About Jewish Life at Duke

Jewish Life at Duke (JLD) is the hub for all things Jewish on Duke’s campus. An accredited Hillel as well as a department within Duke University’s Division of Student Affairs, Jewish Life at Duke is guided by a mission to empower Jewish students to learn and grow intellectually and spiritually; to inspire and nurture personal paths to Jewish identity; and to cultivate community and friendship. Comprising the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel, JLD takes a pluralistic approach to Judaism to ensure that all Jewish students, regardless of affiliation, are welcome and included.

100% of JLD’s operating budget comes from donations from alumni, parents, and friends.
Become a donor to Jewish Life at Duke today.