A letter to Jewish freshmen from a senior

"Promise yourself that when antisemitic incidents come your way, instead of complaining and doing nothing—or hiding—you will complain and do something."
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Dear Freshman Michal,

You have now started your last semester at American University. You have also started working at the front desk at the Anderson Residence Hall, your first dorm hall. As you entered those doors three years ago, you were filled with excitement, hope, and a bit of nerves.

Three years ago you were prepared to take on the world, as well as those who dared to come after your identity as a Jew. A Zionist. An Israeli. Oh, how naïve you were. Little did you know the extent to which antisemitism was normalized on campus. Little did you know how the faculty advisor of Students for Justice in Palestine would hear your name and say—“oh.” Little did you know that you would need to battle with your university employer to get accommodations for the High Holidays. Little did you know your non-Jewish peers would gaslight you, insisting that you didn’t know the meaning of the Holocaust. 

You. The great-granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. You. The great-granddaughter of a Nazi labor camp survivor. Little did you know how your hallmates would call you an ethnic cleanser. Or students would label you a white-colonizer, apartheid apologist, white supremacist, or a Nazi. 

Even as you faced one antisemitic incident after the other, you never hid yourself or your Jewishness. In fact, you did the opposite. You walked through the Anderson front doors refusing to be the “Jewish girl,” and instead went out being Michal Cohen—the only religious Jew at American University. As you faced one antisemitic incident after the other, you listened to your father’s words. 

“There are those who complain and do nothing. And those who complain and do something.” 

As you sat in the cabin in the North Carolina mountains during the pandemic, watching classmates and friends spread antisemitic rhetoric and celebrities spewing antisemitism, you swore to yourself that you would never be someone who complains and sits on the side.

That day in North Carolina is when your life changed forever.

You learned to love who you are as Michal Cohen, a loud Jewish Israeli woman. Michal Cohen, a first-generation American born to two badass Israeli parents. Michal Cohen, a Jew with roots in Brazil, Argentina, Romania, Israel, Belarus, and countless other countries you don’t even know. Michal Cohen. Not Michael, Mihal, Mikal, or Michelle. Michal Cohen. A loud, obnoxious, talkative Israeli woman who spends her day fighting antisemites on Twitter and Instagram. Michal Cohen, who spends her day working to seek justice for Jewish students across the country facing hostile antisemitism on campus. 

As you think and plan for your graduation right around the corner—even though you may be in denial—don’t forget where you started. Don’t forget the tears shed to human resources as you fought to get accommodations. Don’t forget all those speechless moments when students called you names. Don’t forget the nights spent doom-scrolling as you read what students were talking about you online. Don’t forget the community you found online with the most inspiring, powerful, strong, and caring young Jews you have ever met, or the late-night phone calls you spent talking about everything and nothing. Don’t forget the brain-storming Zoom calls or inside jokes.

Fighting antisemitism day in and day out is exhausting, painful, and oftentimes leaves you hopeless. There is no denying that. To all the freshman Michals, there will be days when you want to give up. Give up fighting to get accommodations, responding to classmates spreading antisemitism, or waking up and promising yourself to never hide your Jewishness. I am here to tell you that it gets better. Those sleepless nights spent doom-scrolling will turn into sleepless nights filled with laughter and inside jokes. Those tears of hopelessness will turn into tears of happiness because you miss your friends. Those days spent feeling alone will turn into days spent on vacation with your closest friends.

As you get settled in your freshman dorm, promise yourself you won’t give up. Promise yourself that when antisemitic incidents come your way, instead of complaining and doing nothing—or hiding—you will complain and do something. 

With love and light,

Michal

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Unpacked or OpenDor Media.

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