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College students across CT navigate faith and activism during tense times

Pro-Palestinian protest on the CCSU campus in New Britain.
Andrew DeCapua
The Recorder
Students held a pro-Palestinian protest on the Central Connecticut State University campus in New Britain.

The sounds of calming water fill the air of the Tranquility Room at Central Connecticut State University, a spiritual prayer and meditation space on the campus in New Britain.

With an array of comfortable furniture, prayer rugs, ambient lighting and a well-decorated interior, the Tranquility Room was created as a designated space for prayer, meditation and relaxation.

College students at Central and other universities across Connecticut say that practicing religion this year has been anything but tranquil.

As the Israel-Hamas war continues, campuses in Connecticut and across the United States this spring experienced a wave of student protests, which led to arrests. There's also been an increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia across the U.S.

At Yale and the University of Connecticut, students set up encampments demanding that their respective universities divest from companies they say are benefiting from the war. The spring protests resulted in about 70 student arrests between the two universities.

CCSU has had protests free of violence, law-breaking or arrests and students say they have not experienced harsh discrimination. Students of all religions have managed to coexist. Still, tensions have flared.

At Central, Muslim students say they've felt uncomfortable at times. Meanwhile, for the campus' small Jewish community, some are "scared into silence,” said Steven Bernstein, the campus Jewish faith consultant.

There were also concerns in April, when Students for Justice in Palestine and the CCSU Intersectional Justice Coalition held a rally and vigil. But a walkout was postponed from its original date, which some students interpreted as a form of repression by the university.

“They’re definitely pushing back on it,” said Nylamar Samuels, a Muslim student. She said she originally heard that it was postponed due to weather and later concluded that the administration was behind it.

A university spokesperson said the walkout was added to an initial request "after the event was approved as a ‘rally and vigil.’”

“It was clear through advertising materials promoting ‘A Walkout, Rally and Vigil’ that the club was promoting an event that was not pre-approved ... as required,” said Jodi Latina, associate vice president of university communications and media.

Recent issues surrounding protests at larger schools, such as Columbia University, have left some Jewish students at CCSU, such as Vanessa Paddy, feeling unsafe on campus.

“I would say the challenges really only come from the ‘Free Palestine’ movement because both on college campuses and in public spaces, they target visibly Jewish people or people who have made it known they are Jewish,” Paddy said.

Paddy said she's also upset with how the word "genocide" is being used.

“When I see posters up around campus spreading lies and when I hear about protests on campus, I feel angry, frustrated and unsafe,” Paddy said. “People have the freedom of speech, of course, but that doesn’t mean their speech doesn’t drive hate and misinformation. I wish there was a larger voice for truth out there.”

As the Jewish faith consultant, Bernstein reaches out to Jewish students at Central and said he rarely received feedback or engagement, until October, when Hamas attacked Israel.

“This year was very different,” Bernstein said. “Most years … I send something out in the beginning of the year, and I don’t hear back. This year, I heard back.”

In October, an email was sent to students by the Student Government Association, inviting them to an All Out for Palestine protest. University President Zulma Toro sent a follow-up email the same day apologizing and saying that the association took one side, which was a mistake.

Samuels said she was "deeply disturbed" by the apology. She noted that an email was sent out about a campus task force focused on antisemitism, but wondered: "Where’s the one on Islamophobia?"

Pro-Palestinian protest on the CCSU campus in New Britain.
Andrew DeCapua
The Recorder
Students held a pro-Palestinian protest on the Central Connecticut State University campus in New Britain.

Muslim students say they've felt unease on campus in recent months. Samuels says she's noticed various microaggressions, including people asking "weird questions" to her friends who wear hijabs or head coverings. She notes her friends are quiet and don't say much in response.

"There's Palestinian students who go here, there are students who have family. And there's people who have direct connection" to what's happening in Gaza, Samuels said.

CCSU has maintained impartiality. Samuels said this neutral approach has not been as impartial as it seems.

“They’re not trying to pick sides but everything that they’ve sent out is one-sided,” Samuels said. “If you’re silent on this issue, you have picked the side of the oppressors. ... Imagine going to school and 83 of your family members were wiped away by a bomb. That’s what happened to one of my friends.”

In emails to the campus community, Toro has noted that these are difficult times and that various community members don't feel heard. She said she's committed to listening.

She also said it's important to "stop hatred of all kinds."

“We, as human beings, can have disagreements," Toro wrote. "We can argue for our ideas, but at the end of the day, it is very important to learn that we can coexist and live together as family and friends despite our differences.”

Some hope the Task Force Committee on Anti-Semitism and Education can help encourage dialogue. The group, established last fall in response to the attack on Israel, has hosted pre-Shabbat lunches on campus for the Jewish community and others to converse. Bernstein said a major goal of the committee is to educate.

“Not just dealing with antisemitism, but the idea that it’s a lot harder to hate someone that you know,” Bernstein said. “It’s a lot harder to hate a group if you know that group.”

Paddy said school events that educate students on different religions and cultures would be beneficial.

“I think we are all stronger together and the more we know about each other, the more tolerant we are,” Paddy said.

Savanna Yelling is a journalism student at Central Connecticut State University. This story is republished via CT Community News, a service of the Connecticut Student Journalism Collaborative, an organization sponsored by journalism departments at college and university campuses across the state.

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