News that a Cornell University junior had threatened to kill Jewish students in a violent rampage had people reacting in shock and anger, but for several friends in the Wesley Hills section of Monsey, the violent threat also served as a call to action.
Wanting to be part of the solution instead of just sitting on the sidelines as observers, text messages began flying within a group that included Ezra Bennett, Yosi Brachfeld, Shmuli Dembitzer, Yoel Eisenreich, Tuvia Grama, Hillel Kurzman, Etan Pfeiffer, Zev Posner, and Naftali Zelman. The idea of flying to Israel and pitching in wherever help was needed – even milking cows or picking vegetables – was shot down fairly quickly. Instead, a more local plan began taking shape: making a festive Thursday night barbeque later that week for Jewish students at Cornell University.
It didn’t take long for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. A quick online search for Cornell University’s Hillel chapter led the group to the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus rabbi, Rabbi Itamar Applebaum, who supplied the Monseyites with a student contact. A flyer was made and circulated, with the number of students interested in participating in the November 2 barbeque growing steadily with every passing day.
Multiple cars made the 200-mile trek from Wesley Hills to Ithaca on the appointed day, transporting 15 friends, a massive grill, several guitars and 35 large grocery boxes sponsored by an anonymous donor filled with steaks, hamburgers, buns, salads, fruit platters, condiments and other items, as well as cases of soda and Snapple to Cornell. Trying to anticipate everyone’s preferences, the group even brought along vegetable kabobs to accommodate vegetarian students at the barbeque.
The barbeque lasted for well over three hours, with approximately 150 students in attendance, enjoying the spread, the music, the dancing, with Israeli flags fluttering in the chill night air in a welcome display of Jewish pride. For young adults who had spent the last week concerned about their personal safety, the show of love and support from a group of strangers, and the ability to publicly celebrate their Jewish identities without fear, was just what the doctor ordered.
“We had a few guys who could play guitar, a few who were good on the grill and a few who know how to have a good time and the response from the students was amazing,” Pfeiffer told The Jewish Press. “Some of the students told us we were like malachim, while others kept asking why we were there, because they couldn’t believe that someone would do something like this for them.”
Students expressed their gratitude to the volunteers in a two-minute video, sharing how they went from feeling frightened to uplifted in the span of just a few short days.
“When I found out that people who I never met and didn’t know were coming to support me, I felt loved by the Jewish people. I felt proud to be a Jew,” shared one student.
“It was uplifting,” observed another. “I think it really embodied what it means to be part of the Jewish community.”
Far from patting themselves on the back for a job well done upon their return to Wesley Hills, the group began planning their next event, this time at Binghamton University, a two-and-a-half-hour trip from Monsey. Once again, the college’s Hillel web page led them to the OU-JLIC rabbi at Binghamton, Rabbi Ben Menora, who had been a soldier in the IDF’s Golani brigade for three years, and was currently serving in Israel, leaving his wife and co-director Ellie manning the fort with their five children. It didn’t take long to get the barbeque ball rolling once again, and the November 9 trip to Binghamton, with its 35 boxes of anonymously donated food and supportive volunteers, meant the world to the 150 students who attended.
“Thank you all for coming last night and for bringing such incredible energy!!” read a message to the Wesley Hills group from one attendee. “I can’t accurately put to words how grateful I (along with the entire Binghamton Jewish community) am for what you did for us. It was amazing to see everyone come together and feel a sense of relief to be both treated and feel supported by the rest of am yisrael!”
Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania was the group’s next stop, this time with a singer joining the musical component of the team – with their November 16 visit once again drawing similar numbers. With students likely having other plans on Thanksgiving, the Monsey crew took a well-deserved break from their travels, although arrangement for a November 30 trip is currently in the works. Deep in his heart of hearts, Pfeiffer is hoping that perhaps there will be significant improvements in the situation by then, leaving students feeling secure once again on their campuses.
“This is all about Jewish pride and letting students know that we’re all in this together,” explained Pfeiffer. “I think students felt embraced, and when you hear them say that they never felt so proud in their lives to be Jewish, it makes it all worthwhile.”