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After Pittsburgh, more USF students grow ‘confused and scared’

The Tampa campus Hillel chapter says the Pittsburgh terror attack spotlights a problem they've grown increasingly concerned about.
A USF flag flies before a 2016 football game. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
A USF flag flies before a 2016 football game. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Oct. 30, 2018

TAMPA — In the wake of the terror attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, on Monday students from several organizations organizations and religious groups gathered at the University of South Florida's Hillel headquarters to hear from students, religious leaders and university administrators.

"We've had a lot of students come to us in person, or by telephone or text, who are confused and scared," said Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, USF Hillel's executive director. "This generation, to a great extent, hasn't really experienced antisemitism, so it's hard to ease their concerns right now, but we try to share the knowledge that hate will always fail and there are far more good people in the world than there are evil people."

A gunman on Saturday killed 11 members of the Congregation Etz Chayim, or "Tree of Life," in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood and left six people in wounded, including four police officers injured in gun battles. The accused shooter now faces federal hate crime charges.

Rosenthal said the Jewish student population on USF's campuses is historically small compared to other state universities. This school year he estimated that population to be between 1,400 and 1,500 students — a fraction of the more than 9,000 Jewish students enrolled at the University of Florida.

Still, Rosenthal said the students at USF Hillel have grown increasingly concerned about divisive rhetoric seen and heard during on-campus demonstrations. Even for Rosenthal and campus leaders, it's sometimes hard to identify the dividing line between politics and anti-Semitism.

"The days of the neo-Nazi rallies on college campuses are gone. What we're seeing now is a very different approach, a much more clean-cut and wholesome approach and not quite as scary," Rosenthal said.

"Instead these groups present themselves to be patriotic and politically engaged and once young people become involved they start to spread messages of hate in a much more insidious way."