Luther responds to antisemitism

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Luther responds to antisemitism

College Pastors Mike Blair and Anne Edison-Albright spoke at the  vigil organized by College Ministries and Interfaith in Action on Thursday, Nov. 1.

College Pastors Mike Blair and Anne Edison-Albright spoke at the vigil organized by College Ministries and Interfaith in Action on Thursday, Nov. 1.

Grace Onsrud ('20) | Chips

College Pastors Mike Blair and Anne Edison-Albright spoke at the vigil organized by College Ministries and Interfaith in Action on Thursday, Nov. 1.

Grace Onsrud ('20) | Chips

Grace Onsrud ('20) | Chips

College Pastors Mike Blair and Anne Edison-Albright spoke at the vigil organized by College Ministries and Interfaith in Action on Thursday, Nov. 1.

Grace Onsrud, Staff Writer

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In the week following the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, members of the Luther community responded to the tragedy by addressing it in classes, church, and chapel services in the Center for Faith and Life, as well as with a vigil planned by the student organization Interfaith in Action and College Ministries on Thursday, Nov. 1 in Bentdahl Commons.

As a Lutheran school with Martin Luther as its namesake, responding to the hate crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue brought up uniquely difficult and complex questions regarding the identity of Luther College and the history of Lutheranism for President Paula Carlson and College Pastor Anne Edison-Albright. They both addressed this issue in their responses.

Carlson sent an email to Luther students, faculty, and staff on Oct. 29 condemning the hate crimes and listing upcoming events and support resources.

“As a college that bears Martin Luther’s name, we must be clear in speaking out against hateful speech and violent acts directed at Jewish people and people of color because of our namesake’s antisemitic writings,” Carlson said in the email.

Interfaith in Action and College Ministries planned a vigil in Bentdahl Commons to mourn the lives lost at the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting as well as at the Kroger grocery store shooting in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. The vigil included prayers from students of various faith backgrounds and a statement from visiting Rabbi Saul (Simcha) Prombaum from the Congregation Sons of Abraham in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Interfaith in Action set out a row of thirteen chairs, each labeled with one name of the victims from Pittsburgh and Kentucky. Edison-Albright read the names and a short statement for each victim as Annie Weinberg (‘19) placed a flower on each chair.

Grace Huber (‘20), who shared a Jewish prayer and a poem in chapel on Oct. 31 and at the vigil, is one of few Jewish students at Luther. She expressed relief after receiving support from members of the administration and Campus Ministries in the days following the attack. She generally feels welcomed and safe on campus but has noticed a lack of response from some of her peers.

“A lot of people don’t know how to respond to situations like this,” Huber said. “And I think a lot of people haven’t thought of me being affected by it. For people who do know that I’m Jewish, it’s a hard understanding of, no, I was not related to these people, but I still feel impacted because I belong to their group.”

Huber said that over the course of her time at Luther, it has been conversations with peers about Martin Luther and his legacy that have made her feel most uncomfortable. She is frustrated with some of her peers’ willingness to make excuses for his anti-semitism.

“I never want people to think I’m just bashing on Martin Luther because we all read about the things that he did in Paideia and he did amazing things, but it scares me when people just decide, oh well being anti-semitic was only a little part of him,” Huber said. “If there was someone I met today and being anti-semitic was a little part of them, that would be very scary for me.”

During church and chapel services in the week following the attack and at the vigil, Edison-Albright and Pastor Mike Blair discussed Martin Luther’s anti-semitic text, “The Jews and Their Lies,” and its direct and catastrophic connection to violence against Jewish people since its publication in 1543. Edison-Albright explained that Luther’s identity as a Lutheran institution heightens the importance of addressing and condemning anti-semitism, which includes asking difficult questions about Luther’s legacy.

“It wasn’t just that writing,” Edison-Albright said. “How does his perspective shape his theology not only in that writing but in other writings that we might hold dear? And that’s an even more challenging piece because it forces us to examine things that we’re proud of.”

Blair and Edison-Albright said that they try to bring up Luther’s history of antisemitism frequently in College Ministries programming, including during the Reformation of Everything celebration last year. Blair agreed that while it is challenging to address Martin Luther’s anti-semitism, it is especially important considering the fact that Luther is a place of learning.

“We need to be intentional about naming that and repenting of that and committing ourselves to learn,” Blair said. “We are a place of learning so we should use those gifts and skills and there may be things that may kind of challenge some of our assumptions and even what we think of as our foundations of faith.”

Blair believes that it is important to focus on interfaith work and education as a Lutheran school. This focus is reflected in some of the upcoming weekday chapel programming. On Nov.7, the day of Diwali, Sandhya Purohit Caton will speak from a Hindu faith perspective. On Nov. 28 Rabbi Morris Allen will speak in chapel and is available to have lunch with students who would like to talk with him. Blair has a long-term goal of forming relationships with Jewish communities in the region, including a possible visit to Rabbi Prombaum’s congregation in La Crosse, Wisconsin for any students who would like to attend a Friday evening service.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Jimmy Hoke said that in the religion department, as in College Ministries, there is an overall commitment to providing students with interfaith perspectives. Hoke brought up the hate crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue in his classes because of its relation to course material as well as because of the racist and anti-semitic symbols found on Luther’s football field last semester.

“I think especially after the hate crime on the football field last March and knowing how isolating it can feel, that not somehow addressing it… I spent 30 minutes in each of my classes addressing it because it was so connected to the material, but even if it is just a couple of minutes in class or if it can’t take time in class at least sending an email,” Hoke said. “Everyone addresses their classes differently but I think it is really important, especially in light of what’s been happening at Luther.”

Huber said that none of her professors brought up the hate crimes, which was distressing to her because she was not able to focus as well on class materials after hearing the news.

“I’m a music education major and it’s weird to me that I am taking education courses and we don’t talk about things like this happening,” Huber said. “Because when things like this happen and I’m teaching, students will ask and students will want to know what’s going on and will want an adult to talk to them about it, and I feel like I haven’t been given a good model of how to do that.”

Interfaith in Action College Ministries Liaison Kai Storvick (‘21) agreed with Hoke that addressing anti-semitic violence is extremely relevant on Luther’s campus because the hate that led to the weekend’s attacks can appear anywhere.

“That culture is still present on this campus just like it is present on every campus, and [it is] present in every workplace that we are going to go to when we become alumni and it will be present everywhere for a long time,” Storvick said. “As college students we are here to learn, and if we can learn to change that, hopefully it won’t be here forever.”

Rabbi Prombaum included a call for Luther to keep gathering in his statement at Thursday’s vigil, which resonated with the goals of the Interfaith In Action group as well as with Pastors Blair and Edison-Albright. Storvick and Blair hope more people will attend Interfaith In Action Dialogue Dinners to keep conversations going not just in response to tragedy, but as a part of daily life.

“Some of this work is going to happen just one person at a time: developing relationships and dispelling the different kinds of stereotypes and fears that people have about what interfaith work is or their stereotypes and fears related to particular religions,” Blair said.

Edison-Albright explained that community gatherings fight the isolation that tragic news can bring. She hopes that Luther’s community can continue to find ways to gather, whatever the reason.

“To allow the disruption of time to be together in that way, we really feel it,” Edison-Albright said. “And so it’s good to gather, let’s keep gathering, whether it’s specifically in reaction to something or not, let’s keep gathering.”

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