[Content warning: Mention of antisemitic hate speech]
After a nation-wide, yearlong search, Vassar recently welcomed a new Rose and Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life, Elizabeth Aeschlimann, who will also serve as Assistant Director for the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL).
RSL Director Samuel Speers commented, “We had an extensive search process, and [Aeschlimann] emerged as our clear front-runner. We were delighted that she accepted the offer and that it’s worked out for her to be here.”
“At the beginning, having someone in a new role can feel transitional, but Liz immediately jumped into her job and made that transition feel smooth,” added Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) President Josh Schwartz ’18.
Indeed, almost immediately after Aeschlimann started at Vassar, she began organizing multiple celebrations for the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A full list of celebrations can be found at a Facebook event titled “High Holy Days with the VJU.”
Originally from Madison, WI, Aeschlimann studied cognitive science at Carleton College—“a Vassar sibling of the Midwest,” she noted—before moving to Boston, where she attended Harvard Divinity School, graduating with a Master of Divinity with Judaism Concentration, and working as a community organizer with congregations.
Aeschlimann was initially told of the open position at Vassar by friends, and was attracted by the enthusiasm of Vassar’s students. “I can’t think of another place where students take so much ownership of the community and make everything happen and seek out what they are interested in learning, as well as being deeply passionate about social justice,” she said.
Much of Aeschlimann’s previous work was social justice-oriented, particularly her participation in an interfaith coalition that worked to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. The coalition was started by friends of Aeschlimann’s who were either undocumented themselves or had undocumented family members. A major component of the coalition’s work was assisting a family that had taken refuge in a church in Cambridge, MA, while fighting a deportation order.
“It’s been a really interesting experience,” Aeschlimann reflected, “to learn how to actually help this family, what’s helpful, what’s not, and how to balance this incredible resource of the interfaith community and the really complicated dynamics of race and privilege. [We wanted to] make sure that it’s truly driven by the people who are experiencing these issues.”
In addition to interfaith community organizing, Aeschlimann’s work with young Jewish people has also been motivated by her desire to help others. Her enthusiasm for Jewish community work arose out her own experiences during periods of her life when she felt varying levels of connection to and disconnection from Judaism. It was through others she met who were also going through that process of discovery and questioning that she was able to find the aspects of Jewish tradition and community that she felt were meaningful in her life. Now, Aeschlimann said, “I feel really passionate about supporting students, however they connect or don’t connect to Jewish life, and helping them see ways that different religious and spiritual practices can be resources for the things that they care about and the questions they’re struggling with.”
Beyond enduring questions about religion and spirituality and their place in one’s life, the current political climate makes it extremely difficult to be a part of any marginalized group, a fact that many in Vassar’s large Jewish community—which Speers estimates comprises 10 to 20 percent of the student body—can attest to. Two years ago, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement at Vassar caused considerable strife between students who supported Israel and those advocating for Palestine, and the College experienced several incidents of hate speech last year, some predominantly featuring graffiti of swastikas.
Aeschlimann commented that if such incidents happen again, “I want to support the work that’s been happening to understand the dynamics of how [white supremacy and anti-Semitism] and other oppressions are interlocking and how they operate and how we can fight them,” she said. “There are a lot of resources to bring to that. I’m interested in thinking about resources that religious and spiritual traditions have developed to support us when we experience oppression and need healing and to provide structures and practices that support us in changing when we are in positions of privilege or when we do something wrong.”
Of course, while many of Vassar’s Jewish students are able to depend on the Rachlin Director for support during trying times, some have pointed out that members of other marginalized religious groups, particularly Vassar’s Muslim community, would benefit from having their own advisor.
In a Miscellany News article covering one of the hate speech incidents last November, former VJU President Abigail Johnson ’17 commented, “It is long overdue for Vassar to hire an advisor for Muslim students. From personal experience as a Jewish student at Vassar, I have leaned on our advisors over the years and I think that in the next four years students will need even more support” (The Miscellany News, “Pro-Trump hate speech shocks, saddens Vassar,” 11.30.2016).
As Speers commented, “It’s critical that we make sure that all the communities on campus are supported and have the resources they need to thrive. We know both our Jewish community and Muslim community are vulnerable and feeling threatened. We try hard to pay attention to that and to what that means in this moment. We have a small but growing Muslim community here on campus and I’m committed to providing them the resources they need.”
However, the Vassar Muslim Student Union (VMSU) said that, despite their requests for an advisor, the College doesn’t have immediate plans to hire one.
VMSU member Victoria Majarali ’18 elaborated via email, “While RSL continues to provide much needed support for Muslim students at Vassar, there needs to be a concerted effort to find someone who can fill the role of Muslim advisor … The Muslim community at Vassar has definitely suffered from the lack of an advisor.”
This discrepancy likely comes down to the fact that Aeschlimann’s position is endowed—it’s funded by alumni, Jerry and Paula Gottesman ’56, P’92, in memory of Paula’s parents, Rose and Irving Rachlin—as well as the size difference between the two groups. Speers estimates that there are between 250 and 500 Jewish students at Vassar, and only 25 to 30 Muslim students. Additonally, there are many other religious groups on campus, such as Buddhist Sangha, Hindu Heritage and Unitarian Universalists, that are smaller and likewise don’t have their own advisor.
Majarali said that this estimate of the Vassar Muslim population sounds correct, but that there may be more Muslim students who choose not to openly identify as such. According to Speers, the College doesn’t keep records of students’ religious affiliations.
However, while many feel that the College could do more to support a wider range of students, in her role as Assistant Director of RSL, Aeschlimann is happy to talk to and advise any and all members of the Vassar community.
“I’m so excited to keep getting to know students and support them in creating opportunities to learn and build community,” she said. “I really welcome anyone to reach out to me for any reason.”
Very interesting to note since I am researching my Aeschlimann ancestors who immigrated from Switzerland to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania…and they were all Mennonites! It would be interesting to know something about Elizabeth’s lineage and how her family settled in Wisconsin.