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Dear Friends,

When I was in college I pledged a fraternity that only existed south of the Mason Dixon line. While the fraternity as a whole was deeply southern, Christian and conservative, my college chapter was more diverse and open to accepting those of us who were not “deeply southern, Christian and conservative.” I felt welcomed. And I felt accepted. But while I was participating in the pledging process I became increasingly involved in our local Hillel and a fledgling pro-Israel group that I became president of a year later. The day after I was initiated as a full member of the fraternity the President came up to me and said, “Cohen, we are glad you are here but you might not want to attend any of the national events. You just wouldn’t fit in.”

(Yes, that should have been cause for me to immediately reassess my membership, but much to my embarrassment now, that took another year and a half.)

The message I was given was the same message Esther hears from Mordechai. The Megillah states,

לֹא־הִגִּ֣ידָה אֶסְתֵּ֔ר אֶת־עַמָּ֖הּ וְאֶת־מֽוֹלַדְתָּ֑הּ כִּ֧י מׇרְדֳּכַ֛י צִוָּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־תַגִּֽיד׃

Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordechai had told her not to reveal it.

Mordechai assumed that, were the king to learn of Esther’s Jewish heritage prior to choosing her as Queen, she would likely be disqualified. She was, so to speak, asked to put on a mask that concealed a significant aspect of her identity. Once she was in the palace, however, one might assume that she could reveal her identity, yet she continued to wear the mask of the dominant culture even after she ascended to the throne.

After spending a year and a half studying in Israel and starting the process of applying to rabbinic school, I disengaged from my fraternity. I could no longer tolerate splitting my identity depending on the situation I was in.

For her part, Esther only revealed her true self after Mordechai’s rather pointed warning.

“Do not imagine,” he said, “that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.”

In this way, Esther’s story is, far too often, our own story. How many performers or musicians, for example, felt compelled to change their names so they sounded less “ethnic”?

Lauren Bacall was born Betty Perske. Winona Ryder was originally Winona Horowitz. And Natalie Portman’s original name was Natalie Hershlag. They are just a few of the many Jewish performers who felt their “Jewish sounding name” would be a hindrance to their career advancement.

So while Purim is over and we can take off our masks, there have been those individuals who have had to keep wearing their masks at all times. There still are.

Last fall the Brandeis Institute published the results of a survey in which they asked Jewish students about their experience on campus. The results are as sobering as they are horrifying.

“Nearly 70% of the students surveyed personally experienced or were familiar with an anti-Semitic attack in the past 120 days. More than 65% of these students have felt unsafe on campus due to physical or verbal attacks, with one in 10 reporting they have feared they themselves would be physically attacked. And roughly 50% of students have felt the need to hide their Jewish identity.“

Kenneth L. Marcus, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights and Brandeis Center founder and chair had this to say:

“These findings ring some pretty consequential alarms, more closely resembling previous dark periods in our history, not the 21st century in the U.S. They reveal that students for whom being Jewish is a central or important aspect of their identity are feeling increasingly unsafe visibly expressing their Judaism for fear of harassment, social bullying and other anti-Semitic attacks.”

The rapid rise in antisemitism in America is real and there is no indication it will slow down any time soon. And, increasingly, college campuses, which should be safe environments for students to voice opinions, debate issues and learn how to resolve conflict, are simply unsafe. And while there are myriad explanations for it, the net result is the same. Too often we, like Esther, are being told that in order to fit in and be accepted we need to hide our identity. And that is simply not acceptable.

Earlier this week I spoke with local elected officials about the need for them to stand up and speak out more loudly in support of our Jewish community. But we need to do more.

We need college administrators to speak out and take the necessary steps so that all students feel free to be who they are and to express what they believe.

We need to pick up the phone or send an email to the administrations of our alma maters and make clear that we expect them to ensure a safe environment for ALL students.

And we need to support the work of Hillel and the ADL. On campus, Hillel not only offers creative programming and Shabbat dinners, but is a support network and advocate for Jewish students. ADL works in all spaces to address bias and bigotry. Neither will “solve” this issue — it is, after all, as old as the story of Purim — but their work is more important than ever. And our kids deserve the freedom and safety to express who they are in every way. We all do.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen