Just outside the entrance to the Pedro Arupe, S.J. Campus Ministry Center, a wooden stake stands in a pile of multicolored stones. The stake is covered with white signage, the words of each plaque written in a different language. The outward-facing sign is written in Jewish script.
יהי שלום על אדמות
The Hebrew letters are joined by seven other languages, including an English translation that reads, “May peace prevail on Earth”.
The message reveals that the post is a Peace Pole, an internationally recognized symbol of standing vigil in silent prayer for peace on earth. In the face of international unrest, the pursuit of peace remains paramount.
The reverberating effect of conflict within the Middle East has sparked conversation within the Jewish community on Fairfield’s campus.
The following interviews serve as a collective call for peace in the wake of a humanitarian crisis that has destroyed the lives of thousands.
Rabbi James Prosnit, Jewish Chaplain at Fairfield University
In his office nestled in the basement of the Egan Chapel, Rabbi James Prosnit sits nearly 6,000 miles from the heart of Israel.
Yet, his faith allows him to feel close to his ancestral roots in Jerusalem.
“In a sense, all Jews have ties to Israel,” Prosnit shared. “There is a strong dynamic between Jews who live in the diaspora and those who live in Israel.”
As Fairfield’s Jewish Chaplain, he is able to fuel this dynamic through his work in the synagogue and in the classroom.
Prosnit teaches within the Religious Studies Department and feels privileged to facilitate interfaith discussions among students.
“I think it is important for a Jesuit institution to embrace diversity and radical hospitality,” Prosnit underscored. “A lot of students at Fairfield have grown up with parochial backgrounds and haven’t had the chance to meet people of different faiths or different national origins. It’s very meaningful to be able to share some of my traditions with others.”
He acknowledged the spiritual connection that Jews associate with the Holy Land.
“Sometimes borders get changed and adapted because of practical purposes, but the idea of Jewish presence in the land is crucial to who I am,” Prosnit explained.
He is cognizant of the differing ideologies pertaining to land ownership within the Jewish community.
“A more fundamentalist Jew might say, ‘We know the boundaries of the place because God gave it to Abraham and it’s described in the Bible,” he said. “As a more liberal Jew, that’s not necessarily where I stand.”
Prosnit commented on the “murkiness” of these definitions, noting the ambiguity that has sparked hostility throughout history.
“Some people have said over the years if there wasn’t the Holocaust, there wouldn’t be a State of Israel,” he considered somberly. “I usually flip that around and say if there had been a State of Israel, there might not have been a Holocaust.”
The recent fatalities have evoked memories of the Holocaust for many Jews, including Prosnit.
“There was Holocaust imagery attached to this massacre,” he described. “I was born after the Holocaust. But, I’ve seen a lot of problems in Israel and this was the hardest to see. The unfortunate thing is how the war resembles events of the past.”
Prosnit finds the situation to be “heartbreaking,” but understands Israel’s decision to respond.
“There have been many opportunities for a more peaceful settlement to the situation, and I think that there have been many rejections of those offers,” he stated. “Israel cannot allow thousands of their citizens to be killed and not retaliate. It’s a terrible situation for Israel and for the civilians in Gaza.”
Prosnit expressed deep concern for the future, posing a desperate question: “How does this end?”
“There have been many conflagrations between Israel and its neighbors over the years,” he continued. “But, they have all ended at some point with some kind of ceasefire or an acknowledgment that we cannot continue to do this. But, in this particular instance, it’s very worrisome that there is no clear endgame here.”
Amidst the unknown, Prosnit has found solace in unity. A community gathering was held at Temple Israel of Westport on Oct. 9, just two days after the attacks began. The service, which was promoted on Campus Ministry’s Instagram, garnered attendance from over a thousand supporters.
“It represented the fact that we, as American Jews, are bound to Israel,” he said. “It was significant to me that Father Rourke and Father Mulreany were there with members of the Christian clergy, as well as Senator Blumenthal and Governor Lamont.”
He values this striking sentiment of solidarity and identified the necessity to replicate such support at Fairfield.
“I’ve spoken to several Jewish students on campus who are suffering, as they are dealing with things that their friends don’t quite understand.” Prosnit disclosed. “We have to put things aside and become unified. So, if non-Jewish friends show their support during worship, it would be very appreciated.”
A Shabbat Service was held on Oct. 13 in the interfaith prayer space in Faber Hall.
As the service commenced, the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar was paired with the slight creak of folding chairs as students and faculty filed in. The wood-paneled room was filled to capacity, becoming consumed with the lyrics of “Hallelujah” and lines of poetry pleading for peace. The evening finished with a rendition of “Hatikvah,” the national anthem of the State of Israel.
Within the tear-soaked service, an essence of hope prevailed. Prosnit examined this hope by referencing the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
“Sacks says, ‘Jews cannot be optimistic,’” Prosnit illustrated. “We’ve seen too much pain and suffering as humanity to be optimistic about the future.”
“But, at the same time, we are prisoners of hope,” he maintained. “We must always be hopeful that things will get better, and that hope implies activism. I have to work to make things better and, in my role, that is one of the things that I hope to do.”
Dr. Glenn Dynner, Director of the Bennett Center at Fairfield University
“My first instinct was to actually buy a ticket to Israel, which no one else seems to be doing.”
Dr. Glenn Dynner, Director of the Bennett Center at Fairfield University, reveals the guilt he feels for his “cushy existence” in the United States. His desire for a direct approach, despite travel restrictions released by the U.S. Department of State, is tied to his intimate attachment to Israel.
Dynner is mourning the deaths of friends and colleagues. He characterized his loved ones as people who have exhibited “tremendous empathy” in their roles as doctors, professors and peace activists.
“It’s very difficult when you know what these victims have contributed and could contribute in the future to civilization,” Dynner expressed. “I understand that they were living in a ticking time bomb that was created in part by their own government. But, these were the very people who were fighting to change that. Gaza just ran out of patience.”
Images of the deceased were included in Dynner’s presentation at the “Community Teach-In and Dialogue: The War Between Hamas & Israel in Context” held on Oct. 12.
The event was publicized in an email sent by Provost Christine Seigel, Ph.D., and Dean Richard Greenwald, Ph.D. of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The email stated that the gathering would allow the academic community to “learn, join in dialogue and pray for a quick peaceful settlement.”
However, Dynner believes that the university should take a larger role in denouncing the “moral atrocities” occurring in the Gaza Strip.
“I think a Jesuit institution is an appropriate place to have this discussion occur because there is an awareness of the history of anti-Semitism,” he said. “Let it be done, though, in a way that is not last minute and not poorly advertised and promoted. Let it happen in a place where everyone can hear.”
Dynner commends Campus Ministry for addressing the conflict “without apologies and without the kind of contextualization that sounds a lot like justification.”
“It would be extremely valuable if the administration could learn from Campus Ministry and issue an unequivocal denunciation of the moral atrocities occurring in Gaza now,” Dynner insisted.
The concept of morality defines Dynner’s analysis of the crisis and the continued cycle of violence.
“This violence is totally unacceptable, beyond the bonds of morality or humanity,” Dynner stated. “It’s not only an Israeli problem morally. It is a Palestinian problem. And, you could say it is a Muslim, Islamic or Arab problem. You’ve lost a moral high ground when you engage in these kinds of atrocities, which only makes it much more complicated because now nobody really knows what they’re allowed to feel.”
As he processes his grief, Dynner has decided to take tangible action steps.
The Bennett Center provides Dynner with a platform to connect with the Greater Fairfield Jewish Community. He has built on the common goals of social activism and spirituality within the secular society.
Dynner believes that these goals should inform legislative action.
“I have written to my senator about my colleague’s son, who’s in captivity,” Dynner asserted.
“I’ve had a phone conversation with my Congressman, Jim Himes. It felt really good to have this on his radar and he is taking it very seriously.”
Dynner has also been in touch with relatives in Israel and across the United States. These relationships have allowed him to find a sliver of hope amidst the gruesome reality.
“For me and for many Jews, it’s a real conflict because we know practically that a ruthless military reprisal may be necessary for the future existence of the State of Israel,” Dynner communicated. “On the other hand, we also understand and empathize with the agony of Gazan civilians that this might entail. It’s a very, very tough thing to be going through.”
Moving forward, this hope will sustain Dynner and the entirety of the impacted population.
“There has to be hope for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank and in America,” Dynner articulated. “There has to be hope for Jews living in Israel. What they all have in common is that common hope, which is that you can live a decent life. A life free of persecution, free of discrimination and free of violence. Everybody shares this hope. We just need to figure out how to get there.”
Raz Amir, Class of 2024
On the morning of Oct. 7, Senior Raz Amir’s phone was flooded with messages from friends and family in his home country of Israel.
As a forward on the men’s soccer team, Amir was gearing up to compete in a match against Canisius College. With four hours until kick-off, thoughts of points and plays were replaced by haunting images of violence.
Amir had received a link to a group on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. According to a Wired article, the app was “familiar to many Israelis” and “previous escalations of violence tended to coincide with an uptick of activity on Telegram.”
He recalled scrolling through graphic content, leaving him riddled with shock.
“When I saw the videos, I saw faces of people that I know,” Amir revealed.
Yet, in a state of disbelief, he put his phone aside and left for the field.
“My head was not there,” Amir recalled. “I don’t know how I was able to play.”
Over the next few days, he began to process the horrors he had witnessed. His sadness was incapacitating, leaving him unable to get out of bed or complete homework.
“I couldn’t function for the first week,” Amir recounts. “I cried like a baby.”
The losses cut deep, as he found out one of his best friends was killed at the Tribe of Nova Trance music festival. Amir had served alongside this friend in the Israeli military, an experience that shaped his understanding of the war.
“I know how things work,” Amir said. “I know that there are lines that soldiers cannot cross, like hurting civilians. Humanity comes first.”
Amir was recently re-drafted and considered withdrawing from the university. However, he is focused on completing his academic and athletic journey at Fairfield.
“I left everything behind, but I have a purpose,” Amir described.
He calls his mother daily, but phone conversations do not lessen the pain of being separated by a 13-hour plane ride. Alone in Israel, she is subject to frequent alerts and is required to take shelter.
“I blamed myself for her suffering, as I am here and so far from Israel,” Amir disclosed. “I am still blaming myself.”
In his final year at Fairfield, he had hoped to have “the semester of [his] dreams.”
But, his productivity has been paralyzed. In addition to the rigor of his athletic schedule, Amir is attempting to balance six classes and a job at the RecPlex.
“It’s my last year, so I intended to be very motivated,” he explained. “After everything happened, I missed two weeks of assignments and work. Now, I’m just chasing shadows.”
By taking “small steps every day,” Amir has reclaimed his stride through the support of peers and faculty members.
“My coaches never gave up on me,” Amir shared. “When I felt like I couldn’t play or do anything, they told me that they had trust in me and reminded me of my importance to the team.”
The coaching staff includes Carl Rees, Javier Decima and Aidan Rahill. Amir was touched that the coaches addressed the conflict in front of the team, emphasizing the necessity of camaraderie in the face of hardship.
He has also been uplifted by the kind messages from Rabbi Prosnit, his professors and even strangers.
Still, Amir understands that words of condolence cannot reverse the trauma.
“If I try to explain the situation, it’s not going to change anything,” Amir said. “It’s not going to bring back the people that died. Civilians from both sides are getting hurt. There are no winners in war.”