Wesleyan/Jewish identity explored after shooting

bayitBefore his attack on Johanna Justin-Jinich, killer Stephen Morgan made jarring comments in his journal about targeting Jews and Wesleyan students in general, which made an already terrible incident even more unsettling.

American Jewish newspaper The Forward explores his conflation of Wesleyan students, Jews, and Justin-Jinich, and talks about Jewish identity at Wesleyan in the wake of the shooting.

President Michael Roth and Rabbi David Leipziger Teva were (probably rightly) quick to dismiss the specific role of Jewishness in the muder, since this guy was clearly twisted. The students interviewed in the article agreed:

[…] what could have been a moment of vulnerability and isolation for Wesleyan’s Jewish students turned out to be quite the opposite. In interviews, Jewish, non-Jewish and half-Jewish Wesleyan students suggested repeatedly that nothing the alleged gunman had done moved them to view Jews as separated out in any way from the rest of the student body. For the students — and, it appears from his writings, for Morgan, as well — there was no distinction, because there is essentially no difference.

I think it was more a dislike of Wesleyan students, and he considers us all ‘Jews,’” said freshman Jon Booth, who said he is not Jewish.

The May 6 shooting death of Justin-Jinich burst what students here describe as “the Wesleyan bubble,” replacing the ordinary stresses of finals period with shock and fear. In addition to being a very personal and fatal attack on Justin-Jinich — whom Morgan had stalked in the past — it also appeared to be, from Morgan’s journals, an attack on Wesleyan’s identity, on a campus where identity is not assumed, but debated, studied and even protested.

For Morgan, who was apprehended May 7, part of that had to do with his sense of Wesleyan’s students as the chosen elite. According to a warrant for his arrest, Morgan wrote resentfully about seeing the beautiful, smart and well-to-do students at Wesleyan. Somehow, it seems, this, combined with his obsession for Justin-Jinich, led him to focus on a different kind of chosenness, one that singled out Jewish students from their peers — or, perhaps, conflated the two.

Wesleyan has had a heavily Jewish presence for decades. Jeremy Zwelling, director of the university’s Israel and Jewish studies program, recalls Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld visiting in the late 1970s and commenting on how Jewish the campus felt compared with the stiff Protestantism of other New England colleges. According to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, 735 of Wesleyan’s 2,700 undergraduates, or 27.2%, are Jewish.

Beyond the numbers, however, recently there have been signs of a higher Jewish profile on campus. The new dining hall has a kosher component for the first time. And President Michael Roth, who was installed in July 2007, is the first Jew to hold that post in the school’s 178-year history.

But right now, at least, school officials appear eager to downplay any focus on the role of Jewishness in the recent murder.

I don’t think the ravings of someone about to commit murder are particularly relevant to who we are,” Roth told the Forward.

When a Forward reporter sought to interview residents of the Bayit, Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, Wesleyan’s Jewish chaplain, sent an e-mail labeled “URGENT” to the Bayit’s house manager, instructing her to “highly discourage” students from talking to the media lest their comments “be distorted to advance a range of personal agendas.” When asked about the e-mail, Teva said that he was simply trying to protect the students.

In general, Jewish identity at Wesleyan has been less notable for its emphasis on ethnic or religious solidarity than on qualities that have come to be associated with a different kind of Jewish cultural identity in America — activist liberal politics, intellectualism and a freewheeling brand of creativity.

That description could have extended to Justin-Jinich. A New York Times article said that Justin-Jinich was Jewish but that a former roommate said she regarded herself as “agnostic and politically liberal.”

“That’s Jewish!” Zwelling exclaimed. He added that the profile of the “typical” Wesleyan student — intellectual, elite and well heeled — though perhaps not entirely accurate, overlaps to a great extent with the image of the young Jewish suburbanites who do, in fact, attend such universities as Wesleyan.

Wesleyan does have a significant active Jewish community, of course, including the Bayit, which hosts Sabbath dinners at its kosher dining hall and mounts regular programs on Jewish and Israeli subjects. Yet even here, the lines are blurred, as a significant minority of the Bayit’s residents aren’t Jewish.

“I never identified with the Jews in the house more than on that day,” said one non-Jewish sophomore, who asked not to be identified by name. “Now I understand what it feels like to be in this position — being Jewish, feeling part of an oppressed group, with hateful prejudice directed against me because I live here.”

Part of the complication is that at Wesleyan, identity, Jewish or otherwise, is not a simple thing. It is a complex and multifaceted construction that people wear as consciously as an outfit of clothes.

In fact, many of the students interviewed bristled at the notion of reducing Justin-Jinich’s killing to a “Jewish Columbine.”

The thing that frustrates me is that nobody is talking about it as an act of violence against women,” said Karina, a junior who described herself as “half-Jewish” and asked to be identified by her first name only. “To call it a ‘Jewish Columbine,’ that undermines [Morgan’s] intent.”

For others, the notion of antisemitism at a place like Wesleyan was simply foreign.

“Of course antisemitism exists, but I don’t think of it as a daily threat the way that others are targeted on a daily basis,” Jewish sophomore Laura Bliss said. “There’s definitely a tinge of antiquity that added to the surreal way in which everything happened.”

But for many, the most salient fact of the killing was the most basic, which was that Justin-Jinich was simply another student like themselves.

“I think because of the fact that Wesleyan is such a small school, we don’t necessarily see ourselves as a bunch of groups,” said Alex Gumpel, a sophomore. “We’re a bunch of individuals who happen to be in groups. The targeting of one individual is the targeting of the community as a whole.”

The Jewish Daily Forward: Wesleyan Shooter’s ‘Columbine’ Plan Spotlights Jewish Identity on Campus — Or Not

[Thanks to Adina Teibloom ’10 for the tip.]

24 thoughts on “Wesleyan/Jewish identity explored after shooting

  1. Anonymous

    11:02, how are they dismissing this one? I don’t think they’re denying that the guy was an antisemite, they’re just saying that that’s not a reflection of the campus, which is accurate.

  2. Anonymous

    11:02, how are they dismissing this one? I don’t think they’re denying that the guy was an antisemite, they’re just saying that that’s not a reflection of the campus, which is accurate.

  3. Anonymous

    Psycho Steve came very close to pulling off his ‘Jewish Columbine’. If carried out, a lot more would have died, perhaps a lot of non-Jewish wesleyan students. Im sure the rabbi and roth would come up with some slick statement to dismiss that act as well.

  4. Anonymous

    Psycho Steve came very close to pulling off his ‘Jewish Columbine’. If carried out, a lot more would have died, perhaps a lot of non-Jewish wesleyan students. Im sure the rabbi and roth would come up with some slick statement to dismiss that act as well.

  5. Anonymous

    He would have written what he wanted to write regardless of what people said. He interviewed me and told me exactly what he was looking for, but when he asked me questions and I answered them honestly they didn’t match up with what he wanted and I was not quoted in the article. It also could have been because most of my answers were along the lines of “I’m still too shocked and hurt to process this enough to talk about identity formation in the wake of tragedy” but who knows. I just wanted to let people know that he chose quotes in order to represent us in the way he wanted to.

  6. Anonymous

    He would have written what he wanted to write regardless of what people said. He interviewed me and told me exactly what he was looking for, but when he asked me questions and I answered them honestly they didn’t match up with what he wanted and I was not quoted in the article. It also could have been because most of my answers were along the lines of “I’m still too shocked and hurt to process this enough to talk about identity formation in the wake of tragedy” but who knows. I just wanted to let people know that he chose quotes in order to represent us in the way he wanted to.

  7. johnwesley

    #8 – interesting point. i just hope it isn’t meant as a conversation stopper. that would be too ironic.

  8. johnwesley

    #8 – interesting point. i just hope it isn’t meant as a conversation stopper. that would be too ironic.

  9. Anonymous

    #4 — I’m not sure that any one perspective can get to the “heart” of ones man’s murder of one girl. I think the only thing that’s clear about this murder is that nothing is clear about his motives. His relationship (or lack thereof) with one girl led him, it seems, to do what he did. It’s not excusing what he did, but I think it’s important to try and understand the full complexity of his motives. I actually think that penning it all under the umbrella of the general, societal acceptance of owning and destroying woman to be disruptive to the conversation, and potentially damaging.

    I think that the feminist perspective is an important one, and relevant, but I think that drawing these conclusions without waiting to learn more (and hear his case) makes it difficult to understand what’s going on and prevent things like these from happening in the future.

    I know it’s controversial and potentially touchy (which is why I find it important), but I found what Marilyn Manson said after the Columbine shooting particularly relevant:

    When asked what he would have said to the killers, Manson replied: “Nothing. I would have listened, because no one else did.”

    To listen to Stephen Morgan and begin to understand him neither validates nor excuses him. I just find it incredibly frustrating when someone takes their point (relevant or not) and claims it as the “heart” of the murder, or the takeaway. Case closed. I just don’t understand how it’s helpful.

  10. Anonymous

    #4 — I’m not sure that any one perspective can get to the “heart” of ones man’s murder of one girl. I think the only thing that’s clear about this murder is that nothing is clear about his motives. His relationship (or lack thereof) with one girl led him, it seems, to do what he did. It’s not excusing what he did, but I think it’s important to try and understand the full complexity of his motives. I actually think that penning it all under the umbrella of the general, societal acceptance of owning and destroying woman to be disruptive to the conversation, and potentially damaging.

    I think that the feminist perspective is an important one, and relevant, but I think that drawing these conclusions without waiting to learn more (and hear his case) makes it difficult to understand what’s going on and prevent things like these from happening in the future.

    I know it’s controversial and potentially touchy (which is why I find it important), but I found what Marilyn Manson said after the Columbine shooting particularly relevant:

    When asked what he would have said to the killers, Manson replied: “Nothing. I would have listened, because no one else did.”

    To listen to Stephen Morgan and begin to understand him neither validates nor excuses him. I just find it incredibly frustrating when someone takes their point (relevant or not) and claims it as the “heart” of the murder, or the takeaway. Case closed. I just don’t understand how it’s helpful.

  11. Anonymous

    #2 and 3, did you even finish reading the article, in which several students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are clearly quoted?

  12. Anonymous

    #2 and 3, did you even finish reading the article, in which several students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are clearly quoted?

  13. Anonymous

    It’s all good.
    If you ask individual students, you’re going to get responses from that individual’s point of view — no single person will represent an entire campus’ opinions, so let’s all chill. I think everyone interviewed had good, intelligent things to say, and that’s all you can ask for when 4 people’s one-liners are supposed to represent the whole school’s sentiment.

  14. Anonymous

    It’s all good.
    If you ask individual students, you’re going to get responses from that individual’s point of view — no single person will represent an entire campus’ opinions, so let’s all chill. I think everyone interviewed had good, intelligent things to say, and that’s all you can ask for when 4 people’s one-liners are supposed to represent the whole school’s sentiment.

  15. jon booth

    i didnt want to represent anyone

    i mostly wanted to say to the reporter what #4 said.

  16. jon booth

    i didnt want to represent anyone

    i mostly wanted to say to the reporter what #4 said.

  17. Anonymous

    Thank you, Karina, for getting to the heart of it.
    What is it about our society that leads so many men to think they can stalk/own/destroy their chosen woman, and what blinds the rest of the society to this repeated pattern?

  18. Anonymous

    Thank you, Karina, for getting to the heart of it.
    What is it about our society that leads so many men to think they can stalk/own/destroy their chosen woman, and what blinds the rest of the society to this repeated pattern?

  19. Anonymous

    A jewish student wouldn’t represent the “whole wesleyan student body” either. No student would. Interviewing a jewish student might have been more appropriate for this article though.

  20. Anonymous

    A jewish student wouldn’t represent the “whole wesleyan student body” either. No student would. Interviewing a jewish student might have been more appropriate for this article though.

  21. Anonymous

    I don’t know if John Booth, a non jewish student, necessarily represents the whole wesleyan student body

  22. Anonymous

    I don’t know if John Booth, a non jewish student, necessarily represents the whole wesleyan student body

  23. Anonymous

    Should it be noted that the editor of the Forward is an active Wesleyan grad and parent? (Maybe not, but I like it when Wesleying mentions alums). Jane Eisner ’77

  24. Anonymous

    Should it be noted that the editor of the Forward is an active Wesleyan grad and parent? (Maybe not, but I like it when Wesleying mentions alums). Jane Eisner ’77

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