When I started at Portland State University, Greater Portland Hillel was a way to stay connected to the Jewish community and continue to discover my Jewish identity in college. However, I was not prepared to deal with the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel atmosphere I would face on campus. During my freshman year, I became involved with Portland Hillel and one of its umbrella groups, a Pro-Israel
group on campus called Cultural and Historical Association for Israel, or CHAI. For me, supporting Israel was a fun and interactive way to stay connected to a part of my Judaism I hadn’t unlocked before. What I wasn’t prepared for was the negative response and vulgar names I would be called by some classmates and students.
During even simple events such as staffing information tables between campus buildings, I have had other students tell me that I support a terrorist country. I have been screamed at that I support an apartheid state and that I should be ashamed of myself. During one incident, I was yelled at in the middle of the campus by one of the leaders of a so-called “Pro-Palestinian” group that focuses more on anti-Israel activity and supports a one-state solution. She compared the “Al Nakba” or day of destruction to the Holocaust. She screamed in my face while I stood and listened while other students stopped and stared to see what all of the commotion was about. This was just one of many protests and disruptions I have encountered during my years at PSU.
By spring break of my freshman year, other CHAI leaders and I had collected a blue folder filled with our event fliers that had been defaced with swastikas and anti-Semitic remarks. Whenever I was in a situation where the people around me didn’t know I was Jewish, I would tuck my Jewish necklace underneath my shirt. Other times I would take it off. CHAI also started to hold meetings in private locations, because we were nervous of being overheard talking about “sensitive” topics in public coffee shops. There was a hesitation in everything we were doing, and we all knew that there was always a possibility that we would have to endure a protest or disruption during our events.
Now as a junior, because of Hillel and my involvement with CHAI, I no longer hesitate to let a classmate know I am Jewish or to explain what student groups I am involved in. I no longer fear tabling for events outside. I have learned how to stand up and speak up for a country and people that not many others know enough about. Portland Hillel has given me the confidence to defend and represent what it means to be a Jewish college student. It has given me various opportunities to learn more about myself and the Jewish community. Furthermore, I have been able to meet and have important discussions about Israel and Jewish life on campus with community members.
In no way has the level of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity decreased on our campus, but I know that I will always have Hillel’s support behind me. Furthermore, Portland Hillel has increased its support by hiring an Israel Fellow, Shiran Halfon, to help students face these challenges on campus.
Greater Portland Hillel has given me a voice. Hillel has given me leadership skills and the opportunity to explore my own Jewish identity. It’s given me the resources to decide what type of Jewish life I want to live.
Kelsey Kaplan is working toward a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies at Portland State University. She is a resident of CHAI, an executive board member of the Jewish Student Union and a StandWithUs Emerson Fellow.