Jewish faculty members boycott JMU’s holocaust remembrance event

Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 6:49 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - 24 Jewish faculty and staff members at JMU boycotted the University’s Holocaust Remembrance event last Thursday over the lack of Jewish representation in the event’s planning.

The 24 anonymous faculty members sent a letter to JMU President Jonathan Alger days before regarding their concerns with the program and not having their voices heard. In the letter, the staff members said that the planning of the program disrespected and disparaged Jewish individuals and dismissed Jewish participation.

This came after a resignation from the event’s planning committee.

“We felt that boycotting the event which had not included Jewish voices on campus was a way to draw attention to broad concerns about Jewish life, Jewish issues, and Jewish academics on campus,” said Dr. Maura Hametz, a professor of history at JMU and one of the 24 Jewish staff members who contributed to the leader.

According to JMU, one member of the event’s planning committee resigned earlier this month. The letter from staff claimed the resignation left the committee with no Jewish members.

“In this program, I don’t think anything was intentional. I think it was just the program came across as insensitive based on the lack of input from people with direct experience and I think that could be an excellent way to prevent something like this from happening again,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner, of the Beth El Congregation in Harrisonburg.

While he has no connection to JMU, Rabbi Kurtz-Lendner said he had several people from his congregation reach out to him about the event.

“It had the feel of being too celebratory without having a significant input from people who had direct experience either professionally or personally with the holocaust and that was really the crux of my concern with the program,” said Kurtz-Lendner.

Some of those who raised concerns took issue with a musical performance on the piano that was scheduled to be included in the program.

“It’s not that Holocaust commemoration can’t ever include music but that it makes some people uncomfortable. When you have only one event in a year you want to make it as broad and inclusive as possible,” said Dr. Hametz.

Hametz said that the event in 2022 didn’t have the same representation issues.

“This one seemed much more limited not only in its scoop but in the people who were invited to be part of it and the people who put together what was actually in the event,” she said.

Hametz said that she is deeply grateful to those who supported the boycotting staff and showed they are willing to listen.

“All these people who really supported the boycott and made me feel like there’s a lot of hope that voices can be heard. That there’s real will for change, there’s a real will to understand,” she said. “I’d love to see a broader discussion with everyone who feels that they are part of the Jewish community here.”

JMU’s administration said that it did not receive any notice about the concerns with the event’s planning committee prior to receiving the letter despite the fact that the committee members were selected months earlier.

Dr. Malika Carter-Hoyt, JMU’s VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer issued the following statement on the event and the staff boycott:

On behalf of the entire administration at JMU, I acknowledge the letter and express compassion toward the concerns outlined by faculty. Prior to receipt of this letter, neither my office nor the President’s Office had received any notice about these concerns. While we do not fully know who is raising these concerns, we immediately reached out to a spokesperson for this group and scheduled a meeting to gain further understanding and collectively work on a path forward.

While there is disagreement, it is important to note that a committee was formed through the recommendations of college deans as this was an academic event hosted by Academic Affairs. Committee members were selected based on substantive expertise and commitment to the creation of an event that properly marks the occasion; no one was included or excluded explicitly based on a particular protected characteristic.

This event is to create an opportunity for people to learn about the lived experiences of others and honor the Holocaust Remembrance Day through educational and solemn means. Student participation was also a critically important component of this year’s events in addition to the content experts who contributed.

At JMU we strive to create an inclusive culture as it is critically important to the success of our mission and vision as a university. Moving forward, we welcome a continued dialogue to fully understand all perspectives surrounding this event and ways to respectfully move in a positive direction.

Dr. Alan Berger, Raddock Family Eminent Scholar Chair for Holocaust Studies, Professor of Judaic Studies, and Director of the Center for the Study of Values and Violence After Auschwitz, Florida Atlantic University was one of the guest lecture speakers at the event and issued the following statement in support of it:

I am writing to share my reflections on the Holocaust-Centered Lecture Series at James Madison University. My goal in writing is to encourage your community and also correct misinformation I have seen about the event. I was honored to be included in an academic conversation occurring the day prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day and was deeply impressed by the committee organizing it.

The program was inclusive, somber, reflective, academic, and appropriate. I endorsed the event’s structure and can share with you that I was never pressured to limit or change my talk. I was honored to meet Holocaust music educator Dr. Jo-Anne van der vat Chromy, whose work has been commended around the world, including with Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among Nations Service Award for Cultural Outreach Through Music.”

The wonderful JMU students’ music, under her direction, was sensitive to Jewish culture, educational, and exemplified the very best in understanding the relationship between the particular and universal when bearing witness to the impact of the Holocaust.

In my nearly half-century as a Holocaust and Jewish Studies scholar, this event was reflective of the integrity of academic and Jewish commemorations on the Holocaust. My hope is that this impactful event will contribute to ongoing campus conversations about these important themes, to which I have dedicated my entire academic career.

JMU has also reached out to a spokesperson for the group of faculty to facilitate conversations about the event and their concerns. Rabbi Kurtz-Lendner said that Dr. Carter-Hoyt reached out to him as well about a meeting to discuss the program and improve communication with the Jewish Community in the future.

“I’d like to have a productive conversation which I believe we will have, and really talk about what can we learn from this experience. The backlash from the members of the faculty and the backlash from the Jewish community and how can we use this to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” said Kurtz-Lendner.