Will You Be Ready? Why We Cannot Afford to Overlook Chanan Reitblat’s Story
They called him a terrorist. They ripped the Israeli flag from his wall. And then they urinated on it.
I sat impatiently at my computer for about half an hour, trying to think of a clever way to lead off an article detailing my thoughts and reactions to the incident at the University of St. Andrews involving Yeshiva student Chanan Reitblat.
Here was my initial strategy, a technique I’ve used in the past. Illustrate an analogous example which might bring the concept home to the reader in a more meaningful and accessible way. Something along the lines of: “You’re sitting in your Morgenstern dormitory room and suddenly, you hear the door swing open with a crash and a bunch of drunken thugs burst in and start causing problems.” Then something about them desecrating your tefillin, defiling your tzitzis, or sullying the pictures of gedolei Yisroel hanging on your wall.
The issue with that journalistic approach, though, was quickly evident to me: it wouldn’t be effective, because that hypothetical is so utterly implausible, so downright preposterous. That sort of thing would never happen here. It just wouldn’t. We all know that.
If we were about seventy city blocks south of our own campus at Columbia, or all the way at the other end of this island on the NYU campus, then maybe we could better conjure up such a thing and perhaps empathize in a more substantive way. But we aren’t: we’re here in Yeshiva University.
That is, perhaps, why you chose to attend this institution in the first place. Because you knew full well that at Stanford or at the University of Michigan or at Brandeis, this sort of thing might – just might – happen to you. And you hedged a pretty safe bet by coming here to YU. The classrooms of Furst Hall, the couches of the Heights Lounge, and the streets of Yeshiva’s Jewish and pro-Israel stronghold in the heart Washington Heights are, have been, and will likely continue to remain utterly devoid of the sort of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel bigotry that exists in bounty on nearly every other college campus in this country and around the world.
And so I started this article with the cold hard facts. The gritty, uncomfortable, unpleasant details. Because we simply can’t imagine what it would be like to have our own Israeli flag defiled. All we can do is try to focus on and hope to somehow internalize this difficult truth: a Yeshiva University student – one of us – was the victim of a hate crime. Sure, he was studying abroad, outside of our protective bubble, the formidable citadel and safe haven that is Yeshiva. But the fact remains: this happened to a YU student. This happened to us.
Do you get that? Does it shake you the way it shook me? Excuse me if you think I’m overblowing this, but I think it should shake you. And at the very least, I think it is your responsibility to know about this and, if I may be so bold, to learn from this.
What was perhaps most shocking to me about this story was that I myself had only heard of it just the other week. And I soon discovered that I was not alone – all around campus I asked other students whether they had heard about this story. The overwhelming majority of my friends and acquaintances had not. That was not only surprising to me, but unacceptable.
I’ve spilled much ink and expended much energy in trying to persuade others – as well as myself – to seek out just a bit of shock value in our own lives. I think a healthy dose of exposure to what’s out there in the world – which, especially in the area of anti-Semitism, we are so often sheltered from – is an important part of our education here at Yeshiva. But why, I’ve been asked? And truthfully, I’ve often asked myself the same. But now I know.
Because of Chanan Reitblat. That’s why.
Because the perceived safety and security of Morgenstern Hall? Of Glueck? Of imposing Belfer Hall, which stands perpetually at guard for us? Those are great. And they allow us to grow in our knowledge and live out our college experiences in peace and tranquility. But that’s only temporary. That’s not going to last. The world isn’t peaceful and tranquil. The world has a lot of bad people in it – people who don’t like you, and who aren’t afraid to tell you why. In a couple of years, Belfer Hall won’t be able to stand up for us – we must stand up for ourselves.
I sat down with Chanan to discuss the incident and ask him what he thought YU kids should do with this whole unfortunate episode. He told me how he truly believes YU students have the best resources and opportunities to become masters of their own history, heritage, and faith. And yet, so many of them fall short of becoming strong advocates for their own people. So many of them don’t take that necessary step.
The reason for this is obvious. On other campuses, where the legitimacy of Israel and of the Jewish people is called into question on a regular basis, students know they need to be prepared. But in YU, where we are so rarely on the defense, where we so rarely need to stand up for ourselves, it’s easy to get lazy.
I can’t help but think of President Joel’s famous and oft-quoted battle cry of “ennoble and enable”. As sick as you may be of hearing it, that little tagline truly does, I believe, go to the core of what this university is about. The knowledge we gain here cannot remain here. It needs to be portable. And as Chanan Reitblat showed us, it needs to be accessible – it needs to be on the tip of our tongues and worn proudly on our sleeve. President Joel also tells us often to engage the world. Well, Chanan’s story should serve as a haunting reminder to us that at some point, even if we settle nicely into our cocoons and choose not to engage the world, the world can, at any moment, choose to engage us.
Chanan Reitblat was prepared. Ultimately, his story has a favorable ending. His perpetrators were convicted of their crime. Justice was served. But only because Chanan remained strong. Only because he was confident enough in himself, in his Zionism, and in his Judaism to push back. Only because he was ready.
Will you be?