This article originally appeared in Jewish News (Phoenix) and is reprinted with permission.
Last month, the University of Arizona in Tucson marked a grim anniversary: the campus murder of Professor Thomas Meixner, head of the Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences Department. Though Meixner was not Jewish — he was a practicing Catholic — his murder did have implications for the university’s Jewish students.
A graduate student named Murad Dervish allegedly entered the building housing Meixner’s department and shot and killed him on Oct. 5, 2022. He blamed Meixner and other professors, whom he also threatened, for being fired from his teaching assistant position and expelled from the university. The murder, which happened on Yom Kippur, took place across the street from the University of Arizona (UA) Hillel Foundation during a period when 30 to 40 students were spread out in different corners of Hillel’s building, engrossed in a variety of activities — studying texts, watching services online, doing restorative yoga or simply resting.
Jessica Emerson McCormick, Hillel’s then-executive director, said that she and her staff locked down the building and kept everybody inside for several hours, including the armed guard Hillel hired for large gatherings.
“Thank God it didn’t happen at the height of morning services when we had our largest crowd,” she told Jewish News.
From the windows, she could see a large police presence but the information the rest of the day was convoluted. The campus was not officially locked down and hours later everyone received a message from the university saying the campus was being cleared and to return home. The lack of official communication was frustrating.
Much worse was waking up on a Sunday morning two weeks later and reading in the Arizona Daily Star that the alleged killer had both wrongly believed Meixner was Jewish and had expressed antisemitic sentiments in threatening texts, about which the university administration knew but had failed to warn Hillel, or any Jewish organization.
McCormick wrote a letter to the administration calling for steps to ensure this would not happen again. The first of those steps was a meeting between university administration officials, Hillel and representatives from Tucson’s Jewish organizations.
At that first meeting, Celina Ramirez, U of A vice president of university initiatives, called it “very productive.” She understood the concerns and why people were “feeling understandably scared,” she told Jewish News.
The idea for an advisory council for Jewish students, similar to those representing other minority groups, was proposed and the months-long planning process began.
“We feel committed to wanting this community to feel heard and to feel safe and supported and the advisory council is a positive step,” Ramirez said.
Not every detail for the Joint Advisory Council on Jewish Life and Antisemitism has been hammered out yet, but its main goals are to work with the university administration to create a protocol for responding to antisemitism on campus, improve crisis communications, improve campus climate around Jewish identity, promote learning about Jewish history and culture and partner on Hillel’s annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day program.
The council will also consider ways to enhance Jewish student life and well-being on campus, which extend to things like increasing the availability of kosher food.
“A wonderful thing about the councils is that if there are concerns we don’t know, it’s a good way for us to learn about them,” Ramirez said.
The administration also welcomed training from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which involves explanations of who the Jewish people are, a history of antisemitism, (including both historical and modern examples) and a breakdown of how antisemitism manifests on college campuses, specifically, and what to do about it, explained Sarah Kader, ADL Arizona’s community manager.
Ramirez had been through similar training in other venues but said the ADL training was “excellent” and added, “every time you see the stats about the rise in antisemitism it’s concerning, and that landed in a significant way with the entire team.”
In the year since Meixner’s death, the administration has added a number of security enhancements, including more stringent background checks, updated emergency building plans, new locks on classroom doors, safety information posted in all buildings, restructuring the way cases are handled and new security personnel, according to Ramirez.
The Tucson campus is the 20th destination in the country for Jewish undergraduates and has about 5,000. Hillel’s ultimate goal is to have “meaningful relationships with at least 1,600 kids a year,” McCormick said.
When she took the Hillel job two years ago, an advisory council was the last thing on her mind. McCormick focused on engaging as many of the young Jews on campus as she could, and she made real strides during her tenure. In the past year, Hillel interacted with roughly 1,000 students, more than twice the yearly average before the COVID-19 pandemic, and creating and nurturing those “meaningful relationships” is still a priority for Hillel.
McCormick left her position in July, after having outlined the main goals for the council. Recently, Hillel staff met with Dr. Jennifer Hatcher, the new interim director of U of A’s diversity and inclusion office, Jennifer Camano, Hillel’s interim executive director, told Jewish News.