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Columns

What Hillel Can Teach Us About the Need for Spaces of Refuge on Campus

By Owen A. Berger
By Jonah S. Berger, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

For nearly 30 years, a grandiose 19,500 square-foot building in the center of campus has served as a hub for Jewish life at Harvard.

With three large prayer spaces, a beautiful circular courtyard, a Kosher dining hall that serves cultural staples each Friday night, and a plethora of full-time staff members, Harvard Hillel offers Jewish students the full range of religious activities, services, and possibilities for connecting with their faith, culture, and each other.

Most importantly, though, Hillel provides a refuge for hundreds of Jewish undergraduates, a place they know they can fall back on in times of need. In October 2018, after an anti-Semitic massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Hillel’s building was just that: a space for healing, comfort, and, most of all, safety, aided by an around-the-clock Harvard University Police Department patrol car stationed outside the front entrance.

Yet when trauma and grief shook the Black community after the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and numerous other Black men at the hands of police, no similar space was available for Black students to grieve, reflect, and process.

As hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked in the wake of 9/11 and then again after the election of former president Donald J. Trump, the more than 200 Muslim students on campus did not have any similar space.

The space they did have? A musallah — or prayer area — in the basement of Canaday Hall, perhaps the ugliest dormitory on campus.

In other words, while Jewish students have a building devoted solely to their needs, Muslim students are relegated to a prayer space in an existing dormitory, and do not reap the benefits of a dedicated dining hall space like the one at Hillel, with daily food that conforms with not only Halal rules but also cultural traditions.

For 50 years, students have advocated for a multicultural center to provide a physical space for students from marginalized backgrounds. After decades of intransigence, the College finally announced a working group in 2019 to “examine” the broader issue of campus spaces.

It’s not as if the idea of a devoted space on campus for a marginalized community is particularly radical. The University of Virginia has a multicultural center. Yale University has an Afro-American Cultural Center, as well as centers for Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Tufts University has multiple spaces devoted to marginalized communities as well. The University of California, Berkeley even has a center for undocumented students. The list goes on.

Whether a one-size-fits-all multicultural center is preferable to more narrowly tailored and culturally specific spaces is a difficult question that administrators should allow students to solve — constrained by reasonable financial considerations. But the necessity of at least one such space is not debatable. And it cannot be pushed down the road any longer.

The Jewish community at Harvard has been blessed with generous alumni and supporters — including, unfortunately, Jeffrey Epstein — and a national network called Hillel International that have helped to fund the construction of Harvard Hillel’s building and ensure its continued functioning. But it has also benefited from significant support from the Harvard administration, including the Hillel dining hall’s incorporation into the College’s meal plan.

So while it may be true that Harvard would have to devote more resources to a multicultural center than it has to Hillel, the University would not be engaging in something fundamentally different than it — or its peers — already does: recognizing that they have a responsibility to play in ensuring marginalized communities have dedicated spaces on campus.

After all, as a $1 billion facility in Allston for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences opens for operation this fall, and as a $1.4 billion pot of money flows towards House renovations, it has become abundantly clear that this is not about a lack of money. If Harvard asked its donor base for a few million dollars — or more easily, just dipped into its savings — the funds for such a building or buildings would be forthcoming.

Before the adoption of a randomized housing system in the mid-1990s, the Quad came close to offering such spaces to at least some underrepresented students at the College. “Black students would lose the option of joining a substantial group of students who often share common bonds, interests and experiences,” wrote a Crimson columnist in a 1995 article, criticizing the proposed randomization scheme.

This is not to say randomization was a mistake or should be reversed. In fact, by properly scrambling the student body, the University has ensured that undergraduates are exposed to the full range of opinions, identities, and personalities in their class, a truly noble goal.

But by creating dedicated spaces for students from marginalized backgrounds to gather, the University would not jeopardize the current system in the slightest. In fact, it could even help Harvard’s admissions team in recruiting the best and brightest students from all backgrounds and walks of life, who will know that Harvard will give them the best of both worlds: a place to explore and a place to feel secure.

Jonah S. Berger ’21, a former Associate News editor, is an Economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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