Meet the rabbi standing up against on campus antisemitism

"Hate is a disease. And when you ignore the warning signs the hate grows greater."
Rabbi Litvin planting flags with his children. [Courtesy: Shlomo Litvin]

Several high level antisemitic incidents occurred at the University of Kentucky in the last six months, with the most egregious incident in December when police were dispatched to the Chabad House at the university following a report that someone was attacked at a menorah lighting.

In light of these events, UK students hosted a virtual discussion with politicians and activists on antisemitism this past Sunday. The event was arranged by students with the guidance of Rabbi Shlomo Litvin and his wife, Shoshi Litvin, who co-direct the Chabad of the Bluegrass Jewish Student Center. Litvin says the event was seen by over 500 people. His hope is that it provided closure for students as they wrap up the semester, knowing they took action against antisemitism.

We spoke with Rabbi Litvin to learn more about the antisemitism at the University of Kentucky and how he’s working to change the narrative.

Rabbi Shlomo Litvin. (Courtesy: Shlomo Litvin)

What do you think can explain the seemingly sudden uptick of antisemitic events on campus?

“I don’t think it was a sudden uptick,” says Litvin. “I think it’s a gradual uptick that people are finally paying attention to. In large part, this came from ignoring antisemitism against certain parts of the Jewish community both locally and nationally. Until there were two violent attacks on the traditional Orthodox community in the month in December 2019, nobody cared outside the traditional Orthodox community. Violence against Jews was commonplace in Brooklyn and other cities and no one talked about it… It created an environment that allowed antisemitism.

The University of Kentucky has been in the news recently for high level antisemitism, what were some of the smaller incidents that went unreported leading up to this?

“The university was aware of many incidents of hate speech. There have been a bunch of micro-incidents — from students having pennies thrown at them to a student finding a swastika carved into her dorm room door, a professor calling on the “class Jew.” We had some Israeli soldiers come to speak about mental health and there ended up being some 70 protesters yelling “Jew come out,” and following students back to their cars. This story that Jewish on campus helped elevate at the fraternity was the third incident at a fraternity or sorority that I knew about this semester. 

Just last week on Saturday, some kids were walking home from sorority formal drinking beers, and they stopped outside the Jewish center and threw glass bottles at the building.

So there have been small issues and there have been bigger issues. Of course the one that got national attention was when someone was nearly killed. He’s had three surgeries since that point, has racked up nearly $85,000 in medical bills outside of insurance, and still has trouble walking.

But my personal philosophy is that there is no such thing as a small act of hate. Hate is a disease. And when you ignore the warning signs the hate grows greater. When you ignore small acts of hate, you’re allowing an environment where hate exists. It is in my nature to speak out every single time, to speak out against racist jokes.

“Why do you find that funny?” is one of most powerful sentences in human language.

Because it’s not just one thing. It’s not just a comment. It builds an environment in which is allowed.”

What is the school doing about all this?

“First, I would note that it’s not just Jewish students who feel this. African American students have similar complaints, Hispanic students have similar complaints… But the Jewish community is not big enough on this campus to make that difference. (It is estimated that around 500-700 students are Jewish at the university, which has around 30,000 students.)

Their way to solve the issue was in an institutional way. So for example, they hired a director of Jewish students, who I think has not made a single public statement from his office about this despite emails from students, which I am cc’d on, asking him to speak out publicly after events.

The only time the university has spoken out about anti semitism since I got to campus (over six years ago) was after the violent incident this December and their statements said they were sorry about what happened near campus.

I don’t think these students from the sorority and fraternity came to the Jewish Student Center from across campus looking to throw glass bottles. They were walking by the center and one of the students associated seeing the Jewish Student Center sign with, ‘let’s throw bottles at the building.’ I imagine he wouldn’t do that outside the police station, for example, because you think there would be consequences. I don’t think you’d do it outside the library, because there would be consequences. These students were right, there was going to be no reaction from the university.”

What is it like to be one of the few, perhaps only, visibly Jewish person walking around campus?

“I know Jewish students who stopped wearing a yarmulke when they came to UK, or stoped wearing a Star of David.

I walk around campus with a beard and a hat and jacket all the time, and I get comments all the time. Before COVID, we’d have the only Friday night meal on campus, a giant meal, and because of other issues on campus, I’d walk female students home after the meal.

One week, we got to one of the last dormitories, I’m dropping off the last two students, and one of them turns to me and says: “Hey, Rabbi, no one said anything to you this week.”

So it’s not like “Hey, someone said something to me last week.” It’s noteworthy that I didn’t get a comment this week. I managed to walk a mile and a half on a college campus and no one yelled ‘Hey Jew!’ or ‘Hitler should have killed the rest of you.’

At that point I thought, what a wonderful week! Thank God. But of course, someone yelled something at me on the way back home.”

Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, his wife, Shoshi Litvin, and their children. (Courtesy: Shlomo Litvin)

It seems that your work as a campus Rabbi has largely become fighting antisemitism as well. What drives you to do this work?

“I want to just point out one thing that’s far more important than that, besides the fact that I end up being the defense of Israel’s committee, the fighting antisemitism committee, all those things of which none are my actual job.

But too often Jewish students end up doing the same thing. No Jewish student has the responsibility to fight antisemitism. No Jewish student has a responsibility to defend the Jewish homeland. What a Jewish student is supposed to be is a student, they’re supposed to be furthering their education, bettering themselves and growing as people. The fact that it’s become totally normal for Jewish students in universities in North America to have to be this constant, communal figure that is representative of the Jewish people is a major issue that universities need to address. 

For many of my students, this is their home and I react in a way that I think best serves my students. If it was up to me, I would never speak about antisemitism. It’s not a subject that particularly interests me. However, I do so because the university refused to speak out, because the Jewish student director refuses to speak out. Despite my desire to make some things as quiet as possible, I’m here to create a Jewish home for my students. And part of making a safe home is building a fence and manning that fence if need be.”

What are the possible solutions to combat this rising hatred and antisemitism, specifically on campuses?

“There are three steps. 

The first step is administration. My personal mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, said it is a responsibility of a leader to uplift segments of the community and thereby ensure the flourishing of the whole.

Our entire community benefits when each segment benefits. So the first is that the university needs to speak up. I think one can say that if you are concerned with a racial attack against African Americans, but not attacks against Jews… if you’ve tweeted 100 times on one part of social justice, but you’ve never tweeted on another part. Therein lies an issue in your advocacy.

The second is education, specifically moral education. Recognizing the inherent value of every person. The illogicality and immorality of antisemitism are linked. Hatred is not a moral position. And very often, we teach the details without teaching why you shouldn’t believe it. That defeats the argument, not the concept. Defeating the concept is recognizing the inherent value of other people. So there’s a moral stand that needs to be taken. It begins with moral education in schools. 

Lastly, the ‘anti’ answer to antisemitism will always be ‘pro-Semitism.’ The greatest answer to antisemitism is proud Jews. Menachem Begin once said that non-Jews respect Jews who respect themselves. Being a proud Jew, first and foremost, actually works to prevent antisemitism”