Office of Inclusive Excellence Diversity Dialogues series sheds light on Jewish American experience at Lees-McRae

The Office of Inclusive Excellence at Lees-McRae held its latest installment of the Diversity Dialogues discussion series, “Shalom Y’all: The Jewish-American Experience in the High Country” on Tuesday, Sept. 13, drawing a crowd of support from Jewish and non-Jewish community members alike.

The four panelists provided perspectives from different areas of the Lees-McRae College community. Sophomore Ben Gribbins and senior Emmett Lebendig spoke to the Jewish student experience, while Director of Counseling Services Marla Gentile spoke to the staff experience, and Trustee Neil Ramo shared an institutional perspective.

Led by Chief Diversity Officer Charles Gibson, the panelists discussed their experiences as Jewish Americans living in the High Country and spoke to the sense of community they feel and have been able to build in the area.

“I found community in the older people of the area. The people I have met are way more open than people in the area I grew up in,” Gribbins said. “Even though I haven’t found a massive Jewish community of other people my age, I feel like I have found a great community here that respects my views, and wants to learn about it, and will celebrate with me.”

Gribbins said that the friends he has made at Lees-McRae come from all walks of life, and while many of them don’t share his ethno-religious experience as a Jewish person, the environment on campus has allowed him to feel comfortable and confident being himself.

He recalled a time at the end of the 2021−22 school year when he had trouble finding kosher foods to eat on campus. Through talking with Gibson and some of the other members of the Jewish community in the area, people came together to support Gribbins and provide him with meals that aligned with his faith.

“I’m really looking forward to the high holidays this year, because I’m slowly finding people I can celebrate with,” Gribbins said.

Community-building has also been an important part of the college experience for Lebendig, who has gotten involved with the temple in Boone, and the Hillel at Appalachian State University.

“I came to Lees-McRae without ever having stepped foot in a temple, never having done any Hebrew reading or anything like that,” Lebendig said. “Originally, I wasn’t really interested in looking for that, but pretty quickly I became interested in trying to find a Jewish community here and get involved with the temple.”

Having grown up in a largely homogenous community primarily populated by white Christians in a rural county outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, Lebendig said that his time in college has not only been about getting connected to a community, but also becoming more connected to his own ethnic and religious background.

“I would say the biggest difficulty I’ve had to deal with is just getting in touch with my own Jewish identity and finding a culture here that I didn’t have growing up just because I was isolated from that kind of thing,” Lebendig said.

Much of the foundation for this community was laid by Gentile and Ramo who have both been involved in the development of the Jewish community in the High Country for multiple decades.

When she first moved to the area around the time of her son’s bar mitzvah, Gentile had a desire to get involved. While she found a supportive community, there was no temple. With the support and financial help of the Schaefer family, Gentile got involved in the construction of a building that would become the center of Jewish life in the High Country.

In addition to being involved in the temple, Ramo also serves as an advisor of the chapter of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi at Appalachian State, and previously served on the Board for the Center of Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies at the school.

While each of the panelists discussed some of the prejudices and anti-Semitic attitudes they have had to face at different times in their lives, they all agreed that the strong and supportive community they have come to be a part of at Lees-McRae has welcomed them with open arms.

Not only is this community support important for creating a safe and open-minded environment for all people, but it also allows people to thrive, develop their identity, and become more in tune with the things that make each person their own individual.

“We have a thing in Judaism called ‘tikkun olam.’ What that means is ‘repairing the world,’ and it is one of our most important concepts. It means that when we live in this world, our job as people on this earth is to do things to repair the world, and to also love and be good to other people,” Gentile said. “I’m not a very religious person, but one thing I do spiritually, is I wake up every day and I think, ‘what can I do to give back to the world, and to give back to the people in the world,’ and that is the essence of Judaism.”

Watch the entire panel here

By Maya JarrellSeptember 16, 2022
CommunityCampus Life