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University of Kansas Hillel staff reflect on the mental health of Jewish students after protests last semester

Ben Novorr
Posted at 10:29 PM, May 22, 2024

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A normally busy and bustling University of Kansas campus was quiet Wednesday afternoon.

Most students have gone home for the summer, but the end of last semester was anything but quiet.

"It's crushing whenever we see our students hurting," said Ben Novorr, KU Hillel's director of Jewish student engagement. “There was this emotional weight … on Americans specifically on college campuses.”

He says hurt is the feeling many Jewish students left with at the end of the semester, but is that what they'll return to in the fall?

"When the encampments started here at KU, students reached out to us fearful of what might be," said Ben Davis, the assistant director of KU Hillel. "I think the same sentiment is here for what it's going to be like in August."

Davis says he can't predict what students will return to in the future, but he can prepare for it.

“Of course, we had the mental health concerns, which is why we’re so happy to have a therapist on staff," he said. “But it’s our job to prepare, so continuing those relationships is going to be a really big part of the summer.”

Mental health support and continuing to build up a strong community are top priorities, but so is countering hate both intended and unintended.

Davis points to a number of chants he says are easy to misinterpret and at worst, antisemitic.

"Yes, we believe there are people who are buying into these chants, who genuinely believe they are not being antisemitic," he said. "We the Jewish people are telling them that they are and we would hope that they listen to us."

The end of last semester at universities across the country was watched closely by parents and families. Davis believes it's already had an effect.

“Feeling unwelcome is not a good feeling," Davis said of Jewish students. “Families are making their college decision based on what Jewish life is like on campus based on the climate. Thankfully, KU is not one of those schools that’s being knocked off lists, but many schools have been crossed off lists because of what families are seeing going on in those campuses.”