October 30 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 October 30, 2023 from Jewish Life at Duke Director Joyce Gordon:
October 30, 2023
Dear Jewish Life at Duke Community & Friends,
Last you heard from me was right before our students left campus for a much-needed Fall Break, in the days immediately following the Hamas terror attacks in Israel.
I thank you for your patience as our staff has been in hyper-support mode, spending countless hours with students, helping them process their reactions and emotions to the unthinkable terror Hamas inflicted upon innocent Israeli civilians, coaching our student leaders through organizing a community-wide vigil and events in solidarity with Israel, organizing gathering and support spaces, and coordinating with University administration to ensure the safety and security of our students.
These are fraught days for Jewish students on college campuses around the country.
It has been driven home to me repeatedly over these past weeks just how closely connected our extended Jewish community is. I’ve heard from so many students that they are thankful to be at Duke, because “my friends at [insert many other university names here] are having a really tough time.” This, of course, does not mean that our Duke students are exempt from feelings of frustration, anxiety, hurt, and fear regarding incidents of antisemitism both online and on campus. They are feeling for their friends at other schools; they are worried about their own environment here at Duke.
Our first priority at JLD has always been to provide a Duke experience and environment where Jewish students are free and safe to express their Jewish identity and engage actively in their Duke and Jewish communities – communities meant to be imbued with meaning, connection, and joy.
To that end, I want to share with you the steps we have taken to support our community over the last few weeks:
- Increased security for Jewish students. We have invested in additional layers of security – both visible and not – for Jewish programming both at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and across campus. We are in touch with Duke University’s Police Department and partners across campus to ensure the safety and security of our students.
- Ongoing conversations with University administration. Jewish Life at Duke is both a registered Hillel and a department of Duke’s Division of Student Affairs. As such, we are positioned in the University as a trusted department, which is crucial in these challenging times. I have been in constant communication with our partners in administration, coordinating security and response plans to events on campus. I share the concerns of Jewish students, alumni, and parents with Duke’s leadership daily, and I can assure you that they hear us and are taking these concerns seriously. When an antisemitic phrase was painted on the East Campus Bridge, it was swiftly painted over by Duke Facilities and Vice Provost/Vice President for Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon sent a message to all students explaining why it was removed. The University has stepped up on behalf of the Jewish community over the past weeks, and this is never more evident than in the times I hear our students say “I feel so lucky to be at Duke right now.” We will continue to work to ensure that hate and antisemitism have no place on Duke’s campus.
- Supporting every Jewish student. Nothing is more important to me than ensuring our Jewish Life at Duke staff is able to respond to students’ needs. We have been meeting with students one-one-one and in small groups to help them process their pain and consider how to move forward productively, prioritizing their wellbeing. Our team has also been coaching and empowering our four Israel-focused student groups to organize solidarity, advocacy, and educational gatherings and events. In collaboration with our students, we have hosted a vigil for Israel, a prayer and reflection circle, a Day of Peace in response to the Day of Resistance, support groups, social gatherings with their Jewish peers, and more. Over the next month, we have a full schedule of events including a series called “Let’s Talk about Israel” with guest speakers and professors, a campaign called #BlueRibbonsforIsrael advocating for the safe return of the hostages, “family” dinners and bagel brunches, Shabbat gatherings, a wellness evening, and community service programs (see calendar below for a glimpse).
- Prioritizing access to our students’ mental health resources to safeguard their wellbeing. We have shared support resources with our students and made them readily available – both bringing Duke Counseling and Psychological Service (CAPS) counselors to the Freeman Center, and reminding students of their access to CAPS, the process for reporting bias incidents, and more.
- “To life!”: Fostering a sense of normalcy for Jewish students who so desperately crave it. Among all that is going on in Israel and the world, our students still have Chem exams, English papers, rehearsals, student group meetings, and jobs. Some students have remarked that they feel a sense of guilt about going on with their lives as students, when they know so many in Israel are dealing with so much more. I strongly believe that Jewish students – that none of us – should feel guilty about continuing with our lives. Our tradition teaches us that we can hold complexity; we can both grieve and experience joy, and the very act of living our lives is an act of Jewish persistence. For us, this means continuing to bring students together to celebrate Shabbat, enjoy a weekly bagel break, or simply be together in a Jewish space.
Many of you have reached out to me and our team over the last few weeks. Each message is different, but the heart of each one is “how can I help the students?”
So how can you help? If you know a Duke student, continue to support and encourage them. Within your Duke networks, share the story of the strong and thriving Jewish community on our campus. We need your voice.
And, if you are moved to support our work, please consider a donation to Jewish Life at Duke. We are in what one of my colleagues has called a “student support surge,” and your gifts make it possible for us to rise to meet the moment.
An alumna recently shared with me her view that we are in “the Jewish crisis of our lifetimes.” I can’t pretend to know what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or months from now – none of us can know, and so many of us are worried. However, I am confident that our Jewish student community here at Duke is strong. I am inspired by our students, who care so very much for one another, for the Jewish community, and for Duke. In them, I see the Jewish future, and it is a bright one. We have much to be worried about these days – but we also have much to be proud of.
Director, Jewish Life at Duke
Recent Communication and Gatherings:
- Saturday, October 7: Letter sent to Jewish Duke students from Director for Jewish Life Joyce Gordon
- Sunday, October 8: Organized by Jewish Life at Duke, students gathered together with staff for prayer, reflection, conversation, and comfort
- Monday, October 9: Message shared on Jewish Life at Duke social media
- Monday, October 9: A community vigil was held on Duke’s Bryan Center Plaza
- Tuesday, October 10: Note sent to Jewish Duke students from Director for Jewish Life Joyce Gordon
- Tuesday, October 10: President Price Condemns Attacks in Israel
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.