After being denied $3,000 from SGI, the Jewish Students Association’s last minute bake sale and a generous donation from Mr. Belson provided the necessary funds. A public relations disaster has been averted.
The fact of the matter is, Student Government as a whole showed incredible insensitivity and ignorance at last week’s meeting. They were ready to reject the JSA’s request as soon as they found out the club’s representative left. It made no difference to them that she had been called away on an emergency to translate for her grandfather, who was in the hospital.
Then SGI refused to allow Rabbi Stern to address the floor on her behalf. Never mind that there were no rules against it, there was no precedent. Again, they were ready to reject the request rather than acknowledge extenuating circumstances.
Rabbi Stern asked via proxy if one of the United States’ largest Catholic universities was going to deny a request from the JSA to host a Seder. A few members understood that denying funds for the Seder is analogous to denying funds for an Easter celebration, and understood the terrible public image that would produce; the rest grumbled about being muscled into considering the request.
When they finally did consider the request, thanks to a last minute deal that allowed Inna Lamm to speak on the JSA’s behalf, it was already a lost cause. The budget committee recommended rejecting the proposal before it even reached the floor, on vague charges that the JSA’s budget presentation had not been specific enough. It didn’t seem to matter that they had turned in all of their paperwork on time, or that they had celebrated the Seder at St. John’s for the past 35 years.
Not that it would have mattered anyway. Members of Student Government showed their ignorance by asking more than once if the Seder could be postponed. They pronounced it “Cedar.” The budget committee said that funding it would be “charity.” In interviews afterwards, most members had no clue what the Seder actually was, even though it had been explained in detail during Lamm’s presentation. SGI president-elect Fabrice Armand could not remember the name of the event or even the date it was going to occur.
It shouldn’t be surprising. Though an ethnically diverse campus, St. John’s is ideologically very homogenous. Dissent is muted – evidenced by the second unopposed SGI ticket in so many years – and non-Catholic religions are largely ignored. Those in doubt of this fact should flip through the calendar distributed by the Office of Student Activities and Performing Arts. Though World Gratitude Day, Human Relations Day, Student Volunteer Day and National Sportsmanship Day are all dutifully marked down, Hindu and Jewish holidays are completely and conspicuously absent. The only Islamic celebration noted is the beginning of the Islamic New Year.
We are living in an increasingly pluralistic society, and anyone who intends on working in the most global city on the planet ignores this fact at their peril. Even if there was no malice behind SGI’s decision (and we do not believe that there was any) there is little excuse for their easy dismissal of one of the most important Jewish holidays. Despite the sentiments expressed by some at last week’s meeting, St. John’s cannot afford to suffer an environment that does not acknowledge other faiths.
The few members of SGI who grasped the situation were either part of a silent minority or were frantically working on a back room deal with Rabbi Stern in the hopes of avoiding negative press. When everything was said and done, the JSA’s request was rejected by a satisfied majority who had just voted to end a vital tradition.
Unless St. John’s starts making more of an effort to broaden narrow cultural perspectives, problems will persist. The $50,000 SGI casually took from its surplus was no help to the JSA, and the generosity of Jerome Belson is only a temporary solution. A temporary solution may not be enough next time.