James Madison University in Virginia held an event Thursday to mark the Holocaust—despite all the Jewish members of the planning committee resigning.
“You would think that if you’re going to have a Holocaust program, that the community that the Holocaust most directly affected would be represented on that committee,” said Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner, rabbi of the local Harrisonburg, Va., Beth El Congregation. Kurtz-Lendner said his grandfather was killed in one of the Nazi death camps, and his father was traumatized by it.
“We cannot imagine that the university would plan a program for Martin Luther King Jr. Day without intentionally consulting African American faculty and students,” says a redacted Jan. 9 resignation letter that says it’s from the planning committee’s three Jewish members.
A faculty member says this year’s event included a speaker who didn’t make the cut when considered by the last year’s planning committee, which did include Jewish members. And faculty members say this year’s event was going to feature the provost, Heather Coltman, playing piano, something the last event’s committee rejected. She ultimately didn’t play after the community spoke up.
“There has been no continuity between this year’s planning and the work of the inaugural Holocaust Remembrance Day planners,” the Jan. 9 resignation letter says.
“Similarly, Dr. [Alan] Berger had been discussed as a potential speaker last year, but this year’s committee did not have access to relevant notes or to anyone involved in last year’s conversation when he was again suggested, and ultimately selected, this year,” it says.
University officials did not provide interviews Monday. Berger is the Raddock Family Eminent Scholar Chair for Holocaust Studies, professor of Judaic studies and director of the Center for the Study of Values and Violence After Auschwitz at Florida Atlantic University.
“The purpose of the event was to create an opportunity for the university’s campus community to learn about the lived experiences of others in a solemn manner through education,” the university wrote in emailed responses to questions. “The event was intended to create an educational opportunity for campus for faculty, staff and students with distinguished speakers. This academic experience was never a memorial and occurred the day before Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
“There was a member of the committee who identified as Jewish who resigned in early January, after the majority of the event details program had been planned and confirmed,” the university wrote. “Other individuals who identify as Jewish were also invited to participate in the planning along the way. In addition, other experts such as our distinguished guest speaker were involved in the discussions about the event.”
Frances Flannery, professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at the university, said she was on the last event’s committee. She said it had over a dozen faculty, staff and students who self-identified as Jewish.
She said Berger’s name came up when that committee was selecting a speaker.
“When a representative of the provost suggested that we consider the provost’s friend Dr. Alan Berger, her good friend, we did so,” Flannery said. “And the committee carefully evaluated about 20 people, and there were many experts on the committee, and we watched videos of them talking. We looked at their publications—we looked at their various centers that they ran.”
Flannery said Berger didn’t make the short list.
“When the subject of the provost playing piano at the event came up with the [last event’s] committee, we were uncomfortable,” Flannery said. “And that is because the topic of music at a memorial … is tricky, and we preferred to have music at a different time, but not during this speech.”
She said, “It is a very delicate topic in Holocaust programming.”
Last year’s program was “immensely successful,” she said. She said the chosen speaker spoke about the complexities and varieties of memorialization of the Holocaust.
Flannery said the local Chabad rabbi and his wife provided the speaker kosher food, which is generally not available in the local Reform Jewish community.
“The larger Jewish community was integral to the program’s success,” she said.
But Flannery said that, in August, she and another faculty member from last year’s committee were invited to be part of another committee, and they expressed concerns about the lack of including everyone else. She said Maura Hametz, a James Madison history professor and a Holocaust expert, wasn’t invited back.
“After we expressed these concerns,” Flannery said, “we were told that these concerns would go to the provost, and then they would get back to us by the end of the week. That was in August.”
She said by Oct. 12, a committee had been formed with no one from the previous committee and no Jewish faculty representation.
Later, one or more other Jewish members apparently joined.
Josh Shulruff, staff adviser for the university’s Hillel student organization, said he was one. He provided the Jan. 9 resignation letter from himself and the two other Jewish committee members.
“Greater involvement from JMU’s Jewish community would have ensured that security considerations were discussed from the beginning of the planning process,” the letter says. “The late attention given to security demonstrates that the committee was not sensitive to, and therefore could not manage, the risks associated with hosting this event.”
“The committee that planned last January’s Holocaust Remembrance programs first met in March of 2021,” the letter says. “This year’s committee held its first meeting in November. To date, the committee has only met twice, with a final meeting to take place one week before the program. As such, almost all communication has proceeded through email, and there has not been adequate opportunity for rich discussion or effective decisionmaking.”
The Breeze, the local student newspaper, published a letter raising concerns about the event. The undated letter says it was supported by “24 of Jewish JMU Faculty, Faculty Emeriti, and Staff,” but there are no names attached.
Flannery said that letter was submitted last Tuesday, Jan. 24. After that, she said, “the program changed in significant ways,” which she appreciated.
Shulruff wrote in an email that he “decided to support the anonymous letter—though I was not involved in writing it—because I was deeply offended that they reached out to a rabbi from Staunton [Va.] after we had told them that our local congregation and rabbi were concerned about the event and that organizers had made a mistake by not involving the local synagogue and Chabad. I’ve been accurately quoted in other publications calling that choice a form of tokenism.”
“The committee was formed through the recommendations of college deans as this was an academic event hosted by Academic Affairs,” the university said. “This is protocol for events planned and committees developed within Academic Affairs. Committee members were selected based on substantive expertise and commitment to the creation of an event that properly marks the occasion. Student participation was also a critically important component of this year’s events in addition to the content experts who contributed, and students from our Hillel student organization participated in the program.”
Shulruff said he attended a meeting Wednesday, the day before the event, with three university leaders.
“They gave us several hours of their time and held space for us to express the strong emotions we had as individuals, as members of the local synagogue and as members of a broader Jewish community,” he wrote. “I believe there was a genuine desire to move forward productively, and I hope they will accept our offer to convene future meetings with Jewish stakeholders both on and off campus.”