Speaking to President Gay, Harvard Chabad rabbi blasts school’s handling of antisemitism

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi: ‘We in the Jewish community are longing for a day that we can refer to the president and all of Harvard as ours.’

Harvard President Claudine Gay lights the menorah at Harvard Chabad's Hanukkah celebration

Gabby Deutch

Harvard President Claudine Gay lights the menorah at Harvard Chabad's Hanukkah celebration

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Standing next to a large menorah in front of Harvard’s historic Widener Library, Harvard Chabad Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi delivered a blistering speech on Wednesday castigating the school for a lack of leadership on antisemitism and bemoaning the difficulties faced by Jewish students in recent months. 

Zarchi spoke to a crowd of several dozen students and community members, but the most important person in the audience was Harvard President Claudine Gay. Just a day earlier, Harvard’s governing board had voted to keep her as president after her disastrous handling of congressional questioning about whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s code of conduct. 

“The email referred to you as ‘Our President,’” Zarchi said, referring to the subject line of the university-wide email sent on Tuesday by the Harvard Corporation that affirmed Gay’s service as president. “We in the Jewish community are longing for a day that we can refer to the president and all of Harvard as ours.”

Days earlier, the board of the University of Pennsylvania had voted to oust President Liz Magill following her own similarly bungled response to the question about Jewish genocide. Meanwhile, a couple miles away, Massachusetts Institute of Technology had — like Harvard — decided to keep in place President Sally Kornbluth, who had also appeared at the Capitol Hill hearing about antisemitism. 

In a 15-minute address, the usually upbeat Zarchi offered a sober assessment of the state of Jewish life at Harvard since Oct. 7. He described an atmosphere of fear for Jewish students and for his own family, who he said had been advised by Harvard’s police department to obtain private security last week after Harvard Chabad hosted a screening of IDF footage from the Hamas terror attacks in Israel. “We were being accused of hosting a war criminal,” Zarchi said, presumably referring to Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, who introduced the screening last week.

“We are gathering in a moment when the eyes of the world are upon us. Everybody is looking at Harvard now,” Zarchi said. “It pains me to have to say, sadly, that Jew-hate and antisemitism is thriving on this campus.”

“I don’t feel that they had the back of me and my family and our community,” said Zarchi, the Jackie and Omri Dahan Harvard Chabad Jewish Chaplain. “Twenty-six years I gave my life to this community. I’ve never felt more alone.”

In a story that at first seemed inspiring, Zarchi shared how Harvard had first allowed a menorah to be set up in Harvard Yard more than two decades ago. But quickly, this story, too, took a turn toward the negative when he shocked the crowd by revealing that the menorah does not remain in the Yard at night.

“This bothers me until this very day. You know what happens to the menorah? After everyone leaves the Yard, we’re gonna pack it up. We have to hide it somewhere,” Zarchi said. Harvard “would not allow us to leave the menorah here overnight, because there’s fear that it’ll be vandalized.”

He had never shared that fact publicly before.

“Think about that. We’re trying to fix the world, teach the leaders of the world,” Zarchi continued. “On our campus, in the shadow of Widener Library, we in the Jewish community are instructed, ‘We’ll let you have your menorah. Make your point. OK. Pack it up. Don’t leave it out overnight. Because there will be criminal activity here and it won’t look good.”

Change, he said, will happen “when we don’t have to pack up the menorah.” 

Throughout Zarchi’s speech, Gay, flanked by her husband, watched solemnly. He concluded by calling her up to help light the menorah for the seventh night of Hanukkah.

“It’s my hope, and I know I speak for everyone here, that we can work together with you,” Zarchi said. He implored her to speak up when she sees people on campus targeting Jews: “You don’t walk by and say nothing. You speak. You don’t remain silent.”

Gay walked up and lit the shamash, the candle that is used to then light the rest of the flames. At the end of the event, she posed for a picture with the group. But she did not share any public remarks.

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