Sukkot Solidarity Dinner unites students after possible anti-Semitic controversy

Rabbi Neal Schuster, Senior Jewish Educator at University of Kansas Hillel and lecturer in the KU Jewish Studies Program, speaks in front of the Sukkah put up behind Goodnow Hall on Oct. 11, 2017. (Photo by Regan Tokos | Collegian Media Group)

The Sukkot Solidarity Dinner brought students, faculty and local residents to Bosco Plaza on Wednesday night in a show of solidarity with Kansas State’s Jewish students.

A crowd of about 250 people gathered for the interfaith event before following the leaders of religious student organizations and community churches to the grass outside Kramer Dining Center. Participants ate around a rebuilt sukkah; it had been destroyed Oct. 6.

A sukkah is a temporary dwelling used in the Jewish holy week known as Sukkot. Rabbi Neal Schuster, senior Jewish educator for the University of Kansas Hillel, spoke at the dinner.

“How do we celebrate this holiday?” Schuster said. “It’s one thing to read about it in the Bible, but it can be a little ambiguous on how we’re supposed to celebrate it.”

Schuster explained Sukkot is celebrated first by the construction of sukkahs, where people may eat or sleep during the holy week.

Schuster recited prayers associated with Sukkot and explained the symbolic, religious significance of items such as candles, wine and the lulav, the frond of a date palm tree bundled with willow and myrtle. The lulav is used with an etrog, a lemon-like fruit.

“There is one other feature of the biblical instruction that is beautiful and fascinating,” Schuster said. “It is the only holiday on which we are commanded, we’re instructed, to rejoice. You get to experience joy on Sukkot. It’s a joyful holiday.

“So, we come together,” Schuster continued. “We celebrate, we eat in the sukkah, we invite lots of guests over, we invite friends and loved ones, we invite people who don’t have a sukkah to go to who are in need and we make good meals. … It’s an important aspect to really rejoice on this holiday.”

Jess Girdler, community coordinator for Housing and Dining Services, said she and members of K-State Hillel, a Jewish student organization, decided to hold a public solidarity dinner in response to the suspected vandalism that occurred Oct. 6 because it aligned with the spirit of Sukkot.

“Knowing that this is a time to … gather outside in community over a meal and kind of in celebration, a response that was like a rally or a march or those kind of things just didn’t feel appropriate,” Girdler said. “It didn’t feel like it was honoring what the tradition stood for. That’s kind of why it ended up being this.”

Ryan Kelly, junior in civil engineering and Student Governing Association senator, said he attended the event to help support all the K-State students who may feel marginalized.

“With everything happening at our university, the university as a whole and the entire student body, including SGA, needs to come together in support and solidarity for all of the campus groups that are marginalized and feel like their voices are being attacked,” Kelly said. “A lot of our students on campus, and in this case Jewish students … feel like their existence is threatened. To me, that is absolutely unacceptable, and that inhibits student success.”

Schuster said he hopes the people who may have vandalized the sukkah did not do so out of hate, because a core value of Judaism is to give people the benefit of the doubt.

“There is a value in Judaism, a very important value,” Schuster said. “In Hebrew, it’s dan l’chaf z’chut, to judge in the balance of merit, what we would call ‘give the benefit of the doubt.’ That even if the benefit of the doubt is wrong … at least engage in the exercise of imagining a positive or better read on something, to push ourselves to give the benefit of the doubt.

“Whatever was done to the sukkah, I want to give the benefit of the doubt,” Schuster continued. “[I want] to assume that this wasn’t an act of anger, fear or hatred, that it wasn’t a specifically anti-Jewish act, but rather that it was a specifically stupid act. It wouldn’t be the first time that a stupid act took place on a campus.”

Schuster also said he would like to talk with whoever was responsible for the possible vandalism of the sukkah last week.

“What is the fear or the hatred or the anger that would lead to something like this?” Schuster said. “If that was what you were experiencing when you did this, please come talk. I want to know. I want to engage.”

Kelly said he is glad the Sukkot Solidarity Dinner was able to happen.

“Having come to this event, understanding the Jewish faith — at least more in-depth than I had before — is huge and making progress towards inclusivity,” Kelly said. “I just hope that all of the students living in the residence halls, including the student or students who did this terrible act, see the support that our community is showing, the solidarity that we have towards the Jewish student organization.”

Libby Levin, senior in social work and former president of K-State Hillel, said students should not feel afraid to ask questions.

“If you have questions about different religions, go ask them because people usually want to spread that knowledge,” Levin said. “They’re not going to be offended. Just make sure you’re nice about it … and we’ll explain it.”

I’m Stephanie Wallace, and I am the assistant news editor of the Collegian, a contributing writer, and a copy editor. I’m a senior, majoring in English major and minoring in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. You may have seen me riding my scooter around campus as I rush to my classes and much too many clubs. Some organizations I work with include the English Department Ambassadors, K-State Libraries Student Ambassadors and The Burrow — K-State’s chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance.