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Student perspectives

Jewish Students find comfort at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center

IMG_4961.jpegOn the corner of 21st and Nueces streets stands a two-story yellow house Jewish students recognize as The Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center, a place of higher worship where they can connect with their Jewish identity. The center provided the same comfort for University of Texas at Austin alum Rabbi Zev Johnson in the late 1990s.
 
“Chabad was the only Jewish organization open in the summer,” Johnson said. “I got involved slowly and surely to the extent that I said ‘Let me go to rabbinical school and become a rabbi and come back and kind of revolutionize what’s happening on campus.’”
 
Johnson has been serving as the co-director of the Chabad Center since 2007 along with his wife, Ariela, and their eight children. They hope the family-focused center will create a home for the 6 percent of UT students who identify as Jewish. Johnson connects with students on campus by fostering partnerships with Greek life and teaching a Jewish studies academic program.
 
“It’s not just the rabbis, it’s the wives and the kids (that) are very involved,” said Johnson, also known as Rabbi Zev. “We are not just a center, rather a home where we are engaging to all.”
 
Because Johnson also attended UT, he actively tries to integrate the center into different student communities.
 
To do so, Johnson fostered relationships with Greek houses around campus. He created events for Jewish students in Greek life, such as holding open forums about Judaism, hosting Shabbat dinners and inviting members to pizza-making events.
 
“I was in Greek life a little bit, so I do get that side of it, which I respect and love,” Johnson said. “We are very involved with the Jewish students in Greek life and there’s a lot of incredible partnerships.”
 
Senior finance student Jordan Steinberg found out about the center his freshman year when the center invited Zeta Beta Tau to a Shabbat dinner. Even though Steinberg actively practices Judaism, he used to only attend events at the center twice a year. 
 
“I grew up in a fairly strong Jewish community,” Steinberg said. “I’m from Dallas where I was a member at Temple Emanu-El. It is a very large and strong Jewish congregation.”
 
But his involvement peaked this semester after he decided to become a Sinai Scholar, a national program that allows him to study Jewish texts and network with other members of the Jewish community. The UT chapter is comprised of 25 students who meet for eight classes each semester at the center.
 
Steinberg credits the society for helping him grow in his faith and in his relationship with the rabbi.
 
“Through Sinai Scholars, I have the opportunity to discuss and challenge Zev about Jewish beliefs, customs, and ‘Jewish thought,’” Steinberg said. “Zev creates a learning environment that is open and challenging, and discussion is encouraged. Despite practicing Judaism differently and not always agreeing, I have gained a great deal of respect for Zev.”
 
Other Sinai Scholars, such as Aviv Navon, knew about the center long before they enrolled at UT. Navon first heard about Johnson from his siblings.
 
“While they were students, Zev would hold a private session with them one day a year on the day that my grandfather passed away,” Navon said. “As a freshman, when the (date) came, my two siblings and I went to Chabad and just talked with Zev.”
 
Navon said his first impression of Zev was someone who was not only a great rabbi but also a great person.
 
“He truly cared about everyone in the community and chose to go out of his way to help us with anything we needed,” Navon said.
 
This type of compassion is what Johnson said he strives to bring to the University’s Jewish community.
 
“We give people the tools to get in touch a little more deeper with (their) identity,” Johnson said, “to see what Judaism has to offer, to feel safe and comfortable knowing there is a broader-based community that is there for them as a family.”
 

Jordan Steinberg's thoughts on his Sinai Scholar class with Rabbi Zev

Jordan Steinberg Headshot cropped.jpg

I grew up in a reform household in Dallas. I did not attend a Jewish Day school, and religious school was only enforced in my house when the Cowboys did not have a 12:00pm or 3:00pm game. My family drinks scotch at our Passover Seder, and kosher to me is leaving the shrimp off the bacon cheese burger. This is all not to say Judaism is not important to me. I am extremely proud to be Jewish, but I had realized there were a few commandments I had given myself exceptions on.

 

All this considered, I would not have viewed myself a prime candidate for Sinai Scholars this spring. Zev did a great job creating an environment where it was ok to challenge and share, but also have a different viewpoint. That said, after the first class, I had noticed two things:

 

1. The class would be tired of hearing me speak

2. Zev’s thought process

 

Zev is able to bring a Judaism into every aspect of his life, and every decision he makes, is made with Jewish values and morals as has his compass. I developed immense admiration and respect for the way Zev was able to do this and follow the laws of Judaism so closely. This also induced almost a level of intimidation for some loves bacon wrapped shrimp. This caused me to juxtapose Zev’s practice of Judaism to my own throughout the class. While I did not necessarily think one way of thought was better than the other, I began to question where this positioned me as a Jew. As the class winded on, we explored various topics about Judaism, and this question continued to cross my mind. I would leave some classes finding that I did not completely agree with the “Jewish thought” that had been presented. I continually found myself feeling more or less Jewish depending on the week’s topic, and my point of view compared to the “Jewish point of view”.

 

By the last class, I began to be more comfortable with the idea that our practice of Judaism doesn’t make a better or worse Jew. Rather, Judaism is something we should be able celebrate and connect with regardless of practice. What is more important, is being intentional and committed to each of our own practices of Judaism, no matter the level. Zev shared a quote the last day of class that summarizes this idea well. Imagine a ladder with 613 rungs on it representing all 613 commandments. If there is a someone on rung 612, and another on rung 2, who is the better Jew? While our initial thought may be that the person who has completed 612 commandments is better than the other who only does 2, but what if the person on rung 2 was on rung 1 yesterday, and the person on rung 612, was on rung 613. It is equally as important to consider where we were yesterday in relation to where we will be tomorrow as where we are today.

 

Abby's Holocaust Reflections

WhatsApp Image 2019-05-06 at 9.48.30 AM.jpegAmidst the recent wave of Anti-Semitism, my sister and I felt it necessary to emphasize the importance of tolerance and acceptance. Below is an excerpt from a journal I kept last April while participating in March of the Living, demonstrating the lasting impact of hatred and prejudice even decades after it rears its ugly head. 

The March of the Living is “an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and examines the roots of prejudice, intolerance, and hatred” (International March of the Living).

I will never re-experience emotions like I did today. Today, I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi-led deaths camps. On the drive up to Auschwitz, I passed a town with an extensive shopping mall just two miles away from the camp. That was not what I was expecting. I was expecting Auschwitz-Birkenau to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness rather than existing in plain sight. When we arrived it was chilling. Auschwitz seemed almost like an amusement park, riddled with concession stands and gift shops outside its gates. I found that to be completely unsettling and inappropriate. When we walked through the gates, however, it was silent. All that was heard was the shuffling of gravel coupled with the quiet voice of the tour guide. The entrance to the camp was marked by a ADJECTIVE sign. “Work will set you free,” it read. Suddenly, I was greeted with a strong jab of emotion. The first of many throughout the day. I resented the meticulous Nazi design, misleading Jewish prisoners until the moment of their deaths. The sign served as a reminder.

From that moment on, I felt like I was going to puke. I followed my tour group to old prison quarters which were transformed into museums and displays. Quarters that were filled to the brink with pictures, facts, and objects of deceased Jews. The first time I broke down crying was when I walked into the living quarters. For the purpose of the museum, the living quarters were remodeled to hold all the valuable belongings that the Nazi’s confiscated from the Jews, believing it would one day make them rich. I had seen piles of shoes and clothes before in Yod Vashem, but this was nothing like I had ever seen before. There were enormous cases of shaven hair -- heaps with alarming magnitude. Some braids were even kept intact. To me, this was the closest connection I had ever felt with the deceased victims of the Holocaust -- a genuine part of them. I found the endless display of suitcases in the next room equally as horrifying. Each suitcase was labeled by the victim’s name and the date they boarded the trains to Auschwitz, expecting to receive their luggage when they arrived at the camp. As I walked slowly in line with the display, I saw countless names shared by people that I know. I read every name visible from my vantage point, in an effort to pay respect to the victims’ legacy. I wanted to ensure that someone remembered their names.

I saw the torture and experimentation chambers that were used before the final solution. As soon as I walked inside, I felt an unprecedented chill. Everyone in the room stood with chattering teeth, coated with goosebumps, despite the lack of any air conditioning and the blazing heat outside. We ventured to starvation chambers that crammed up to 40 people in a closet-sized space. The guide told us a story of a monk who sacrificed himself, taking the place of a man with a family inside the chamber. This reminded me that even in the darkest times, surrounded only by evil, compassion can survive.

I saw 3 by 3 standing cells in the basement of the building. Prisoners would stand for days in these spaces, unable to move. Irene, the Holocaust survivor that accompanied our group, was one of the prisoners who had been expelled to these cells. She decided to share her experiences with us. Irene explained that as a subject of Dr. Mengele, a Nazi doctor that sought to expand the Aryan race by whatever means necessary, she was injected with serum in her eyes to presumably turn them blue. Dr. Mengele’s intent was to generate distinctive characteristics of the Aryan race: blue eyes and blonde hair. After experimentation, Irene was subjected to stand in the cell with water up to her ankles, accompanied by four other girls who had been tortured in the same way. For five days of darkness, she couldn’t move, forced to survive off her own urine. Two of the girls died from the injection. One was blinded. Irene was unaffected. Just a snippet of her story reminded me how strong and resilient she is. I would like to say I could be that strong, but in reality, I don’t think that I could withstand that trauma.

After we left that room, most of the people in my tour group were numb, crying, and shaken. Adele, the other Holocaust survivor that mentored our group, gathered us together, calling us her grandchildren. I couldn’t fathom how a woman who had been through all of this misfortune firsthand had the capacity to console a large group of kids in the very place that reminded her own torture and the death of her family. I was in awe as she hugged us all and told us we were going to be okay.

One thing she said resonated with me. “You needed to see this.” She was right. All of the books, textbooks, movies, and lectures that have taught me about the Holocaust could not have prepared me for seeing the evidence firsthand. I was standing on the same ground where 1.1 million Jews were murdered and even more were tortured; on the ground where Nazi soldiers commanded orders. The facts were at my disposal, personified by the survivors standing by my side. I knew it happened, yet I could only think back to the countless movies, pictures, and stories as if they happened someplace else.

The only exception was the gas chamber. I do not think I will see anything in my life as scarring. I could not only feel the presence of the innocent murdered, but I could also see it. Scratches and claw marks were visible all across the walls. As I circled the room, something stood out to me. Am Yisrael Chai, written in Hebrew, was carved into the wall. “Israel lives on.” It was beautiful and disturbing all at once, serving as proof once again of the resilience hidden behind darkness.  

The second part of the room is where I broke down. The crematory --  dozens of ovens reminiscent of coal fired pizza ovens. After looking at them for a moment, dumbfounded, it hit me. They put people in there. Suddenly, I could see the abuse laid out in front of me; I could picture everything as it happened. I couldn’t breathe. I ran out bawling. As fell to the ground outside the gas chambers, I had one overwhelming thought: I had the option to leave.

Afterward, we went to Birkenau. It wasn’t commercialized like Auschwitz. It was a true death camp, stretching on for miles in every direction. Irene showed us the spot where Dr. Mengele tore apart her family. As a thirteen-year-old girl, she saw her family walk to their deaths as she stood helpless. I felt terrible that she had an exact memory of her family’s demise, one that she could play repeatedly in her head. I am angry that even after the Nazi’s and World War II are long gone, they can still torture the survivors with their memories.

I am glad I was able to embark on this experience with the survivors by my side. They helped me understand the gravity of the trauma they faced. Together and with other Jews from all parts of the world, we marched from the Auschwitz camp to Birkenau, ironically recreating the image of a WWII death march, to remind that world that there are survivors still stand. However, they never truly be free from this treachery.

Each year, survivors grow older and the actions of the Third Reich continue to take up more space in history books than people’s direct or primary memories of the event. It is an obvious fact that soon there will be no survivors to tell their stories. This means there will be no more primary sources from World War II prisoners or everyday reminders of what the Jewish people endured.

I chose to share my experience at Auschwitz because as I see reports of Anti-Semitic vandalism and Nazi sympathetic behavior being reported in the media, I cannot help but notice a possible connection to the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors. My fear is that once daily reminders of Jewish torture from World War II fade, society will come to tolerate Anti-Semitic behavior -- that does not grant society permission to condone Anti-Semitic behavior. When society does not respond to atrocious acts like vandalizing classrooms, subways, and cemeteries with swastikas, society is essentially granting people permission to act this. Survivors are dying, but we cannot forget them or their struggle. This is our responsibility.

*This piece is written by student, Abigail Schwartz, wishing to express herself in light of what happened in Poway and other incidents around the country. 

 

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