Dear Noah, נח היקר

As you very well know, it’s not all that difficult to spot me on any given autumnal day. Sit out on the West Campus quad for long enough and you will inevitably see a 5’10” lad strutting along in a vibrant Chanukah cardigan, my signature (and only) piece of seasonal outerwear. Bright blue and white with a patterned design of Jewish stars, dreidels, and menorahs, my sweater sometimes feels like a homing beacon, drawing in both compliments and praise, as well as questions about whether or not I know that it’s not Chanukah yet. 

Simply put, my sweater is part of who I am. So when I wake up each morning and grab this trusty knit garment, how it will affect my safety is the last thing on my mind. However, this past week, in light of the anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh, I found myself not only mourning the senseless loss of eleven beautiful souls, but also hesitating to put on my cardigan, reconsidering how I navigate the world around me.

My Jewish identity is not something I think about often because it’s inseparable from who I am. You and I grew up in Broward County, Florida, an area with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country. We attended a small K-12 school where the vast majority of our friends and classmates were Jewish and spent our Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings studying prayer and Jewish values at our synagogue, Ramat Shalom. We swam and played with other Jewish children at Camp Blue Star during the summer months, sat at the dining room table for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, and woke up to Dad’s famous chocolate chip challah french toast on Saturday mornings. Our lives up to this point, though we might not always recognize it, have very much been defined by our Judaism.

Having been constantly surrounded by a Jewish community, it’s easy to conflate our lived experience with the reality of all other Jewish-Americans and Jewish people. Perhaps because our environment was so sheltered or perhaps because I just wasn’t listening, I’ve lived my life with a somewhat deluded sense of security. While I knew that anti-Semitism existed, I have been incredibly fortunate to have never personally experienced any form of hate speech or violence. Even when I visited the Nazi death camps of Majdanek, Chełmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz–Birkenau at the end of my senior year of high school, my heart was not full of fear, but of sorrow. This was something to never forget, but not necessarily something to actively be on the lookout for. However, it was naive to believe that this hatred died with the 6 million, just as it is naive to believe that it has died with the eleven.

Hatred is alive and well in the world today, and this most recent, deplorable attack is a stark reminder that not even we are immune. When I stood in the Freeman Center last Shabbat and said kaddish, I thought of morning services in the Elmore Solomon Chapel at Camp Blue Star. I thought of all of my friends’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs during almost every single weekend of 7th grade. I thought of Friday nights singing and eating at Freeman Center throughout college. It hit me then and there that it could have been us, Noah. It could have been our friends. Our family. Our community. I say this not to scare you, but to remind you that there is injustice and suffering in this world of ours, and, if we do not awaken from our indifference and take a stand against it, hatred will persist.

Hatred is not some other worldly evil that corrupts individuals and overtakes societies. It is not something alien that descended from the heavens long ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. It is a distinctly human matter, born out of fear, insecurity, and ignorance and nourished by apathy. When we yield to our own indifference, we are feeding the fire of hate, allowing it to burgeon and spread instead of stamping out the sparks. If we are truly to create עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָנֶה, a world of benevolence, then each of us must make a decision.

To choose love or indifference?

You see, the quintessential question of college is not so much “what do I want to do?” but rather “who do I want to be?” The choices you make each and every day on the love-indifference spectrum will ultimately define your time here at Duke, and how you live the rest of your life. I’m not saying that you need to become an activist, politician, or rabbi and make it your life’s sole purpose to fight for justice, but you have the ability to shape the world around you by the way in which you live your life from one moment to the next.

We are presented with countless opportunities each day to make this decision. When you see someone sitting alone at a table in Marketplace, will you sit down next to them and offer a smile and a conversation, or will you ignore them? When you walk into downtown Durham and a homeless man asks you for a dollar, will you afford him the human dignity of your eye contact and a loose bill, or will you ignore him? When hate speech affects those from different identities and communities, will you show up and stand with them, or will you shrug your shoulders and remain silent? By exercising the choice to love wherever and whenever we have the chance, we steadily and gradually move our world one step closer to ridding itself of hate.

Elie Wiesel once said that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” You have the power and privilege to choose and, wearing my Chanukah cardigan as I write these final words, I sincerely hope that you do not waste it.

Your loving brother,

-Grant, אורי שלום

Grant Besner is a Trinity senior who one day aspires to operate his own alpaca farm. His column, “Dear Noah,” runs on alternate Mondays.