Why being a Jewish student at Dawson is not a five star experience
Credits: Rebbetzin Mori
TW: themes covered in the article such as antisemitism and the October 31st costume may be triggering to some
I’m a Jew. I have been for my entire life. Before coming to Dawson, I was immersed in Orthodox Jewish schooling from the age of three when I was enrolled in the CPE program at Hebrew Academy. That is where I stayed until I was seventeen, finally graduated, and finally free from the immensity of my Jewish upbringing. And I was happy about it. Or so I thought at the time.
Last fall was my first semester at Dawson. Coincidentally, it was also the first time that I’d attended a learning institution where my religion was not the dominant one. At first, I was giddy with the sensation of diversity, meeting so many people of different backgrounds. In my first-ever class at Dawson, Dance Fitness, I and a handful of other wide-eyed first-years sat in a circle and exchanged backgrounds. Upon hearing that I was Jewish, one of the girls in the circle exclaimed, “Wow! I’ve never met a Jew before! This is why I love being here: the diversity.”
Entering this new world of public education, I felt like a celebrity for being part of the fraction of Jewish students on campus. Then, the holidays rolled around, and my differences didn’t make me feel special anymore; they made me feel ostracized and disadvantaged. Dealing with the start of the year at a new school at a higher academic level is tiring for any student, but coming from an Orthodox Jewish background made it so that I had to shoulder that burden along with seven days of classwork and assignments I had to make up from merely observing my religion.
However, I am not the only Jew that is forced to trudge through the holiday season that reigns over the Fall semester. In a recent survey taken by members of the Dawson student body, ten out of ten Jewish students stated that they celebrate the Jewish holidays and that the celebration of these holidays meant that they could not attend school. Ninety percent of the students who celebrated the holidays and were subsequently obligated to miss seven days of school reported that the assignments and tests they had to miss took a significant toll on their mental health. And it’s no wonder: as one student put it, “I need to learn double the amount of work in half the amount of time. While my classmates are all ahead. Even if I manage to catch up on all of my classes before the next lecture, it’s hard and messes with my sleep schedule, but still, I can’t complain; it is what it is. We just have to do the best we can.”
This is the mindset that every Jewish student on campus has; we are bludgeoned with setbacks until we are stuck three feet below even standing, and then we rebuke ourselves for being incensed. Why? Because we’re not the popular religion and we can’t expect to be given special treatment. We are made to believe that we should feel lucky that teachers don’t outright penalize us for missing class or assignment due dates and sometimes grant us extensions that make it so that we have to complete missed work at the same time as currently assigned work. That is not equity - it’s barely receiving equality.
Melenie Segev, a Jewish Dawson student pointed out: “I had two midterm exams the day after Yom Kippur. My high holiday was spent studying two subjects. What are people doing on December 26th? Watching The Grinch in their PJs and going boxing day shopping. No one would even think to take out their school books on such an important holiday. Why should I?” This year’s Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, was on October 5th.
It is one thing to try and be a normal student while being made to endure the academic ramifications of practicing a minority religion. It is quite another feat to tolerate hate for being a part of that same religion.
Most of you who are reading this will probably immediately associate the words “Jews” and “hate” with the now infamously known Halloween costume incident. Moreover, you readers are probably still hungry for information on the incident, either to have some new opinion to condemn or to try and sort this whole thing out for yourselves.
For those of you who don’t know, along with being the copy editor for the Plant, I am also the president of Dawson Hillel, a club that every cegep and college in North America possesses to foster a sense of community and education for Jewish life on campus. As the representative for the Jewish Dawson student body, I sent an email to the Director General of Dawson in collaboration with the advocacy manager for Hillel Montreal condemning the Halloween display. I was then immediately contacted by the Director General’s office. Fast-forward two days later and I was attending the listening session most of you read about in the document sent from the college, giving the opening remark on behalf of all of Hillel Montreal. Aside from dealing with the Dawson administration, I was contacted by several concerned students who divulged to me their experience with the student who wore the costume and their individual opinions on the matter.
In a nutshell, I am the closest you readers will get to the truth behind the second-most notorious Halloween in Dawson’s history. So let’s talk about it.
The facts of the incident that everyone agrees on are the same ones you’ve heard a thousand times before; that the student was dressed up as a post-WWII East German soldier wearing a gas mask and performing a goose step in front of a crowd of cheering onlookers in the lower atrium on October 31st. What most of you probably don’t know is that an anonymous source who attended the costume contest went up to the person dressed up as the soldier and pointed out to them that what they were doing was “super f—- up”. To this, the soldier responded, “Oh, so you must be one of those people who don’t like Nazis.”
However, there is another point of view that is held by many: that the student in question had not been aware of how his costume came across. These people, some of whom personally know the student, assert that he simply hyper-fixated on military history and wanted to display a fully accurate rendition of a soldier from the Eastern German Communist Party, who donned gas masks during chemical warfare. This is what the student himself claims is what happened.
At the listening session on November 4th moderated by the academic dean, Rob Cassidy, and the head of the Jewish studies department, Leila Roiter, it was announced that the student would, as a consequence, be made to take a tour of the Montreal Holocaust Museum to learn about the event that triggered many of the Jewish student body after seeing his costume and goose step on Halloween. They also stated that in the case that new information reveals itself with respect to the Oct. 31 incident, they will reopen the investigation on the student. For now, though, they are treating the incident as one of misunderstanding and are rehabilitating the student through education which, as Robert Cassidy put it, “is an opportunity that, as a learning institution, we cannot pass up on.”
No matter which perspective you choose to align yourself with, one thing is clear: regardless of intent, this incident elicited severe emotional responses from the student body and therefore they reacted with hurt and anger. As is their right. Tone policing, the act of invalidating an individual’s opinion based on their emotional reactions stemming from past trauma, is alive and well throughout this ordeal. However, I will be the first to admit that the reactions that crescendoed into threats on the student’s life are unacceptable. He is still a human being that has a right to safety, just as we are. Even though many of the Jewish student body felt unsafe themselves after the events of this year’s Halloween.
At the listening session, several students spoke up about how they felt unsafe on campus when they presented as Jews. This means that they no longer wear their Star of David necklaces or other religious symbols for fear that they will be targeted for their Judaism. This fear began before Halloween; it was the result of years of subtle antisemitism and micro-aggressions that Jews face every day on campus but don’t report because they either seem too insignificant to make a big deal out of, or they are a one-time occurrence that will absolutely be reported if it ever happens again. But then it does, and there it lies: unreported.
Even before this incident shone a light on antisemitism at Dawson, Jewish students whose family members were in the Holocaust were distressed by the casual mention of concentration camps and Hitler that were used in lectures to prove points which could have very clearly been understood without the offhanded comparisons. Mindlessly referring to the Holocaust and concentration camps during lectures instead of acknowledging that the Holocaust was a traumatic and horrifying part of a nation’s past can be triggering for students who have personal connections to the Holocaust.
Jewish students have reported that they face antisemitism every day: in the form of people walking away from conversations when the fact that they are Jewish has been brought up. In the form of basing their opinion of Jews on one bad experience with a Jewish individual. In the form of feeling uncomfortable disclosing their pro-Israel opinion as a lot of the student base appears to have polarizing views on the matter. These polarizing views are, in part, a consequence of the particular facet of performative activism that manifests itself in brief infographics that might not capture the nuances of the situation, or necessarily cover both sides. Being a zionist does not immediately categorize you as a murderer-sympathizer.
Antisemitism has spiked to an alarming peak over the last few weeks. Kanye’s antisemitic remarks are taking over the news. And yet, the number of followers on his Instagram account outnumbers the amount of actual Jews that are on the planet. It’s a scary time. A time that has the potential of either imploding into something resembling early 20th century Germany or strengthening the Jewish people and embodying the phrase ‘never again’. For students reading this that are feeling confused and scared, there are ways to find support. For one, there is your trusty Dawson Hillel that you can always turn to when you need a sense of community. Federation CJA along with Stand With Us can help you deal with antisemitism on campus and Jewish empowerment. Being Jewish doesn’t have to mean being perpetually afraid; it can mean community. Identity. And, most of all, it can mean pride.