It was after a long day of packing, driving, and moving in that I got the news that the Alt-Right was coming to Grounds. It was that night that I stood truly terrified for my livelihood, alone in my new room, looking through a worn peephole and heard the chants, “Jews will not replace us,” as a mass of flames flowed up the Lawn. When my pavilion neighbor came to get me, I ripped off my Jewish jewelry and hid my painting with Israeli flags, but there was no way to remove the physical indicators from my body. Everything about who I am felt like a threat. They hated me, and here I was in this room. I sprinted terrified into the pavilion a couple doors down, just mere feet from hundreds of people carrying weapons and wearing shirts with symbols that clearly communicated they wanted me dead—while some had these same symbols tattooed proudly to their skin.
I can never go back to the way I was before that night. I cannot look at torches, swastikas, or even the Lawn the same way. I am traumatized by what happened and immediately following that night, everything felt like a threat. I started to count the number of Jews in my classes. I changed the way I walked so I didn’t have to cross the Lawn after the sun went down. I slept with ear plugs so I knew when the chants were coming from outside my door or inside my head. I honestly felt like I was going crazy. After that experience, my world fundamentally changed. The way I thought, the way I engaged (or disengaged), and the way I felt was different.
Living through and experiencing one of the greatest demonstrations of anti-Semitism in the past half century was an aggressive reminder of my Judaism. Something so personal and integral to who I am made me feel scared for my life. I have never felt more Jewish than in that moment and in the months that followed, and I felt comforted to know that fellow Jews felt the same. I found a sense of safety and security in other Jews and found myself turning to my Jewish friends and Hillel staff as my greatest source of support. I am eternally grateful that I had these relationships to fall back on because they are truly what got me through each day last fall.
As much as I hate to give my experience with literal Nazis a silver lining, it was that experience that brought me closer to my Jewish friends and showed me the tremendous strength and resilience of our Jewish community. I can’t quite describe how important it was to be to be able to walk into Hillel and be surrounded by people who just “got it” or feel the support from fellow Jews when the rest of my world seemed to be crumbling. Despite the terror and trauma, this place still means the world to me. Our University, our country, and our world are far from perfect, but the power of the Jewish people to be there for each other when we need it most is what assures me that we can make it through.
-- Diane, 4th Year Student
The Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia, is the focal point in a renaissance of Jewish life for the 1,000 Jewish students on Grounds.