UC Irvine is striving to make the campus a safe space for Jewish students.

And one of the steps it has taken to ensure a positive environment is joining Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative, a series of resources for higher education administrators to address antisemitism on college campuses put on by the organization that boasts itself as the world’s largest Jewish campus group.

Through the initiative, campus administrators — including the provost, the head of the Jewish studies program and members of UCI’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team — will undergo various trainings over a period of 16 months, said Tamy Cohen, executive director of Orange County Hillel, an umbrella organization that oversees the Hillel organization at UCI, Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton.

The program will allow participants to explore what it means to be Jewish and what antisemitism is in order to understand a Jewish student’s experience on campus, Cohen said.

“They (CCI program) will be doing a survey of all of the people at UCI — so the students, the faculty and the staff — to see where they fall in many different ways, thinking about the campus climate, primarily antisemitism, Jewish students, anti-Israel,” she said.

Halfway through the 16-month program, CCI will share the results of the survey, Cohen said, along with an action plan on what to do next to address some of the concerns that arise from the study.

UCI is the first campus within the UC system, the first in Orange County and the third university in the state to participate in the program. And the move comes at a time when antisemitism is on the rise. In Orange County, the Human Relations Commission found that Jews were the most targeted religious group for hate crimes in 2021.

However, Cohen said she has observed “the incidence(s) of antisemitism at UCI has really decreased” in the two years she’s been on the job. She attributes the decrease to “the university taking this very, very seriously.”

“They have a zero-tolerance policy for antisemitism,” she said.

Lisa Armony, executive director of the Campus Climate Initiative at Hillel International, said the program was created in 2020 “because of an increase in antisemitic incidents on many college campuses across the United States.” Given that Hillel International is a 100-year-old organization that was created to serve Jewish students, Armony said it is “very well situated” to work with universities to address rising hate.

The American Jewish Committee’s annual report on antisemitism found in 2022 that more than a third of Jewish college students experienced difficulties related to their religious identity. For example, students had trouble taking time off from classes during holidays or would avoid wearing or carrying markers that could identify them as Jewish.

People under the age of 31, the report found, were more likely to worry about their physical safety because of antisemitism.

Armony, who has been in her role for four months, has noticed that college administrators “have been very supportive of the program.”

“Most of them have been very receptive to the program and into the implementation of the action steps that they gain from the program,” Armony said.

At the end of the 16-month program, and after Hillel International has shared actionable steps with the university, Armony said there will be “ongoing dialogue and engagement.”

“We are here to support the universities along the way, at every step,” she said. “The steps that we take and the recommendations and the action steps (are) not only supporting the Jewish student community but so many of these steps are applicable to all minoritized communities on campus.”

Other universities wanting to join Hillel International’s CCI program can reach out to their local Hillel chapters, Armony said. Applications are now open for the 16-month program that will begin in August.

“The rise of antisemitism both nationally and internationally is a matter of great urgency that must be confronted,” said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. “Building on our existing strong and persistent efforts to combat antisemitism, we are proud to take the next step by joining with Hillel International.”

“We look forward to this substantial expansion of our partnerships with Hillel as we work together to create a safe and vibrant community for Jewish students to thrive,” he said.