The Chabad House at Harvard University has consistently been asked by the university to hide the hanukkiah it lights on campus on each night of Hanukkah due to fears of vandalism, Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, the rabbi of the Chabad House, said in an address on Wednesday night.
“The eyes of the world are upon us, everyone is looking at Harvard now. It pains me to have to say, sadly, that Jew hate and antisemitism is thriving on this campus,” said Zarchi ahead of the lighting of the hanukkiah.
During a Hanukkah candle lighting on Tuesday night at the university, as Prof. Steven Pinker spoke about his family’s history in the Kishinev pogrom and the Holocaust, a woman screamed at the gathering, “all your history is fake! F for fake!”
Zarchi recalled that Harvard President Claudine Gay had told Jewish students at a Shabbat dinner that Harvard “pledges to have your back.”
“We didn’t feel it last night,” said the rabbi in reference to the verbal attack during Pinker’s remarks. “There was no one watching over us and there’s been yet no voice condemning what happened.”
Zarchi added that on Wednesday morning, he met with the other chaplains at the university, saying “26 years I’ve given my life to this community, I’ve never felt so alone.”
The rabbi noted that his colleagues had said during the meeting that they wanted to be more relevant on campus.
“You want to be more relevant? You had your moment. When the faculty failed us, when leadership wasn’t speaking as it should have, the chaplains could have made themselves relevant, have been the moral voice,” said Zarchi.
The rabbi expressed shock that when he suggested to his colleagues that they could become more relevant by condemning the October 7 attack and defend the Jewish community against calls of intifada which were made on campus, he was attacked and told he was “misrepresenting what the intifada means.”
The rabbi also noted that the tradition of lighting the hanukkiyah in Harvard Yard first began 24 years ago, when a student named Aviva Preminger asked the dean if the Jewish students at the university could light the hanukkiah on campus.
“His initial answer was no, it can’t happen because at Harvard we don’t have religious symbols in the Yard. So she looked out his office and took a peek to the church. To his credit, [the dean] gave a big smile and said ‘Aviva, go put up your menorah.'”
“That was a great moment, but there’s something that I never spoke about publicly but this bothers me to this very day. Do you know what happens to this menorah? After everyone leaves the Yard, we’re gonna pack it up. We have to hide it somewhere. The university since that first Hanukkah would not allow us to keep this menorah here overnight because there’s fear that it will be vandalized.”
“Think about that. On our campus, we in the Jewish community are instructed ‘we’ll let you have the menorah, you made your point. Pack it up, don’t leave it out overnight, because there’ll be criminal activity, we fear, and it won’t look good.'”
“You know when change is going to happen on this campus? When we don’t have to pack up the menorah. When the current dean of students is not able to tell me last Shabbat over dinner that a student confides in him that he looks in his mirror before he leaves his dorm room to ensure that there’s nothing on his physical appearance that gives away the fact that he’s a Jew. That’s the reality of the Jewish community at Harvard today.”
The president of Harvard took part in the candle lighting on Wednesday night, with Zarchi saying that from the first time he met Gay, he was “touched by her warmth and generosity.”
The rabbi noted a conversation he had with Gay the year before around Hanukkah about the situation on campus, adding “it’s my hope that we can work together with you…we in the Jewish community are longing for the day…when Harvard not only has our back and not only finally allows us to put up a menorah, but doesn’t force us to hide it at night and when you witness hateful calls for the death of Jews, you don’t walk by and say nothing. You speak, you don’t remain silent.”
“We’re hopeful, but we know hope is not enough. We commit to doing all we can, together, to ensure a brighter and more illuminating, a warmer and more loving tomorrow,” concluded Zarchi.