State Jewish leaders met with Rutgers University officials last month, winning assurances that the state university remains a “welcoming place for Jewish students.”
The Dec. 20 meeting came after an 18-month period of heightened activity by pro-Palestinian groups on campus and a federal investigation into a Jewish student’s charges that he had been harassed by a university employee.
“We were very concerned with some of the incidents that occurred, and we thought it was important to meet with the administration to articulate that concern,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ in a Jan. 23 telephone interview.
Kleinman was among five Jewish leaders taking part in the meeting.
Representing Rutgers was its president, Richard McCormick; Dick Edwards, the interim executive vice-president; Gregory Blimling, the vice-president for student affairs; and Rutgers legal counsels Jonathan Alger and John Wolf.
“It was constructive and positive, and we opened up a channel of communication that will be helpful in the future,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations.
Kleinman and the others said they were pleased at the designation of Blimling as a liaison to Jewish community leaders. McCormick’s tenure as president ends in June.
“This is not a one-shot deal. We will continue to meet with the administration,” Kleinman said.
In a statement e-mailed to NJJN, Greg Trevor, Rutgers’ senior director of media relations, wrote, “We agree with the leaders of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations that this was a very productive meeting.
“We look forward to working with these leaders in the future to continue the university’s longstanding positive relationship with the Jewish community, and to look for ways to further enhance the quality of life for Jewish students here at Rutgers.”
Tensions over the pro-Palestinian activity and the federal probe — initiated after complaints from the national Zionist Organization of America — have presented a public relations dilemma for Rutgers, which boasts a sizable number of Jewish students as well as an active Hillel, the country’s largest university Chabad House, and a Jewish studies department.
Participants at the meeting did not discuss details of the investigation, which is being conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The case primarily concerns a student pro-Israel activist who claims the university failed to adequately address his complaints of harassment from fellow students and from a staffer at the Rutgers’ Center for Middle East Studies.
The university responded that the charges are “contrary to the true values of Rutgers University and are not supported by the facts.”
State Association president Ruth Cole said the Rutgers administration had met with Jewish student organizations over the incidents, but had yet to meet with representatives of the state’s Jewish community.
What the Dec. 20 meeting achieved, she said, was to assure “that parents and prospective students feel that Rutgers is a safe place, a welcoming place, a secure and hospitable environment for expressing opinions in a civil manner and have constructive relationships among diverse groups on the campus.”
Roy Tanzman of Woodbridge, past president of the State Association and president of Rutgers Hillel’s board of directors, said the tone on campus was “a lot better this year than last year.”
Jewish and pro-Israel leaders were particularly concerned about a November 2010 fund-raiser run by a student organization to support efforts to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and a raucous event in January 2011 featuring a Holocaust survivor who drew parallels between Nazi Germany and Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
“Rutgers wanted to assure us they take these issues seriously and are doing everything they can,” said Tanzman, an alumnus of Rutgers College and Rutgers Law School whose son and daughter are also Rutgers alumni. “They wanted to let us know it was not something they had on the back burner.”
“It was a thoughtful, constructive, productive, and useful meeting,” said Mark Levenson, a West Orange attorney and State Association president-elect. McCormick “and his whole team were very responsive. I take them at their word.”
Susan Tuchman, the ZOA legal counsel who filed the civil rights complaint, did not attend the meeting and remained skeptical.
In a Jan. 19 interview, she insisted that the university has not dealt with “Jewish students’ complaints in a timely and appropriate way.”
Tuchman said she did not know “the exact number” of complainants, but added that “there are probably more students affected than have come forward.”
Levenson suggested, however, that the university must strike a balance between maintaining a non-hostile environment for students and protecting students’ right to free speech
“There are free-speech issues which cut in all directions,” he said. “There are multiple ethnic communities at Rutgers besides the Jewish community. We are not looking for any favored treatment for Jewish students. We just want to make sure that the university remains as clear from these problems as possible.”