Campus, civic leaders gather with Jewish Student Center, community to stand against prejudice

Rabbi Shlomo Litvin of the Chabad of the Bluegrass addresses members of the UK and Lexington communities gathered in solidarity with UK’s Jewish community on Thursday, January 25, 2018 at the Jacobs Science Building on UK’s campus in Lexington, Ky. The Jewish Student center’s sign was forcibly removed in an act of vandalism early in the morning on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Arden Barnes

The sun set in Lexington at 5:53 on Thursday night. About an hour later, members of the UK and Lexington communities gathered in solidarity as a light in the darkness.

Approximately 200 people met in the Jacobs Science Building on UK’s campus in response to the recent vandalism that occurred at the UK Jewish Student Center, when the center’s sign was forcibly removed early in the morning on Jan. 15.

READ: After vandalism at UK Jewish Student Center, rabbi responds that ‘hate can never beat love’ 

“What’s going to come of this investigation? Who was it that did this? How are they going to be punished?” said Rabbi Shlomo Litvin of Chabad of the Bluegrass. “While these are important questions, they haven’t even registered on my focus.”

Instead, Litvin created three new initiatives to help prevent acts of hate, “to ensure nothing like this happens again,” he said.

The first two initiatives are to provide a series of Jewish educational opportunities around UK’s campus and the Lexington community, including a tabling program on campus.

“People have questions about Judaism and this is a quick way to address those questions,” said Maria Shamai, president of UK’s Jewish Student Center. “I want people to be able to ask questions because no one knew this happened.”

Shamai said that last year, a black student had racial slurs called at him while he was walking down the street. The following day, she said an email was sent about how important it is to address that. But this event at the Jewish Student Center was not addressed.

“I would like to somehow fix that,” she said.

Litvin’s third initiative is to create a program to bring Lexington’s young Jewish community together, “guaranteeing a Jewish future in Lexington and a strong Jewish presence on campus.”

Litvin said that Thursday’s event was held for minority students who have experienced prejudice, reminding them that they are “a part of this campus.”

The event also allowed students to say “I stand against hate, this is not my culture, this is not my campus,” Litvin said.

“This was a student group at UK,” said Amani Shalash, a member of the Muslim student association. “Anytime something happens to any student group, no matter who they are, it’s important that we come together as a student body and support them.”

President of Lexington Young Professionals Association Aaron Rothke said that this event was important for Jewish student’s safety and letting them know that the university is looking out for them.

“We’re all part of one community,” Rothke said. “To quote something that Coach Cal says, ‘We have to be our brother’s keeper and look out for each other.’ Essentially, what happens to one student should be on the minds of all students on campus.”

Associate Vice President for Student Engagement  Victor Hazard said that UK does not tolerate hate speech or destruction of property.

“Everyone, regardless of race or perspective, identity or ethnicity, gender, background or religion, can find a place, can find a home, at the University of Kentucky,” said Hazard.

Senator Reggie Thomas attended the event to show that “we are not going to let hate overcome unity at the University of Kentucky.”

Rep. Andy Barr also reached out to Rabbi Litvin to share his support, Litvin said. Lexington’s Mayor Jim Gray was not in attendance, but he sent a proclamation in his place.

The proclamation, given by Aaron Rothke and received by Maria Shamai, read that Jan. 25, 2018, is Chabad of the Bluegrass Unity and Solidarity Day in Lexington.

Shamai said that after the destruction of the sign, she had family members urge her to no longer wear her Star of David out of fear for her safety.

“I’m not scared anymore,” said Shamai. “I stand tall and proud and I wear my Star of David. I think everyone in this room has had some sort of prejudice against them and I want you all to know you are strong and brave.”