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How the Jewish community is making its presence felt at UNLV

Updated May 5, 2024 - 6:41 pm

“Community.” “Curious.” “Expectant.” “Unified.”

In one word, each person explains his or her feelings at this particular moment.

Seated in a circle of red plastic chairs, an array of community spiritual leaders and UNLV students and faculty pass a microphone to introduce themselves at the “How to Be a Peacemaker” discussion group, part of the university’s ongoing Diversity Dialogues series.

Eventually, the microphone made its way to Rabbi Sanford Akselrad of Henderson’s Congregation Ner Tamid.

“Heaviness,” he said Thursday. “It’s a heavy day.”

Hours earlier, just outside the windows of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Student Diversity Program Lounge, around 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators called for a cease-fire in Gaza while also voicing other concerns.

The May 1 demonstration was peaceful, unlike the turmoil that’s engulfed college campuses across the country, from Columbia University to UCLA, the University of Wisconsin to the University of Indiana, where police and students have clashed violently, in some instances.

But at a university like UNLV, which doesn’t have much of a history of on-campus activism, the presence of protesters underscores the increasingly charged atmosphere that’s ignited institutions of higher learning since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel.

That’s one of the reasons the group of around two dozen gathered on Thursday: to engage in — and promote — a respectful, no-voices-raised discourse between differing viewpoints or identities, spiritual or otherwise, and ideally learn something from it all in the process.

“The scene that went on this afternoon, it’s great that people express their political views, but there was no education,” UNLV history professor Gregory Brown said of the demonstration on campus earlier in the day. “And our group is looking for ways to make our interactions educational.”

The meeting is part of UNLV’s Diversity Program, with support from the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada and a recent addition to campus, the university’s first Jewish Affinity Group, which aims to create a heightened sense of community and visibility for UNLV’s Jewish faculty, staff and students, and which was founded in response to the terrorist attack in Israel.

“It was triggered by Oct. 7,” explained Roberta Sabbath, a Jewish Affinity Group member who teaches in UNLV’s English department. “That really helped us have a common interest in establishing a Jewish presence on the campus, because Jews have been on our buildings — the Thomas and Mack Center, the Saltman Center in the law school — but as far as a presence on campus, that’s never been a touch point, never been an established identity. And we feel that because we have so many Jewish students, we’d like to make them feel comfortable and contribute to the university’s diversity.”

They’re also looking to maintain a safe space for Jewish faculty and students in the wake of the nationwide campus protests, which have grown far more heated elsewhere.

“We urgently appeal for your leadership to address the growing climate of intimidation on higher education campuses,” the group wrote in a letter to UNLV President Keith Whitfield and senior administrators on Tuesday. “We have been closely monitoring the current situation nationally from the context of the past six and one-half months at UNLV, and we are troubled by some past incidents of disruptive behavior as possible harbingers of even more disruptive behavior to come.”

The letter was signed by Robert Levrant, chair of the Jewish Faculty and Staff Group. He also is a member of the Jewish Affinity Group and the director of UNLV’s Strategic Initiatives and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

“Until Oct. 7, I think we felt OK,” Levrant said. “I think we felt maybe a sense of complacency, a sense of safety that we no longer feel.

“I don’t necessarily feel unsafe here,” he continued. “But I think a few months ago, no one would have said they felt unsafe at Columbia or UCLA — and we do have people who feel unsafe.”

Taking action

It was an intended show of support that Levrant couldn’t fully support.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, UNLV’s president issued an open letter condemning “the atrocities committed against civilians, including Americans, by Hamas in Israel.”

“While I don’t pretend to understand all of the nuances and variables involved in this longstanding conflict,” he added later, “as a society, we must and we do condemn acts of terrorism.”

For Levrant, though, the statement didn’t offer the kind of unqualified support that other victimized individuals or communities had received from the university in the wake of previous horrific acts.

“It was a sense that other groups had gotten much more of a, ‘Hey, racism is wrong.’ ‘Homophobia is wrong,’ ” he said. “With this, we got more of a, ‘It’s complicated.’”

Similarly, Gregory Brown said he felt Whitfield’s statement could have offered more direct support and outreach for UNLV’s Jewish population.

“That initial statement, it was really not addressing either the fact that there were people on campus directly implicated — Israeli students, Israeli faculty — or that the Jewish-American community is a diaspora community and that people have family ties, professional ties, personal ties, emotional ties to Israel,” he said. “The moment really felt like a missed opportunity for the university to do what it generally considers an important priority, which is to create an environment that’s inclusive, an environment that fosters the manifestation of those identities, especially when we’re talking about this in the days after the attacks.”

Levrant, Brown and other staff and faculty members began addressing their concerns in a group chat, and with organizational support from Jewish Nevada, created what would become the Jewish Affinity Group.

“The goal became to not just respond to the statement,” Brown explained, “but to really think about what we can do to address the underlying concerns and advance the underlying goals, which is to have a greater awareness of the presence and value of the Jewish community on campus, to advance how that contributes to our educational role and also to this very important community engagement mission that the university has.”

In December, they met with the university provost and were formally recognized by UNLV two months later.

Beyond establishing a Jewish studies program, the group aims to provide a greater sense of community for Jewish students and faculty and play a larger role in the university’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

From protests to progress

It was supposed to be a lecture on black holes.

Instead, it became an unlikely political flashpoint.

On Feb. 27, Asaf Peer, an associate professor in the physics department at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, was scheduled to speak at UNLV.

But shortly into his speech, Peer, who is Jewish, was interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters.

Campus police were called; the lecture was canceled.

“After conferring with University Police, UNLV faculty decided to pause the lecture by Prof. Asaf Peer as a result of the interruptions,” UNLV said in a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Even though the professor said he never felt unsafe, University Police, as a precaution only, accompanied him as he left the building.”

Peer completed his lecture virtually and two days later returned for in-person talk that went uninterrupted.

The incident highlights how UNLV isn’t immune to the tensions roiling universities nationwide.

Brown experienced these tensions at the University of Southern California last week during a scholarly gathering that was disrupted by protesters.

“I was there for an academic conference that had to be relocated because a small minority of people felt interrupting university operations was their goal,” he noted. “The host university’s goal was to be open.”

For him, there’s a clear antidote to this kind of divisiveness: inclusion, an open dialogue, core tenets of the Jewish Affinity Group.

To that end, the Jewish Affinity Group has already had some success. Before Thursday’s discussion, it held two other well-attended events that went smoothly — a panel on Jewish identities on campus and a luncheon on what a Jewish studies program at UNLV might entail.

“Not a single person came to disrupt or interfere in any way with us,” Levrant said.

For Levrant, trying to further foster this understanding via the Jewish Affinity Group isn’t just educational — it’s personal.

“Oct. 7 was the largest number of Jews killed in one day since the Holocaust,” he noted. “We hear the word ‘genocide’ being tossed around a lot, but we’re just a generation removed from having experienced it.

“I’ve been Jewish my whole life,” he said. “I’m 53 years old. This is the first time I’ve been scared. For me, it’s like, I needed to take a stand. I needed to show my children that I’m willing to do this. I needed to put my foot down and say, ‘I’m here.’ ”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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