Wesleyan Shooter’s ‘Columbine’ Plan Spotlights Jewish Identity on Campus — Or Not

By Anthony Weiss

Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When the alleged murderer of Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich shattered the idyllic calm of this leafy Connecticut campus, it was just the beginning of his plans, police say.

In his journal and other writings, they say, alleged killer Stephen Morgan wrote, “I think it’s okay to kill Jews, and go on a killing spree at this school.” In other writings, he reportedly described his plan to create a “Jewish Columbine.”

This led school authorities to evacuate the 22 students living at the Bayit, Wesleyan’s Jewish programming house, who hadn’t already left.

Yet what could have been a moment of vulnerability and isolation for Wesleyan’s Jewish students turned out to be quite the opposite. In interviews, Jewish, non-Jewish and half-Jewish Wesleyan students suggested repeatedly that nothing the alleged gunman had done moved them to view Jews as separated out in any way from the rest of the student body. For the students — and, it appears from his writings, for Morgan, as well — there was no distinction, because there is essentially no difference.

“I think it was more a dislike of Wesleyan students, and he considers us all ‘Jews,’” said freshman Jon Booth, who said he is not Jewish.

The May 6 shooting death of Justin-Jinich burst what students here describe as “the Wesleyan bubble,” replacing the ordinary stresses of finals period with shock and fear. In addition to being a very personal and fatal attack on Justin-Jinich — whom Morgan had stalked in the past — it also appeared to be, from Morgan’s journals, an attack on Wesleyan’s identity, on a campus where identity is not assumed, but debated, studied and even protested.

For Morgan, who was apprehended May 7, part of that had to do with his sense of Wesleyan’s students as the chosen elite. According to a warrant for his arrest, Morgan wrote resentfully about seeing the beautiful, smart and well-to-do students at Wesleyan. Somehow, it seems, this, combined with his obsession for Justin-Jinich, led him to focus on a different kind of chosenness, one that singled out Jewish students from their peers — or, perhaps, conflated the two.

Wesleyan has had a heavily Jewish presence for decades. Jeremy Zwelling, director of the university’s Israel and Jewish studies program, recalls Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld visiting in the late 1970s and commenting on how Jewish the campus felt compared with the stiff Protestantism of other New England colleges. According to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, 735 of Wesleyan’s 2,700 undergraduates, or 27.2%, are Jewish.

Beyond the numbers, however, recently there have been signs of a higher Jewish profile on campus. The new dining hall has a kosher component for the first time. And President Michael Roth, who was installed in July 2007, is the first Jew to hold that post in the school’s 178-year history.

But right now, at least, school officials appear eager to downplay any focus on the role of Jewishness in the recent murder.

“I don’t think the ravings of someone about to commit murder are particularly relevant to who we are,” Roth told the Forward.

When a Forward reporter sought to interview residents of the Bayit, Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, Wesleyan’s Jewish chaplain, sent an e-mail labeled “URGENT” to the Bayit’s house manager, instructing her to “highly discourage” students from talking to the media lest their comments “be distorted to advance a range of personal agendas.” When asked about the e-mail, Teva said that he was simply trying to protect the students.

In general, Jewish identity at Wesleyan has been less notable for its emphasis on ethnic or religious solidarity than on qualities that have come to be associated with a different kind of Jewish cultural identity in America — activist liberal politics, intellectualism and a freewheeling brand of creativity.

That description could have extended to Justin-Jinich. A New York Times article said that Justin-Jinich was Jewish but that a former roommate said she regarded herself as “agnostic and politically liberal.”

“That’s Jewish!” Zwelling exclaimed. He added that the profile of the “typical” Wesleyan student — intellectual, elite and well heeled — though perhaps not entirely accurate, overlaps to a great extent with the image of the young Jewish suburbanites who do, in fact, attend such universities as Wesleyan.

Wesleyan does have a significant active Jewish community, of course, including the Bayit, which hosts Sabbath dinners at its kosher dining hall and mounts regular programs on Jewish and Israeli subjects. Yet even here, the lines are blurred, as a significant minority of the Bayit’s residents aren’t Jewish.

“I never identified with the Jews in the house more than on that day,” said one non-Jewish sophomore, who asked not to be identified by name. “Now I understand what it feels like to be in this position — being Jewish, feeling part of an oppressed group, with hateful prejudice directed against me because I live here.”

Part of the complication is that at Wesleyan, identity, Jewish or otherwise, is not a simple thing. It is a complex and multifaceted construction that people wear as consciously as an outfit of clothes.

In fact, many of the students interviewed bristled at the notion of reducing Justin-Jinich’s killing to a “Jewish Columbine.”

“The thing that frustrates me is that nobody is talking about it as an act of violence against women,” said Karina, a junior who described herself as “half-Jewish” and asked to be identified by her first name only. “To call it a ‘Jewish Columbine,’ that undermines [Morgan’s] intent.”

For others, the notion of antisemitism at a place like Wesleyan was simply foreign.

“Of course antisemitism exists, but I don’t think of it as a daily threat the way that others are targeted on a daily basis,” Jewish sophomore Laura Bliss said. “There’s definitely a tinge of antiquity that added to the surreal way in which everything happened.”

But for many, the most salient fact of the killing was the most basic, which was that Justin-Jinich was simply another student like themselves.

“I think because of the fact that Wesleyan is such a small school, we don’t necessarily see ourselves as a bunch of groups,” said Alex Gumpel, a sophomore. “We’re a bunch of individuals who happen to be in groups. The targeting of one individual is the targeting of the community as a whole.”

Contact Anthony Weiss at weiss@forward.com.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.