Rabbi Pinny Backman said he felt saddened to hear reports of antisemitic activities last weekend involving a University of South Florida fraternity. But the leader of USF’s Chabad Jewish student center also felt called to action.
Backman said he didn’t wish to punish people, but rather to educate them. He had an idea.
He put the president of Pi Kappa Phi in touch with the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. They invited the fraternity to tour the museum and speak with a Holocaust survivor.
“I can’t change the past,” Backman said. “But I can change the future by bringing more light into the world.”
Allegations surfaced this week that, as part of a Pi Kappa Phi initiation on Feb. 11, someone drew a swastika on the head of a Jewish pledge. A photo of the student was posted Thursday on the Instagram page of StopAntisemitism.org, with calls for action from the university.
Then came reports of posts on a Greek life website that mocked the Holocaust and were written by someone claiming to be from Pi Kappa Phi. The incidents were believed to be the result of a feud between a sorority and the fraternity. A university-wide email condemned the actions and said USF will be investigating to find out who was responsible.
On Thursday, USF suspended its Pi Kappa Phi chapter on charges of hazing and having alcohol at an underage gathering. An email from the university detailed reports of a gathering hosted by the fraternity off campus where alcohol was served, and of “inappropriate objects” — including the swastika — being drawn on the bidding students’ shirts or bodies. The suspension prevents the fraternity from holding activities pending a hearing.
A statement from the fraternity’s national office said their investigation found that the person who drew the swastika was not a member of Pi Kappa Phi and was not responsible for the posts on the Greek life website. The group said it is committed to providing ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion training.
“Pi Kappa Phi values the human dignity of each person and condemns the reprehensible antisemitic action that has happened at the University of South Florida,” the statement said. “We support our member who has suffered and the entire Jewish community. Pi Kappa Phi is continuing to partner with USF in the ongoing investigation.”
Erin Blankenship, interim executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum, called the allegations “deeply disturbing” in a statement.
“Six million Jews, and millions of others, died as a result of the Holocaust, and to minimize that is an insult to all the victims and survivors,” the statement said. “The Florida Holocaust Museum is working with the Jewish organizations on campus to educate students on the realities of the Holocaust in the hopes that they will learn why these actions are so highly problematic.”
Michael Igel, who serves as chairperson of both the museum and the Florida Commissioner of Education’s Task Force on Holocaust Education, said he wants to make it clear that the point of the fraternity’s visit is not to scold the people involved. Instead, he said he hopes the students can gain empathy.
“Most people are not bad people,” Igel said. “They’re not hateful. Perhaps these people don’t understand what they did.”
His grandparents got married the day Hitler invaded Poland, he said. His grandfather went to war that night. They were later placed in a ghetto with a new baby. They gave up the baby to a stranger in hopes she would survive. The baby was Igel’s aunt, who survived and later was reconnected with the family.
His grandparents were then hidden by a Polish couple who were farmers and had kids. Police arrested the farmers and tortured them for six weeks, Igel said. The couple would not give up information about his grandparents, Igel said, and were executed for it.
“If they wouldn’t have done that, I wouldn’t be here,” Igel said. “I owe it to them.”
The rest of his family members weren’t as lucky. Igel’s father never met his grandparents, who were killed during the Holocaust.
Igel said he hopes by learning of individual stories, people can learn.
“As time passes it’s the reason that Holocaust education is so, so important,” he said. “We need to keep this from being just a paragraph in a history book.”
Liora Rez, executive director of StopAntisemitism.org, said her watchdog organization was alerted to the events at USF via their Instagram page. The group received more than 15 similar reports about the USF incident over the weekend.
“This has to be one of the most egregious instances,” she said. “But by no means are we surprised. Antisemitism is skyrocketing across every demographic, every income level, every age group.”
Rez said she hopes to see the university suspend or expel the student involved and revoke the charter for the involved fraternity. She also hopes to see the topic of antisemitism added to diversity, equity and inclusion trainings.
“Jewish students deserve to feel safe on college campuses just as everyone else,” she said. “They are often seen as privileged and white, the model class. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
She pointed to FBI statistics showing that more than half of religion-based hate crimes are committed against Jews.
Backman, the USF rabbi, said he also hopes Jewish students feel safe on campus and that they feel proud to practice their religion. Chabad has distributed mezuzahs, or religious scrolls, for students to display outside their apartments or dorms to stand in solidarity with other Jewish students.
As of Friday afternoon, it was unclear when the visit might take place. Backman said the fraternity chapter president sounded receptive to the idea. A representative for the chapter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Perhaps somewhere down the line one of these young men may approach things differently or stand up for someone else if they see something,” Backman said, referring to the fraternity. “I really feel everybody can play a part in bringing kindness and good and warmth into someone’s life.”