By Henry Shorr
Students and faculty gathered on the steps of Tod Hall on the morning of Jan. 12 to protest the removal of professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies Jacob Labendz. The two students in charge of the rally led the supporters inside and submitted a formal petition to the school to retain Labendz’ position.
Labendz — among eight other full-time professors in designated “grow” programs — received notice that his contract would not be renewed for the upcoming 2022-23 academic year. As his program’s funding comes from an endowment, some have questioned the reasoning behind his removal.
Led by history graduate student Brooke Bobovnyik and recent graduate Alexis Heldreth, the collection of supporters took turns sharing why Labendz and the program were so important to them.
“His position at Youngstown State University ensures the continuation of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies which is dedicated to Holocaust education through community outreach and educational programs on Jewish history, as well as academic courses for students at YSU,” Bobovnyik said.
She also brought up data on how little millennials and Generation Z collectively know about the Holocaust and paired it with the uptick in antisemitic actions in the Mahoning Valley to call into question if now is right time to sunset the program.
Heldreth, who graduated with a double major in history and religious studies and a minor in Jewish studies, also spoke on how important Labendz is to her and to the community.
“He is a brilliant scholar and he is an incredible professor who cares so much about his students, but for me he is an even better mentor,” Heldreth said. “Having mentors is so vital to our experience here, and the fact that the administration doesn’t see that is disheartening.”
Heldreth reminded Labendz’ supporters the fight is not only about Labendz, but also the other programs now in flux because professors’ contracts were not renewed.
“This cause is very personal for me, but Dr. Labendz is not the only one affected. There are so many professors, like Dr. [Mustansir] Mir in the Center for Islamic Studies, who deserved this attention too because their work is vital,” Heldreth said.
The show of support overwhelmed Labendz, who came to the rally.
“The support means the world to me. I think what’s most important — and what I want to keep my focus on — is what’s good for YSU. And what’s good for YSU is the maintenance of programs like the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies, the Center for Islamic Studies, and the maintenance and retention of good faculty at their homes,” Labendz said. “Personally, though, this has been an amazing testimony to the work that we’ve done. It’s a rare honor to be in a position like the one I’ve had for the last four and a half years, and I’m overwhelmed by these testimonies to how it’s changed the student lives, to the messages they’ve received, to the knowledge they produce.”
Heldreth closed her speech at the rally by reminding those attending that the fight for Labendz is just one being fought for.
“The campaigns and the activism don’t end here, because there are so many other people we should fight for because if the administration isn’t going to, I guess it’s on us,” Heldreth said.
After the speeches, Bobovnyik and Heldreth led the group into Tod Hall to formally submit their petition containing 903 signatures and 15 letters of testimony.