Freedom of religion is at the very foundation of the United States, codified as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Even more importantly, we recognize the free choice of worship as a fundamental human right. We are approaching a season where many of us will be celebrating some of our most valued traditions and beliefs. It is worth taking a moment to consider how we would feel if the symbols of our religious beliefs were stolen, or vandalized, or if the expression of our most sacred beliefs risked violence.
The menorah shares the universal message of religious freedom. It symbolizes universal enlightenment, and that good will prevail over evil, freedom over oppression, and light over darkness. Lighting the menorah is a joyous time that gives us the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the messages of light, truth and goodness.
Unfortunately, today my thoughts are on anti-Semitism and the ugly truth that it still exists in our society. My thoughts are on the risks to every religion and set of beliefs if we do not join together in protecting our fundamental human rights.
Within the last week, the Zeta Beta Tau menorah was vandalized and then stolen in two separate incidents. I am deeply saddened by these incidents. Every individual who treasures their personal faith should be saddened by these incidents.
Attacks that target the Jewish faith are chilling, particularly in light of the recent horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, which serves many Penn State faculty, staff, students and alumni. Nationally there is an increase of anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s report, the number of anti-Semitic incidents was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than in 2016, marking the largest single-year increase on record and the second-highest number reported since the organization began collecting incident data. In the context of the national climate, we need to protect against hate and prejudice of any kind, they have no place in our community or society.
The Zeta Beta Tau menorah was recovered, but there is lasting damage — to the menorah, the Jewish community, and to all Penn Staters who value their own personal rights of worship. It is difficult for me to fathom why anyone would engage in such acts, and I know I’m not alone. I have seen our Penn State community unite to support and encourage one another. There is tremendous good in the hearts of those who live, learn and work on our campuses. We cannot allow the misguided and hateful acts of a few to stand unchallenged. If you see something, say something.
At this time, I also ask that you extend extra kindness to those in Zeta Beta Tau and the entire Jewish community. Let them know they are not alone, and we are united in condemning all acts of hate and intimidation. Resources are available for individuals in our community through CAPS, and I encourage you to use them.
Finally, I ask you reflect on what the menorah means. I ask you to reflect on the importance of being able to worship freely to you personally, regardless of your faith. We have an obligation to illuminate the world, and to be one by cherishing our diversity and our fundamental human rights. Thank you for taking this moment to reflect on what we value. I hope to see you at Wednesday’s menorah lighting on Old Main lawn.