Jewish World

Voices from Campus: Columbia University

Photos: Sipa USA/Alamy Stock Photo | Rebecca Massel


What’s it really like being a Jewish college student in the US post October 7? Students from Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Hunter and the University of Chicago share their stories.


Since October 7, everything I thought I knew about Columbia University has changed.

I chose Columbia for its robust Jewish community within a broad and diverse campus life. I now serve on the Student Executive Board of Columbia/Barnard Hillel (CBHillel) and am a senior writer for the Columbia Daily Spectator. Being openly Jewish on campus was never a question.

Yet since the Israel-Hamas War began, in my reporting for the Spectator, I learned that an Israeli student’s phone number was leaked and she received aggressive and explicit text messages and phone calls for weeks; while walking through a protest to campus, a Jewish student’s Magen David necklace was grabbed by a protester; and a kippah-wearing student was approached in the kosher dining hall by another student, who looked at him and said, “[expletive] the Jews,” and then walked out. 

Jewish students expressed fear of a professor’s article that applauded Hamas and of student speeches referencing the “creativity, determination and combined strength” of the October 7 attacks on Israel. Dozens of students experienced antisemitic incidents, both in person and online. Many students chose to protect themselves by hiding their identities—staying in their rooms for a number of days, avoiding speaking Hebrew when walking to class, tucking in their Magen David necklaces, covering their kippot with baseball caps. Each story was a painful reminder of how challenging it has become to navigate the Columbia campus.    

Amidst all this, the entire Jewish community on campus—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular—demonstrated inspiring achdut. The Jewish connection on campus has never been stronger.

On October 11, I received a text message that an Israeli Jewish student was assaulted, and I broke the national news on one of the first acts of antisemitic violence on college campuses since the war began. It became clear that college campuses are not as safe as we would have liked to believe. My article was based on interviews with the New York Police Department, the Israeli student and his friend. I reviewed videos of the incident to check the veracity of the claims. The next day, the Spectator was bombarded by emails, and hundreds of posts on social media claimed that our reporting was racist and defamatory. To me, the most glaring posts were the ones that asserted that my reporting was inaccurate or had a “religious agenda” because I’m a Jew. Columbia’s Public Safety Office assessed whether any of the posts or emails constituted a tangible threat against me, and I left campus for the night until I could speak to a Public Safety investigator. These experiences shook me deeply as a Jew in the broader Columbia community.

Amidst all this, the entire Jewish community on campus—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular—demonstrated inspiring achdut. The Jewish connection on campus has never been stronger. Before October 7, approximately 1,200 Jewish undergraduate students were affiliated with the Jewish community on campus and, of those, 250 were part of the Orthodox community, according to Hillel’s records. Since then, close to a hundred Jewish students attended a Hillel event for the first time.

We lean on each other. We cry together. And we hold each other up. While some Jewish students are wary about showing their identity, other men who never wore a kippah daily now proudly wear one to embrace their Jewishness and to stand together with their kippah-wearing friends. As the months since October 7 have passed, women proudly display their Magen David necklaces. Columbia’s OU-JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) couple, Rabbi Elie and Dr. Tamar Buechler, have been supporting the Orthodox community with shiurim addressing the tragedies in Israel, communal Tehillim and chesed opportunities to help displaced families in Israel; after a rabbinic mission to Israel, Rav Elie shared his experiences with the community. Rav Elie and Tamar have both worked consistently to comfort students on a communal and personal level. In December, CBHillel hosted a Shabbat dinner for nearly 1,000 Jews from different religious backgrounds, the largest Shabbat dinner ever held at Columbia. 

I have danced and sung songs of hope along with my community at a Matisyahu concert hosted by CBHillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition and an Ishay Ribo concert hosted by CBHillel and Bnei Akiva US and Canada. Instead of hiding, Jews of all kinds have come together and embraced their Jewishness.

On October 7, Simchat Torah, the Jewish community cried and sang Am Yisrael Chai in the middle of the campus after hearing the news from people on campus. It was our expression of connection. And as the war unfolded and our campus community faced unprecedented antisemitism, we repeated those same words on Chanukah. When we lit the Chabad Columbia menorah, in the middle of campus, those words meant so much more. Not only were they a prayer for our family and friends in Israel and for the hostages, they were also chizuk for our community. While life at Columbia continues to present significant challenges, the Jewish community on campus has grown in numbers, strength and pride.


Rebecca Massel is a sophomore at Columbia University. She grew up in Manhattan and graduated from Ramaz Upper School in 2021. 

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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