Greek Life, Religion, Syracuse University

Syracuse Rabbi Comments on Fraternity Video

An image of the former Theta Tau fraternity house at Syracuse University. The greek letters have been removed from the building.

An image of the former Theta Tau fraternity house at Syracuse University. The Greek letters have been removed from the building.

By John Licinio SYRACUSE N.Y. (NCC News) — As the controversy surrounding remarks made by members of a local fraternity continues, a rabbi comments on the video itself and the connection between the Jewish community and Syracuse University.

Syracuse University banned the Theta Tau engineering fraternity from their campus after a video emerged last month of fraternity members performing a skit. The skit included multiple racial slurs and mocking imitations of the disabled. Some of the students involved in the video have brought a lawsuit against Syracuse University, claiming that the skit was satirical and that the university’s administration has unfairly branded them as racist.

Rabbi Daniel Fellman of the Temple Concord synagogue in Syracuse disagrees with this claim. Fellman said that certain phrases used by the students — including a call for Jewish people to be put “in the showers”, a reference to the gas chambers used in the Holocaust — simply went too far. “I think the phrase… is not the sort of phrase that you would just toss around, or you would just pick up someplace. That is a much more loaded phrase, and I think that indicates that there is a much bigger problem.”

The antisemitic remarks made by the Theta Tau members are made all the more disturbing by the historical relationship between American Jews and Syracuse University, according to Fellman. “…the Jewish community has felt a long connection to Syracuse University. Syracuse was one of the few schools that didn’t have quotas and welcomed Jewish students in a long time ago,” Fellman explained.

The “quotas” referenced by Fellman were imposed by many American universities during the early 20th century. They prevented Jewish students from attending these universities, even if those students met all of the requirements for attending. Syracuse University never imposed such a quota on Jewish students. As a result, Syracuse University today has the sixth-largest Jewish community of any private university in the United States, with around 16% of all undergraduate students being of Jewish descent, according to Hillel International.

Fellman believes that this long and positive relationship makes the phrase used in the Theta Tau video all the more disturbing. “I think the Jewish community was scared by that phrase. We’re used to hearing epithets tossed around, but that particular phrase I think scared a lot of people, and I think the Jewish community was bothered by it,” commented Fellman.

Fellman also connected this incident with a rally held last year in Charlottesville, North Carolina. The rally, which was initially a protest against the removal of a Confederate statue from a park, quickly escalated into a more general far-right rally, with protestors chanting, among other things, “Jews will not replace us!” Fellman said, “The events at Charlottesville last summer affected the Jewish community see a connection between the two. Certainly not all, but I think most Jews do.”

Despite the unacceptable nature of the comments made by the Theta Tau members, Fellman also believed that the university was taking the right steps in fixing the issue. Fellman explained that, during a conversation with Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud during a dinner function, Syverud asked Fellman whether any further steps needed to be taken.

Fellman also believed that the nature of social media may impose too harsh of a sentence on the students involved. Fellman explained that the students involved will likely be forever associated with their remarks, due to the widespread discussion of the event on social media. “And so, those kids could have that tossed at them if some employer 20 years from now decides to go do background research. And so the question is, is what they did worthy of a life sentence, effectively. And I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s a very hard question,” Fellman said.

As of writing, the lawsuit being brought against Syracuse University by the Theta Tau members is ongoing, although Syracuse law professor Gregory Germain does not believe that the students involved “have a real chance”, according to Syracuse.com.