At GW University, Damage to Torah Imitation Raises Real Questions

Bennett Pittel carried the small Torah imitation, with the pages wrinkled and unraveled from the wood-colored plastic rollers, on a yellow cloth.

Pittel’s brothers at the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity walked alongside him through the streets that make up the urban campus of George Washington University on Monday, a pair of them holding real Torahs, the kind that are hand-inscribed and blessed and cost thousands. of dollars.

The Torah that Pittel carried gingerly in his arms as the light faded on Foggy Bottom from bright blue to burnished red was not the genuine article; It was the kind you get for maybe $ 20 at a temple gift shop, the kind you get as a prize in the Hebrew school.

Joke or gift? None of the 40 brothers in the TKE house (known as “Teek”) could tell you where the Torah imitation came from, but they could tell you its importance: it was used in a ritual in the basement to initiate the 12 brothers who were Jews.

And they could tell you their sordid end, doused with detergent in a pre-dawn raid on the basement where the pledges begin. The walls were splattered with hot sauce and attempts were made to remove the smoke detectors. But it was the disappearance of the Torah that went viral online, and in person, he brought together hundreds of GWU students to mourn the intolerance and wonder about the rancor that such an act might have sparked.

Police are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime, but have made no arrests. There were no signs of forced entry and it is not yet clear who the vandal was. Still, fraternity leaders and a Chabad rabbi on campus, along with thousands of people who expressed alarm and anger on social media, say they know what happened at TKE.

“The robbery on Saturday night was a direct affront to the safety of my chapter,” said Chris Osborne, the chapter president, who seemed a bit overwhelmed by the hundreds of people that lined 22nd Street, where the house is located. of the fraternity, and that it was blocked by the local police.

“It was a blatant act of hatred and anti-Semitism,” Osborne, 22, said at the launch of the rally, speaking from the steps of the fraternity. “I witnessed the pain this has caused my Jewish brothers and my heart aches for the entire Jewish community in GW who has to endure another act of hatred. A change needs to happen. “

Rabbi Yudi Steiner, who runs the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center on campus, led the crowd with traditional songs of joy and mourning in a parade that included three stops to place mezuzahs on row houses near the Foggy Bottom campus. The parade culminated with a Torah reading in a plaza in front of the George Washington University Library.

“We quickly realized that we needed to channel the Jewish tradition of responding to darkness with light,” he said. “When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, we respond with a Jewish celebration.”

Then there was dance and prayer. There were also whispers among the students, about the student who just reported a swastika sent to her, about how some students felt when they found out what happened at the Teek fraternity house on 22nd Street. Some danced and sang along with songs that Steiner sang, transmitted by a portable amplifier, including “Am Yisrael Chai”, “The People of Israel Live” and “Gesher Tzar Meod”, “A Very Narrow Bridge”.

What exactly happened is still unclear. Osborne in an interview said that he is sure it was an act of anti-Semitism because the text used to swear on Christians was intact.

“We had a Bible and a Torah in our original equipment and the Bible was left alone and the Torah was damaged,” he said.

He also said that while there were no signs of forced entry, he saw evidence that he said pointed to a break-in. “The basement door was open and someone had escaped from the basement and left the door open,” Osborne said.

In an interview, Steiner said he had questions about why an imitation of the Torah was used to promise the boys of fraternity, but they did so for another time.

“There were a variety of emotions, people who were crying and were really hurt,” Steiner said of his first encounter, after the raid, with the frat brothers. “We need more time to talk to them and understand what the Torah was doing there in the first place. It’s a fair question, ‘What are you doing with a mini-Torah in a non-Jewish home?’ “

What they were doing – promises of initiation – the frat brothers plan to keep doing it, but this time with a real Torah, donated during the event by the Hillel campus. “We want to show that you know, we’re going to get out of this, and you can hit us, but we will come back and show strength and unity,” Osborne said.

Osborne wants better guarantees for campus security and for reports of anti-Semitism to be addressed more seriously. “We need to be more inclusive, we need to make people feel like they can practice their religion on campus,” he said.

George Washington University (credit: INGFBRUNO / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

About a quarter of GWU’s more than 12,000 students are Jewish, according to Hillel International, which supports and tracks Jewish life on college campuses. Last week, Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League released a report that found that a third of college students said they had personally experienced anti-Semitism in the past year. Like many other campuses, GWU over the years has been the scene of controversies related to Israel, as well as anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment.

“The status quo in which Jewish students on this campus feared for their lives has existed for far too long,” Osborne said during his remarks on the stairs in front of the fraternity house.

Steiner, who runs a busy campus institution, suggested that describing the university as a place where Jewish students fear for their lives might be overstating things. “GW is not an anti-Semitic place,” Steiner said in the interview. “There is anti-Semitism everywhere, but GW is not anti-Semitic.”

Steiner asked the women and men to separate before the Torah reading in the library square. Some women hesitantly moved to one side of the plaza; many did not.

The session ended with a song, with the lyrics spread out on laminated cards: “The Place Where I Belong,” written in 2010 by an Orthodox singer named Abie Rotenberg about a Torah who sings in the first person about surviving the Nazi raids in Kiev just to find your way to a warm synagogue in America.

That was not the fate of the little Torah imitation at TKE House. “It’s going to be put into shaimos,” Steiner said: Wrapped up and buried.

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