Hundreds of college students gathered across North America and Israel Saturday to conclude Shabbat with #SolidarityHavdalah, a campaign to show unity with their European peers facing anti-Semitism.
The students came together at Brandeis University in suburban Boston, as well at more than a dozen other locations in North America, from Harvard to Emory, along with two in Israel and one in Canada. Participants read a statement dedicating their Havdalah ceremonies "to the countless Jews that fear publicly contributing to the spirit (ruach) of the people of Israel."
Some then posted photos and videos on social media under the event's hashtag.
On a cold evening on the Brandeis campus, dozens of students, some at a Reform-Conservative event and others at an Orthodox one, recited the blessings to Debbie Friedman tunes and lit Havdalah candles over wine. Freshman Max Silverstone, who read the statement at the Reform-Conservative event, said a recent trip to Poland opened his eyes about the difficulties facing European Jewish students in expressing their identity.
After hearing the statement, many Orthodox students were unable to make social media posts, since they weren't carrying their smartphones, said Misha Vilenchuk, who helped organize #SolidarityHavdalah. That was one disappointment in an otherwise successful campaign for Vilenchuk, a 22-year-old Brandeis senior.
“We succeeded because Jews were not only celebrating Judaism but also their Jewish identity … with freedom of expression and declaring their unity through this simple yet significant statement,” he told JTA.
A Moscow-born Russian-American Jew, Vilenchuk said he aims to draw attention to threats to Jewish freedom of action and conscience anywhere in the world. Of anti-Semitism in Europe, he said, “It's vocal, visible and vicious.”
Vilenchuk founded the student group Coalition Against Anti-Semitism in Europe, or CAASE, a year ago following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper's office and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris. CAASE joined the World Union of Jewish Students and the American Union of Jewish Students in putting together the Havdalah and promoting it on social media.
Yaela Halper, a Brandeis freshman who is CAASE's vice president — Vilenchuk is president — played a major role in the social media campaign, much of which involved reaching out through friends and Jewish networks on Facebook.
“We want it to be a community-building event,” she said.
Vilenchuk said 20 student groups confirmed participation, including from Yale, Yeshiva University, McGill and Hebrew University. He estimated 1,100 students showed up at those events. There were likely others. As Vilenchuk noted, "Students don't like to RSVP to anything," and the statement was posted online.
"We declare our distinct Jewish identity and our Jewish pride — together with Jewish students and our allies across the globe, the statement concludes. "Tonight we make our voices heard and join our ahim and ahiot (brothers and sisters) from Paris to Jerusalem, from Caracas to New York, and say, 'no more.'”