Open Letter to the Community of Susquehanna University

My name is Carly Husick and I am a junior at Susquehanna. For the last year I was the president of Susquehanna’s Hillel, which is the university’s Jewish student organization. In the next few pages I am going to tell you a story. I am going to tell you what it is like to come to a community like the one at Susquehanna when you are different, what it is like to be at a predominantly Lutheran school when you are Jewish.

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and even though my high school had a small percentage of Jewish students I never felt like my Judaism truly divided me from anyone. It was just something extra. My friends went to CCD and I went to Hebrew school, they had a confirmation and I had a bat mitzvah, they had sweet sixteens I had a sweet thirteen. My religion didn’t set me apart, it enhanced who I was. I never felt alienated for being different because I was surrounded by a Jewish community in my synagogue. Being Jewish was a part of who I was, but I didn’t let it define me until, at eighteen, I found myself at Susquehanna surrounded by people who had never met a Jewish person before, people who didn’t know what Judaism was, or why it was inappropriate to make Holocaust jokes.

I let my religion define me because of this, because I felt a need to defend my identity. Because I was in a new place, because I had left behind the solid Jewish community I had always had at home. Because I kept being reminded that I was different I stuck my Judaism out, it became my identifier. I became Carly the Jewish student instead of Carly the writing student, or philosophy student. I wrote about being Jewish in my writing classes. I talked about it all the time. I let my religion come before me like an announcement to the world because if I made it bigger then I didn’t feel so alone. I didn’t join Hillel until my second semester at Susquehanna and by the time I realized how my Judaism had taken over who I was, it was too late, I was already that Jewish student, on a campus filled with people who looked at my religion as something exotic, something different.

I am not ashamed of my religion. I love the lessons that I have learned growing up Jewish, the work ethic it has taught me, the appreciation for traditions, for history, for freedom. I love everything about being Jewish except for having let it define me. Judaism is a part of who I am, but it is not all of who I am. When I stuck my Judaism out like a handshake to everyone I met, I didn’t realize what I would be opening myself up to. I had never experienced Jew jokes before, or if I had they were told to me by Jewish friends and for some reason that never seems as bad to me as when someone who isn’t Jewish drops a Jew joke.

I like to think of Jew jokes as having categories: there are the really bad ones and then there are the small ones, which I think are cumulative like snow, but, still bad. Think of the snow storms we’ve been having lately thanks to the polar vortex. Small Jew jokes don’t do anything at first, like snow they obstruct your vision and make the ground a little bit slippery but it’s not something to make a big deal about, until they keep coming and growing and suddenly that’s all there is. It’s easy to laugh at first when people make jokes about money, or when my guy friends put on their deep scratchy “Jewish grandmother” voices and ask me when I’m going to meet a nice Jewish doctor, but after a while the jokes get old, they stop being funny, they become another reminder of how my religion makes these people uncomfortable - because why else would anyone say those things? Those small jokes, insensitive comments, and ethnic stereotypes create an atmosphere of hostility felt most acutely by those of us who are different.

The other type of Jew joke is the big type, the type where when someone delivers their punch line you don’t know whether you should laugh uncomfortably or actually punch them. I think it was my freshmen year. I was standing in Benny’s Bistro across from the pizza counter and the pizza oven. Someone, I don’t remember who, or in what context it was said, but someone came up to me and compared the pizza oven to Jews dying in ovens at concentration camps during the Holocaust. I don’t remember the exact wording of the “joke” nor do I care to. My point is simply that people think it’s funny, but it’s not. In fact, I just think it’s sad, because to me when people act out in this way, when they make inappropriate jokes or draw swastika’s, the symbol of the Nazi party, on a Jewish student’s door, it is out of ignorance. And the ignorance of the students who year after year act out by drawing swastika’s and telling jokes and saying that my nose isn’t that big when they find out my religion, is saddening.

My Rabbi from back home posted a video on Facebook earlier this year in which a woman goes around ‘to Pennsylvania college campuses: temple, Drexel, UPenn, and Penn state were all included, and she asks students questions about the Holocaust. Do they know what the Holocaust is? Do they know the names of any concentration camps? Do they know who else was persecuted in the Holocaust? Do they know where Hitler and the Nazi party first rose to power? Again and again the answer was I don’t know, or the student’s just guessed. No one knew how many Jews had died in the Holocaust. Six million. The point of the video was that public schools in Pennsylvania don’t require a course on the Holocaust while neighboring states like New Jersey and New York do. I learned about it in Hebrew school. I learned about it when my parents took me to the Anne Frank house. I learned about it when at eleven I first read the Diary of Anne Frank. But I didn’t learn about it in school.

So I say again, these actions must be out of ignorance. When my co-president of Hillel came to me and told me that someone had drawn a swastika on his door, I didn’t feel scared, though the Swastika is a symbol that should instill fear in all of us. I just felt sad. I felt empty. I couldn’t believe that this was something real, that someone would actually do this. The swastika is a symbol of hatred, it is a symbol of six million Jewish deaths, a symbol of history, of fascism, of death camps, and serial numbers tattooed on wrists. It is not something to be graffittied around campus, to be drawn on the door of a Jewish student, to be flaunted or even to be looked at with anything but fear and sadness and revulsion. College should be an accepting place where tolerance isn’t a question but a given, education is about learning and growing, about acceptance - and the failure to accept based on religion, the alienation that happens when people are afraid of what they don’t know is counterproductive to the mission of a liberal arts institution. Sometimes, an email just isn’t enough.

Every year since I have been here, there have been swastika’s flung around like it’s no big deal. I hear little comments, digs, people using the word Jew like it is an insult. The administration’s response is to send an email out to students, and honestly, I am grateful that there is any response at all - but professors and parents are often left unaware of the things that happen on this campus. My sophomore year, after a Swastika incident, one of my professors, in an effort to show what amazing public speaking looks like, showed us a video of Hitler addressing the German people. Hitler was an enchanting and amazing speaker. As someone who had competed in public speaking all through high school, I understood my professor’s motives, but its proximity to the anti-Semitic incident took my breath away, like I’d been punched in the gut. Two days earlier someone had vandalized our campus with a swastika, and here we were, sitting in class, and watching a video of Hitler. When I addressed my professor, explaining to him my discomfort, he told me that he hadn’t known. No one had told him. Sometimes, an email just isn’t enough.

In a liberal arts community acceptance shouldn’t be a question. Students who are different, diverse, whether it be race, religion, or nationality shouldn’t have to feel like they are outsiders. We as a community should want to learn from one another, we should be looking to grow, to diversify, to learn. We should be working towards leaving ignorance behind.

It scares me how little people know. It shocks me that this could happen in a community where I should be able to feel safe. The ignorance of a community in which actions such as these take place, shocks me. And so I think that we all need to be educated, that we all need to work together to eradicate ignorance, that we all need to learn that the swastika is not something to be taken lightly, and the Jewish faith is not something to throw jokes at.