Stanford faith groups unite in wake of sukkah vandalism

Stanford University’s Jewish community celebrated the first night of Sukkot by eating the traditional festive meal inside the sukkah they put up every year.

The next morning, on Oct. 3, a student walked into the sukkah to discover that it had been vandalized: Someone had spray-painted large phalluses on the entrance flaps.

Campus police were called and the graffiti were covered with tapestries. Hillel alerted the entire campus with an e-mail blast.

“Our primary concern was messaging to the community that we’re saddened this happened but that the holiday’s events will go on,” said Hillel at Stanford’s Rabbi Mychal Copeland.

Although the attack may have been shocking and upsetting, it was not unprecedented.

Stanford students enjoy a holiday meal in the campus Hillel’s sukkah, despite the vandalism that marred its walls. photo/jta/courtesy hillel at stanford

Sukkahs on college campuses — because they are temporary structures built in the open and typically are unguarded at night — are prime targets for vandalism, whether inspired by drunkenness or anti-Semitism. About two are hit each year on North American campuses, according to Hillel figures.

This year, Stanford was a victim; last year the sukkah in front of Hillel at the University of Montana was so badly vandalized it had to be taken down two days into the holiday.

Along with sukkah vandalism, college campuses in recent years have been hit by a wave of anti-Semitic graffiti, from swastikas painted on dorm walls to anti-Israel slogans scrawled on the sides of buildings.

This is taking place within a growing atmosphere of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on North American campuses, documented in the revised edition of “The UnCivil University,” a publication of the S.F.-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

According to co-author Aryeh Weinberg, while violence against Jewish students has abated somewhat since 2005, when the book’s first edition was published, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus “has risen to a crescendo — the amount of background noise keeps the debate vitriolic.”

Universities don’t always work effectively to defuse dangerous situations, he says, and the Jewish community is often loath to respond, feeling it’s up to national organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League or Hillel to take the lead.

And so Jewish students themselves are coming up with creative responses to anti-Semitism and vandalism that involve the entire campus community.

At Stanford, administration, faculty and students inundated the Hillel office with e-mails and phone calls in response to the sukkah vandalism.

“The campus at large is not seeing this as a Jewish issue, but an issue of religious pluralism,” Copeland said.

Interfaith groups on campus are citing the sukkah incident “as a means of expressing to the student body how important it is we stand together as a religious community on campus,” she added.

Christian, Muslim and Hindu student groups offered their condolences, Copeland said, adding that a Muslim group offered to raise funds from all the campus faith-based organizations to buy another sukkah.

“We were saddened that such an act would be carried out on Stanford’s campus, a place that we generally assume is above such acts of hate and intimidation,” wrote Abdulkareem Agunbiade and Mohammad Ali, presidents of the Islamic Society of Stanford University and the Muslim Student Awareness Network.

Overwhelmed by the supportive calls and e-mails, Jewish Student Association president Jeff Gettinger invited the entire campus to join Hillel for Shabbat dinner in the sukkah Oct. 9, the last night of the holiday. It is traditional, he wrote in an op-ed in the Stanford Daily, to invite ushpizin, or guests, into the sukkah for a meal.

Sixty people crowded into the makeshift structure that night to eat and celebrate together. One was Anand Venkatkrishnan, head of the campus interfaith group Stanford FAITH.

“The vandalism of a holy structure is unacceptable to me as a person of faith,” he wrote to Gettinger earlier in the week. “The duty of an interfaith leader is not only to condemn an attack on another, but to prevent it from occurring.”

In his op-ed, Gettinger noted that a sukkah is not a permanent structure — it is designed to be temporary, even flimsy.

“What grounds the sukkah is not the canvas and metal that make up the frame,” Gettinger wrote. “It is the people and community that fill it.”

J. staff writer Stacey Palevsky contributed to this report.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.