Sukkah Vandals Confess As Miami Hillel Looks To Future

On Oct. 19, Whitney Fisch, executive director of Hillel at Miami University, was attending a funeral in Columbus when she received an unexpected question from her staff: Did anyone take down the sukkah?

On break for the end of the holiday of Sukkot, Hillel staff had been away from their property since Friday, Oct. 14. When they left, their sukkah had been standing upright. Now, it was tipped fully on its side.

Security footage showed why: At 2 a.m. on Oct. 15, three young men jumped the fence of Hillel’s property, looked around the sukkah, briefly entered it, and then pushed it over in what looked like intentional vandalism.

“My first reaction was like watching a scary movie, where you’re telling the actors, ‘Don’t go in there,’” Fisch said of seeing the footage. “I’m yelling at the screen, ‘Get out of my house’…it feels violating if you’re watching three people size up your sukkah and then deciding with zero regard to do whatever they want to it.”

The Oxford Police Department and Miami University administration both opened investigations into the incident. On Friday, Oct. 21, Hillel, which serves roughly 1,000 Miami Jewish students, told the broader community what happened through email and social media posts. As police advised, the posts included the security footage to see if anyone could identify or find the young men.

Instead, the men — whom the campus administration confirmed to be Miami University students — came back to Hillel that night to confess.

Hillel was about to start their Family Weekend Shabbat when Fisch saw the young men standing in the building. Staff alerted police while Fisch and Ben Flox, Hillel’s operation manager, had a private five-minute conversation with the students.

They admitted to vandalizing the sukkah and claimed it was drunk shenanigans, rather than an intentional malicious act. Fisch left the meeting with a sour taste.

“It felt like I was having to make them feel better,” she said. “Rather than a true teshuva, a true [repentance], it felt like they were scared out of their minds and just wanted it to go away, and wanted me to tell them that I can do that. I can’t and I’m not going to.”

As for the students’ claim that the vandalism wasn’t motivated by antisemitism, Fisch has no response. “I can’t make that determination in a five-minute conversation,” she said.

At the same time, she and Hillel have avoided saying the vandalism was an act of antisemitism. “I can’t stand up in a court of law and [say it’s antisemitism] confidently,” Fisch said. “I also didn’t want to alarm [Jewish] students by using that kind of language if it wasn’t necessary.”

On Monday, Oct. 24, the students turned themselves in to the Oxford police. In a statement, the OPD found the incident wasn’t motivated by “religious bias,” and the three students – two 20-year-olds and one 19-year-old – have been charged with felony vandalism due to over $1,000 in damages from the vandalism.

“This incident underscores the unintended consequences that may result from…property damage, and the real effects on the feelings of safety and security when someone trespasses onto the property of another,” OPD said. “While the suspects in this case did not understand that they were damaging a religious symbol, the effects were felt by the Jewish community.”

Miami University declined to say what disciplinary actions might be taken against the students.

Meanwhile, Fisch doesn’t want the students to face harsh consequences. “I believe in the restorative justice process, I’m not interested in them having permanent records,” Fisch said. “I would love to see [the students] want to give back, not monetarily…[but] repair that harm within our community. What that looks like, I’m not really sure yet.”

– Community response a silver lining –

After news broke of the sukkah vandalism, Miami University and the broader Jewish community was swift to respond with messages of support for Hillel.

“Jewish students at Miami University…should feel free to worship as they see fit and be proud Jews without feeling threatened or intimidated,” said Justin Kirschner, regional director of the American Jewish Committee office in Cincinnati, in a statement. “We stand with Miami University Hillel and all those affected.”

Rabbi Ari Ballaban, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Cincinnati, said the JCRC is working with Hillel to address any security concerns. “Whether or not this was an act of intentional antisemitism…the situation will only exacerbate concerns about Jews’ equity and security on college campuses,” Ballaban said in a statement.

“We are committed to every Jewish student, faculty, and staff feeling welcome and included as part of the Miami community,” the university said in a statement. “We condemn the vandalism and desecration of the sukkah, and all acts of vandalism and hate.”

Fisch appreciates the responsiveness of both Oxford police and the university administration, with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion co-sponsoring a “Shabbat of Love & Honor” at Hillel this Friday to show solidarity with the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, hearing from the broader Jewish community has been particularly important for Hillel staff, as Miami University can sometimes feel like an island disconnected from surrounding communities, Fisch said. She added that, if Jews want to further help Hillel, donations are always welcome to support Jewish student life.

Also, “come visit us in Oxford, especially if you’re in Cincinnati,” she said. “It’s a 45-minute straight shot. See our students…they are the Jewish future. You want to see it in action, come to Oxford. You’re welcome anytime.”

Several Jewish students messaged Hillel staff to say that the sukkah vandalism sparked a bigger sense of Jewish identity, Fisch said. She hopes to help those students find their place in the Jewish community, rather than waiting until another negative event to feel connected.

Fisch emphasized that, despite the vandalism, Miami University is still a safe place and a good school for Jewish students.

This incident is “shaping up to be the most inspiring thing that could have happened Jewishly in a long time,” Fisch said. “That’s something to wrestle with. I hope that we still see this kind of support, not just in times of struggle for the Miami Jewish community, but [also when we have] our celebrations.”