“Community.” “Curious.” “Expectant.” “Unified.”

In one word, each person explains his or her feelings at this particular moment.

Seated in a circle of red plastic chairs, an array of community spiritual leaders and UNLV students and faculty pass a microphone to introduce themselves at the “How to Be a Peacemaker” discussion group, which is part of the university’s ongoing Diversity Dialogues series.

Eventually, the microphone makes its way to Rabbi Sanford Axelrad of Henderson’s Congregation Ner Tamid.

“Heaviness,” he says. “It’s a heavy day.”

Hours earlier, just outside the windows of University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ Student Diversity Program Lounge, around 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators called for a cease-fire in Gaza while also voicing other concerns. 

The May 1 demonstration was peaceful, unlike the turmoil that’s engulfed college campuses across the country, from Columbia University to UCLA, the University of Wisconsin to the University of Indiana, where police and students have clashed violently, in some instances.

But at a university like UNLV, which doesn’t have much of a history of on-campus activism, the presence of protestors underscores the increasingly charged atmosphere that’s ignited institutions of higher learning since the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack in Israel.

That’s one of the reasons this group of around two dozen has gathered here today: to engage in — and promote — a respectful, no-voices-raised discourse between differing viewpoints or identities, spiritual or otherwise, and ideally learn something from it all in the process.

“The scene that went on this afternoon, it’s great that people express their political views, but there was no education,” UNLV History Professor Gregory Brown says of the demonstration on campus earlier in the day. “And our group is looking for ways to make our interactions educational.”

The meeting is part of UNLV’s Diversity Program, with support from the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada and a recent addition to campus, the university’s first Jewish Affinity Group, which aims to create a heightened sense of community and visibility for UNLV’s Jewish faculty, staff and students, and which was founded in response to the terrorist attack in Israel.

“It was triggered by October 7th,” explains Roberta Sabbath, a Jewish Affinity Group member who teaches in the UNLV English department. “That really helped us have a common interest in establishing a Jewish presence on the campus, because Jews have been on our buildings — the Thomas and Mack Center, the Saltman Center in the law school — but as far as a presence on campus, that’s never been a touch point, never been an established identity. And we feel that because we have so many Jewish students, we’d like to make them feel comfortable and contribute to the university’s diversity.”

They’re also looking to maintain a safe space for Jewish faculty and students in the wake of the nationwide campus protests, which have grown far more heated elsewhere.

“We urgently appeal for your leadership to address the growing climate of intimidation on higher education campuses,” the group wrote in a letter to UNLV President Keith Whitfield and senior administrators on Tuesday. “We have been closely monitoring the current situation nationally from the context of the past six and one-half months at UNLV, and we are troubled by some past incidents of disruptive behavior as possible harbingers of even more disruptive behavior to come.”

The letter was signed by Robert Levrant, chair of the Jewish Faculty and Staff Group. He also is a member of the Jewish Affinity Group and the director of UNLV’s Strategic Initiatives and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

“Until October 7, I think we felt okay,” Levrant said. “I think we felt maybe a sense of complacency, a sense of safety that we no longer feel.

“I don’t necessarily feel unsafe here,” he continued. “But I think a few months ago, no one would have said they felt unsafe at Columbia or UCLA — and we do have people who feel unsafe.”

Taking action

It was an intended show of support that Robert Levrant couldn’t fully support in return.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, UNLV’s president issued an open letter condemning “the atrocities committed against civilians, including Americans, by Hamas in Israel.”

“While I don’t pretend to understand all of the nuances and variables involved in this longstanding conflict,” he added later, “as a society, we must and we do condemn acts of terrorism.”

For Levrant, though, the statement didn’t offer the kind of unqualified support that other victimized individuals or communities had received from the university in the wake of previous horrific acts.

“It was a sense that other groups had gotten much more of a, ‘Hey, racism is wrong.’ ‘Homophobia is wrong,’” he explains. “With this, we got more of a, ‘It’s complicated.’

“And that wasn’t unique to hear,” he continues. “We heard that in the congressional hearings, ‘Is it wrong to call for the genocide of a group of people?’ ‘Well, it depends on the context.’”

Similarly, Gregory Brown felt Whitfield’s statement could have offered more direct support and outreach for UNLV’s Jewish population.

“That initial statement, it was really not addressing either the fact that there were people on campus directly implicated — Israeli students, Israeli faculty — or that the Jewish-American community is a diaspora community and that people have family ties, professional ties, personal ties, emotional ties to Israel,” he says. “The moment really felt like a missed opportunity for the university to do what it generally considers an important priority, which is to create an environment that’s inclusive, an environment that fosters the manifestation of those identities, especially when we’re talking about this in the days after the attacks.”

Levrant, Brown and other staff and faculty members began addressing their concerns in a group chat, and with organizational support from Jewish Nevada, created what would become the Jewish Affinity Group.

“The goal became to not just respond to the statement,” Brown explains, “but to really think about what we can do to address the underlying concerns and advance the underlying goals, which is to have a greater awareness of the presence and value of the Jewish community on campus, to advance how that contributes to our educational role and also to this very important community engagement mission that the university has.”

In December, they met with the university provost for the first time and were formally recognized by UNLV two months later.

“Our Jewish faculty group has been active and involved on campus for many, many years,” says José Luis Melendrez, UNLV’s interim vice president of diversity initiatives and chief diversity officer, who played a central role in helping get the group recognized by the university. “This was the opportunity to formally bring them more together as an official group on campus, to help better organize and have a presence on campus, move towards engagement of more faculty, and then hopefully, somewhere down the road, the development of a Jewish studies program.”

In addition to establishing a Jewish studies program, the group aims to provide a greater sense of community for Jewish students and faculty and play a larger role in the university’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

“I think we knew very quickly that we didn’t want this to be just advocacy, issue-specific,” Levrant says. “We wanted to look at this as a broader, ‘There is a Jewish population here on campus and we, like other minority groups, have a specific identity, specific needs, that are often misunderstood.’ And we wanted to create a space where we, and the university, can kind of symbiotically create those learning opportunities.”

From protests to progress

It was supposed to be a lecture on black holes.

Instead, it became an unlikely political flash-point.

On Feb. 27, Asaf Peer, an associate professor in the physics department at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, was scheduled to speak at UNLV.

But shortly into his speech, Peer, who is Jewish, was interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters.

Campus police were called; the lecture was canceled.

“After conferring with University Police, UNLV faculty decided to pause the lecture by Prof. Asaf Peer as a result of the interruptions,” UNLV says of the incident in a statement to the R-J. “Even though the professor said he never felt unsafe, University Police, as a precaution only, accompanied him as he left the building.”

Peer completed his lecture virtually and returned in two days for another in-person talk that went uninterrupted.

Even on a campus where such disturbances are rare, the incident highlights how UNLV isn’t immune to the tensions currently roiling universities nationwide.

Brown has experienced these tensions firsthand. Last week, he was part of a scholarly gathering at the University of Southern California that was disrupted by protesters.

“I was there for an academic conference that had to be relocated because a small minority of people felt interrupting university operations was their goal,” he notes. “The host university’s goal was to be open.”

For him, there’s a clear antidote to this kind of divisiveness: inclusion, an open dialogue, core tenets of the Jewish Affinity Group.

“As we look around, there’s all kinds of controversy on many, many campuses — not excluding this one,” Brown says. “I think that one of the things that we as a culture want to do is work on how we engage in dialogue and disagreement in ways that show our awareness of how we can be respectful, to show a cultural competence, to show that we want people to feel included even if we disagree with them.”

The Jewish Affinity Group has already had some success. Before Thursday’s discussion, it held two other well-attended events that went smoothly — a panel on Jewish identities on campus and a luncheon on what a Jewish studies program at UNLV might entail.

“Not a single person came to disrupt or interfere in any way with us,” Levrant says. “We had these big turnouts looking to be proactive, looking to learn, looking to understand either more about themselves or feel support from outside of our community looking to better understand.”

For Levrant, attempting to further foster this understanding via the Jewish Affinity Group isn’t just educational — it’s personal.

“October 7th was the largest number of Jews killed in one day since the Holocaust,” he notes. “We hear the word ‘genocide’ being tossed around a lot, but we’re just a generation removed from having experienced it.

“I’ve been Jewish my whole life,” he continues. “I’m 53 years old. This is the first time I’ve been scared. For me, it’s like, I needed to take a stand. I needed to show my children that I’m willing to do this. I needed to put my foot down and say, ‘I’m here.’”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram

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