The Safest Place For Jews May Be Duke University

The Safest Place For Jews May Be Duke University


Leonard Zwelling

I was having lunch with two of my fraternity brothers in Raleigh, North Carolina on Friday December 8. We are back in the Triangle area as the BW is serving as an advisor to a Duke Pediatrics grant and also giving a scientific presentation. The chief of Pediatrics gave us her basketball tickets for Saturday’s game so I tagged along. (Duke won by 23 points.)

That left me with a free day so I decided to catch up with my friends who live in the area, one of whom was my junior year roommate who I hadn’t seen in 48 years.

During the conversation, the issue of being a Jew in America came up. After all we were all ZBT boys, pledging in January of 1967. The question sat in the air unanswered. Then, that evening, I got my answer.

The Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke is 20 years old now. How I wish it had existed when I was here between 1966 and 1975. We visited Friday night for a very special program.

The evening started with a guest speaker, Rom El-Hai, one of the survivors of the October 7 Hamas attack on the music festival in southern Israel. He told his harrowing tale. It was only by luck that he survived to tell it. He escaped by the skin of his teeth from the Hamas gunmen who encircled the area to which he and his friends had fled by car and then by foot. Somehow, they found a policeman and got to safety. He’s touring America telling his story.

The room was packed with students, mostly Duke undergrads in the midst of finals, but taking time to listen to the Israeli and pray in a beautiful synagogue in this free-standing building on Campus Drive between East and West Campus. A brief service was next in that synagogue.

We then partook in a festive Shabbat dinner complete with challah (there was no challah in Durham in 1966) and latkes and, of course, jelly doughnuts the food of Hanukkah.

I was rendered speechless. The Duke I attended in September 1966 probably had fewer than five Jewish women in the freshman class. There were surely fewer than 100 Jewish men, at least 20 or so became my fraternity brothers. Here I sat on the same campus with a room full of Jewish students and many good-looking Jewish women. I told the BW that had this been the case when I was an undergrad, I might not have made it to her in my junior year of medical school.

We chatted with Joyce Gordon, the fabulous director of the center and the resident rabbi Elana Friedman, too. They are dedicated to these students and to providing a safe environment for them. Joyce actually told us of a student from New York who would only wear her Jewish star here, in Durham, but feared doing so at home surrounded by the pro-Palestinian left.

It is not a stigma to be a Jew at Duke. The students we spoke with are happy and more importantly comfortable with their Jewish identity. As we went around the room each person reporting on his week in one sentence, the concerns of the students were the normal ones of tests, grad school applications, and friends.

It is apparent to me that the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke has created a safe space for Jews in a place where I felt completely out of place fifty years before.

You want a Hanukkah miracle? This is it.

In addition, Duke basketball coach Jon Scheyer will be lighting Hanukkah candles on Monday, December 11 with Duke President Vincent E. Price doing so on Tuesday.

The safest place to be Jewish in America may be on the campus of Duke University. It is certainly not at Harvard, Penn, or MIT. Perhaps it’s the quality of the Duke leadership at the top of the food chain and at the Freeman Center that has created this safe environment for Jews and for everyone else.

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