Jewish UNC students and faculty discuss anti-Semitic experiences

By Ryan Heller

While lying in bed, Tamara Zishuk noticed a text from Thilini Weerakkody, the co-president of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Campus Y. The school’s epicenter for social justice had swastikas drawn onto its floor.

It upset Zishuk to hear the news, but it didn’t surprise her.

She already felt numb.

Growing up in Orlando, Florida, she was part of a large Jewish population, which she continued to be involved with when she attended the University of Central Florida. She decided to stay at UCF for graduate school, but studying away from the main campus separated Zishuk from the community she was raised in.

The time away helped her discover the need to be more connected to Judaism. Through her relationships at the UCF Hillel, she was able to escape the humid Florida air and travel to North Carolina. She now serves as a director for student engagement at UNC Hillel —working in an environment completely foreign to her.

“I feel like I’ve experienced Judaism in such a different way,” Zishuk said. “People here don’t necessarily know what Judaism is in a way that in Orlando, people do know what Judaism is.”

It is the town of Chapel Hill where anti-Semitic graffiti can pop up on library walls or religious stereotypes can easily slip out of students’ mouths. It is the town that has trouble relating to a Jewish minority when there seems to be a “sea” of blond-haired, blue-eyed Christian students.

It is Zishuk’s job to unify them. She is tasked with reaching out to Jewish students through email, phone or Zoom to invite them to Hillel and introduce them to those with similar religious backgrounds.

The presence of ignorance and prejudice makes Zishuk’s role more essential. Each student comes to her with new stories to share and new insecurities to confess.

“It becomes emotionally taxing to be that educator at all times,” she said.

The mirage of activism

Lila Haller was shaking while reading the GroupMe messages on her phone. She had joined a conversation in a group chat with members of UNC’s class of 2024. They were discussing what happened at Campus Y, and she felt it was a safe space for her to share her opinions.

She soon realized how wrong she was.

The accepting image many of these students were putting out was simply a mirage to her. They were not the “leftist activists” they claimed to be. They silenced the Jewish voices in the chat, claiming they were “one percent Jewish,” which, to them, was enough validation for them to take the reins on the political conversation. Any disagreements were met with a mob of defense.

Haller and her Jewish friends tried to speak up, but over a thousand students decided to ignore it. She eventually became too physically and mentally overwhelmed. She had to put her phone down.

“I’m pretty desensitized to it at this point,” Haller said. “I think when it happens enough, the shock wears off and you’re just like, ‘Wow, people are really bad.’”

Haller experienced religious prejudice when walking the halls of Sanderson High School in Raleigh. A group of guys have told her she resembled Anne Frank, made jokes about Jews picking coins off the ground and blurted out offensive slurs.

She already felt numb.

“The thing is, anti-Semites don’t want you to be proudly Jewish,” she said. “That’s the biggest way you can offend them — by being yourself.”

Uncomfortable spaces and conversations

Hailing from Boca Raton, Florida, a city with a large Jewish population, Emily Kramer never felt like she was different from the people around her.

But when she began to attend UNC, she became the only Jew in two different friend groups: one that refused to learn about the religion, and another that barraged her with questions. For her, it was as if a Star of David was drawn on her forehead.

“If there’s a Jewish character on a television show, they’ll text me and say, ‘Hey, this character is Jewish,’” Kramer said. “I’ve gotten pictures of kosher sections of grocery stores, and people will say, ‘Oh, look, it’s kosher.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not kosher, but thanks for the picture, I guess.’”

There were times she also felt uncomfortable in the classroom.

While in a POLI 130: Introduction to Comparative Politics course during her first year, her class got into a heated discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As students took their sides, Kramer became unsettled when she heard some of her classmates rant about false information. She had been to Israel — she knew the state better than anyone there.

One student chimed in calling Judaism a cult. That took it too far.

Kramer heard these misconceptions before. They were part of life as a Jewish student in the South.

She already felt numb.

Hillel became her escape — the place she could go to fill the voids left from her friend groups.

Zishuk was a big part of maintaining her connectivity, despite not arriving at UNC until Kramer’s sophomore year. The two formed a quick bond after realizing Zishuk’s brother was roommates with Kramer’s cousin.

Zishuk understood these struggles. She had her own issues with her Jewish identity.

During the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, a gunman shouted, “All Jews must die,” while killing 11 congregates. Zishuk temporarily stopped wearing her Star of David necklace. She did not want to be a walking target.

Why others should work to become more religiously educated

While the reasons for the shootings and vandalisms were rooted in hatred, there are a lot of misunderstandings due to a lack of religious education.

“There is this very strong potential for progressive spaces to become areas that are a bit hostile for Jewish students to voice some of their views, because of the way things shake out involving the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Max Lazar, a graduate teaching fellow for UNC’s department of history, said.

Lazar also experienced his share of bomb threats at his local synagogue, despite living in the very accepting town of Westfield, New Jersey. He takes the role as a teacher of Judaism, becoming the professor of a course at UNC about confronting anti-Semitism worldwide.

“There’s a fundamental queasiness as far as how Jews fit into this hierarchy of discriminated groups, because Jews are this really interesting case,” Lazar said. “If we look at the way that Jewish identity and perception Jews develop in the United States, Jews sort of straddle this interesting blurred space between what is and what is defined as white in this country.”

Zishuk grew to appreciate her role as an educator. She said she always planned on working with Jewish students. She became a guide to students like Haller and Kramer.

One day, she hopes the numbness will be taken away.

“I think it’s a double edged sword. I would much rather if this job had nothing to do with anti-Semitism ever,” Zishuk said. “But when I get to have these conversations and there’s an ‘Aha!’ moment with this student, I do feel this sense of joy and pride in it.”


Edited by Jennifer Tran.