Students often gasp when Rabbi Kate Palley says the word "Jew" for the first time in her Introduction to Judaism class. "They've never heard it used in a nonderogatory fashion," she says.
It's no wonder, considering that, just two years ago, a swastika and the word "Jew" were scrawled across a car in the parking lot of a local synagogue. Within weeks of the vandalism, there were subsequent incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism on campus.
The reaction on a campus built largely as a result of the friendship forged between a Lutheran clergyman (Susquehanna President Gustave Weber) and a Jewish philanthropist (Charles Degenstein) was swift and deliberate. Everyone from President L. Jay Lemons to Rabbi Nina Mandel of the local Temple Beth-El publicly condemned the action. Palley penned a "Rabbi Writeup" in The Crusader student newspaper explaining the impact the swastika, once a Hindu symbol of prosperity, has on a Jew.
"When cartoon characters are punched, they often see stars," she wrote in the September 2012 article. "If I were punched in the face, I imagine I would see a swastika."
She explained that, in the West, it is impossible to divorce the symbol from Nazism and its inhumanity. "Make no mistake about it," Palley wrote, "a swastika is a symbol of hate, a cowardly substitute for a punch in the face or a verbal assault, a promise of violence and murder lusted after in the heart."
At the time, Palley said she didn't know what such acts meant for the Jewish community at Susquehanna, but she had reason to be optimistic. Since joining the campus community in 2009 as the university's first resident rabbi and director of Jewish life, a position with both rabbinical and teaching responsibilities, Palley has seen the Jewish population grow "not only in numbers but in depth of commitment to Jewish life."
Her Introduction to Judaism class is "maxed out" every semester. The number of Jewish and non-Jewish students who attend campus observances of the High Holidays continues to grow, as does enrollment in the Jewish Studies minor, led by director Laurence Roth, a professor of English and prolific Jewish scholar.
Before her arrival, Palley says, Roth had already done a lot of work with the Jewish community. "I really just picked up the reins from him," she says.
Roth says that when he arrived at Susquehanna in 1997, there were only six self-identified Jewish students on campus. "Now Jewish life and learning have become an integral part of the Susquehanna experience," he says. "Thanks for that progress go to student leaders like Jessica Mandelbaum '01 Lemmon, the very first Hillel president, and to the Jewish and non-Jewish students who thought of the Jewish Studies House (now the Goldstein Weis Hillel House) as a place to gather, eat, share life perspectives, and learn from each other. Rabbi Palley is helping our current students through the next leg of that journey, and her work has made Susquehanna a more responsive and inclusive campus."
That work could have been daunting for someone like Palley, who never lived in a non-Jewish community before coming to Susquehanna. But the Stamford, Conn., native, who studied in Israel for two years, says she's been impressed by the willingness of people to reach out to her and learn more about Jewish faith and customs.
"I get the sense that people really care and want to relate more. They want a connection, and that's lovely," Palley says.
She's also been pleased to see other minority religions begin to make their voices heard through programs such as Hindu Diwali celebrations and the LCI Language Centers at Susquehanna University, which has increased Muslim representation on campus. Currently, several students from Saudi Arabia are preparing for college through the English language instruction offered by the center.
Programs such as these, along with Hillel at Susquehanna, are enriching the cultural competency of the entire campus community-a must in the eyes of Palley. She says asking why cultural competency is important to all students is "like asking why it is important for students to know how to read.
"It's the world we live in," Palley explains. "We live in a multicultural and multifaith world, and if you're going to be a citizen of that world, you better learn the language."
Moreover, she believes that uniting in our differences, whether they be religious, racial, socioeconomic, geopolitical or gender-based, is the path to tolerance and lasting change. She summed it up best in her 2012 Crusader article: "Only you, the members of the Susquehanna community, can determine whether we are a campus of inclusion or exclusion, of peace or violence, of love or hate. Through your actions and your words do these values become known."
By Victoria Kidd