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Students denounce Torah desecration, call upon unity during campus procession

Skylar Epstein | Staff Photographer
Speakers and organizers of the event said they were moved by the “historic” turnout of students at the event – a sign of hope that GW is still a safe place for the Jewish community. 

About 400 students processed through campus Monday after news spread about the desecration of a Torah scroll at Tau Kappa Epsilon’s on-campus house during a break-in this weekend.

Students gathered in front of the TKE house on 22nd Street before visiting the houses of Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau and Jewish sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi to hang a mezuzah, a small scroll of parchment placed on a doorpost with two biblical passages traditionally inscribed, on each chapter’s door during the procession. After passing through F and G Streets – which GW and Metropolitan Police Department officers closed off from traffic – the group arrived at Kogan Plaza to listen to speeches and a reading from the Torah.

Speakers and organizers of the event said they were moved by the “historic” turnout of students at the event – a sign of hope that GW is still a safe place for the Jewish community.

Chris Osborne, the president of TKE, said the fraternity was in immediate contact with Jewish organizations, like Chabad Colonials, to plan an event that would display “strength and unity” after the Torah was desecrated, and the student turnout helped accomplish that goal.

“I think the message is clear that there’s broad support, that changes need to be made on this campus for inclusivity and making people feel like they can practice their religion and creed on this campus,” he said.

TKE said in a statement Sunday that its on-campus house was broken into earlier that morning, leaving a Torah “desecrated” and the interior of the house vandalized with hot sauce smeared across the walls and appliances. University President Thomas LeBlanc and student groups are condemning the vandalism as an act of antisemitism as the GW Police Department and the Metropolitan Police Department investigate the incident as a suspected hate crime.

[gwh_image id=”1152091″ credit=”Skylar Epstein | Staff Photographer” size=”embedded-img” align=”none”]Students gathered in Kogan Plaza at the conclusion of the procession to listen to speeches and a reading of the Torah.[/gwh_image]

Osborne said TKE’s national headquarters reached out to the GW chapter after Sunday’s incident, and the campus fraternity received support from other Jewish and Greek life organizations and chapters on campus – including GW Hillel, Sigma Kappa and GW for Israel – through statements and condemnations posted online.

“We just want to have this conversation,” Osborne said. “Brothers in our fraternity who are Jewish are angry and upset, and rightfully so, as they were directly targeted. And we just want to be heard, and we want to be part of the solution.”

Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs Cissy Petty and the Senior Associate Dean of Students Colette Coleman also attended the rally in support.

Rabbi Yudi Steiner, the executive director at Rohr Chabad Center, said he woke up to a text at 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning about the desecration as he was about to head to a conference of rabbis in New York. He said he left the conference early to help the TKE brothers in D.C. figure out a plan of action in response to the desecration.

“It was clearly urgent, and this has never happened before,” he said. “We obviously jumped into action.”

Steiner and junior Bennett Pittel, a member of TKE, each raised a Torah – one was the desecrated text from the incident – in accordance with Jewish law as demonstrators gathered at Kogan Plaza, listened along and sang the V’zot HaTorah, a Jewish song, together.

“Both of them will be raised,” Steiner said. “This Torah that was defiled will be properly taken care of as Jewish law requires us to. When we raise the Torah, we sing the V’zot HaTorah.”

Steiner also announced an initiative for Jewish students to hang mezuzahs, small scrolls of parchment placed on a doorpost with two biblical passages traditionally inscribed, on their doors across campus to demonstrate their Jewish pride. He said he hopes students can hang 100 mezuzahs by the end of the week.

“Overall message of the event was to respond to hate with love and respond to darkness with light,” he said. “There are endless opportunities for all GW students, Jewish and non Jewish, to make a proactive choice to be loving and to be proud of who they are, be they Jewish or any other faith or creed. Be proud of who you are, especially when negativity rears its ugly head.”

[gwh_image id=”1152090″ credit=”Skylar Epstein | Staff Photographer” size=”embedded-img” align=”none”]Rabbi Yudi Steiner, the executive director at Rohr Chabad Center, helped lead the crowd as students move from F to G streets.[/gwh_image]

Pittel, TKE’s social chair, said he has been involved with the Jewish community since he was 12 years old and spread awareness about the event through his connections with the Jewish Federation and the Stop Anti-Semitism organizations. He said GWPD was initially “dismissive” of the act of vandalism when officers responded to TKE house, so members called the Metropolitan Police to also investigate the break-in.

“I was so upset to start the day,” Pittel said. “I really was upset and then to see hundreds of people out here, we read the Torah in front of everybody and put up those mezuzahs on those two Greek houses, this was a real coming together as a community, and it’s great.”

Ethan Kaufman, a sophomore involved with Chabad Colonials, said the procession was a show of unity in response to such a “heinous” hate crime. He said he was surprised by the desecration because he had heard conflicting reports about the presence of antisemitism at GW as a transfer student stepping on campus.

“I guess it’s a very common Jewish issue that antisemitism is rising especially on college campuses, and so we’re all a little bit afraid of it,” he said. “This gives us something palpable to hold onto.”

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