When North Woodmere resident Eytan Israelov, 24, was accepted to the nursing school at Columbia University, he was proud to be accepted to the Ivy League school but also noticed the school’s logo, a crown topped by a cross in the highly specific color called Columbia Blue. He was not offended by the logo that predates this country’s independence, but wanted to personalize his graduation gown in a way that celebrates his Jewish identity.
The example came from Rudy Rochman, who altered the school’s logo on his graduation gown in 2018 by replacing the cross with a Magen David. “When I saw that post, I always knew that when my graduation would come, I would aim to do the same thing,” Israelov said. In a time when minority identities are celebrated on college campuses, many students wear theirs on their gowns with sashes displaying African kente patterns and rainbow stripes.
At the time, Rochman spoke publicly of how pro-Israel Jewish students are not treated with the same respect, as the legitimacy of their historic homeland is questioned and falsely branded as a colonial settler entity. The French-born IDF veteran founded Students Supporting Israel to push back in a visible manner that exudes Jewish pride. “It’s a symbol that no matter what we go through in this diaspora, we are still here, and we are one,” Israelov said.
Raised in Queens, his family respects Jewish observance and its symbols. “The closer you are to the culture and Israel, then you care about that star and you know you can’t wear crosses,” he said.
The situation facing Israelov has been addressed by poskim in related topics. In Rav Moshe Feinstein’s halachah sefer, Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah (1:69), a collector asked whether stamps depicting a crucifix are permissible as they are not used for idolatrous worship and their manufacturer expects them to be defaced and discarded. Rav Menashe Klein, the Ungvarer Rav, was also asked a similar question by a Jewish doctor whose hospital uniform featured a cross. Was the cross an explicitly religious symbol, or merely used as a logo of an organization?
Columbia University is a nonsectarian institution. Its logo relates to its pre-independence name, King’s College, when it was associated with the Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan and received its charter from King George II, whose crown was topped by a cross.
But even when halachah permits an object that is historically connected with other religions, stringencies are praised, certainly when it creates a kiddush Hashem. “It’s a very liberal institution, not technically pro-Israel, and sometimes it makes us Jews hide our identities in fear that we will be judged.”
Perhaps that is an understatement for an institution that welcomed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a speaker in 2007, where the chair of the Middle East Department is named after anti-Israel academic Edward Said, and where the battle over BDS in the student government is repeated each year. At the same time, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger condemned a student referendum in favor of BDS that passed last September, and the Jewish community on campus is served by multiple organizations that provide kosher food, religious services, and a connection with Israel.
Israelov attends classes at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Washington Heights, a couple of miles north of the main campus. “The nursing campus didn’t really have Jewish-related clubs or events. We were ten out of a class of 200. Not much room for a club,” he said.
When he is not studying nursing, Israelov works in Queens as the co-owner of Ganey Orly, a family-owned kosher restaurant and caterer in Rego Park. Prior to Columbia, he attended Hunter College, where the sight of anti-Israel banners inspired Israelov to be more vocal about his Jewish identity. “Freshman year of Hunter, I was greeted with ‘free Palestine’ flags outside campus. It defined a new view for me.”
By Sergey Kadinsky