Isaac De Castro on Standing Up for Your Beliefs Amid Adversity

Isaac De Castro on Standing Up for Your Beliefs Amid Adversity

Ashley Rindsberg

Isaac De Castro - Co-Founder of Jewish On Campus.

Ashley: All right. Isaac De Castro, welcome. This is The Burning Castle and it's great to meet you. I'm seeing you on Twitter. I'm seeing you with Jewish on Campus, and it's awesome to see that. So welcome and I think what would be great is if you just give background. Just tell me who you are? Where you're coming from and what you're doing?

Isaac: Yeah, for sure. So my name is Isaac de Castro. As you just said I'm a senior at Cornell right now. I just took a semester off. So I'm coming back in the spring, hopefully. I'm from Panama City, Panama. I grew up here my entire life. Left a few years ago to go to college. And the community here is a predominantly Syrian Sephardi community. I come from Hispanic, Portuguese Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and a few other mixes in their background. So not necessarily Syrian, but this is the community I grew up in, which it's an interesting mix. So I have, you know, a lot of the background to the Latino there.

Ashley: For anyone out there listening, when Isaac's talking about Syrian, his meaning the Syrian Jewish community.

Isaac: Yeah.

Ashley: And maybe because I feel like people who know the community and are part of it are very familiar with it. But for anyone else, they probably don't really know. So give a little context for what that means to be in part of the Syrian community in the world, but in the diaspora, especially.

Isaac: So I think there are like a few big Syrian Jewish communities, just like the community in Deal, New Jersey. And there's the Panamanian Jewish community. There's a big community in Mexico. It's an interesting community. I mean, I'm not Syrian, but the best food in my opinion really flexible, like the religious aspect, but pretty religious at the same time. Like, I don't know how to explain it.

Ashley: They're very, very steeped in tradition. It's like tradition governs the community, even if it's not necessarily like strict observance, but it's like heavy tradition.

Isaac: Yeah. 100%. That's a great way to explain it.

Ashley: But beautiful. But everything with like a touch of splendor, which makes it very special because it's never... Like you go to a Kiddush, which is a kind of a little brunch after praying on the Sabbath or Shabbat. And sometimes you know it's nicer, whatever. But you go to a Syrian Jewish community, it's almost an opulence, like the way they celebrate that tradition. That's been my take. But you tell me.

Isaac: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it's pretty insular, but at the same time, like pretty integrated. Like it has all of these paradoxes that I've observed, like being a part of this community and at the same time, not being a part of this community growing up. So yeah, I mean, that's pretty much my explanation, as far as I want to go. I went to Jewish day school for most of my life. That whole deal I'm kind of like modern Orthodox adjacent. We don't have like really denominations here. We have like a small reform community.

Ashley: Which is very common in a lot of diaspora communities like those that are really tight-knit and really insular. They stick to like one main Orthodox tradition, that's local and then there's like a little bit smattering around of other stuff. But it's really, which lends, I think to unity as well. There's a more unified community.

Isaac: I agree with that. I think it also allows for more flexibility and freedom in a weird way. I think people wouldn't think so, but...

Ashley: Yeah.

Isaac: You have like a ground in the center, which you can go back and forth from and oscillate from as much as you want. Like, you'll have people who are very, very religious and like wear a hat or you'll have people who, you know, you'll see outside eating cheeseburgers, and every Friday they'll be the same synagogue together. And yeah, you'll have different variations of religiousness and religious practice and adherence between like families and stuff like that, which I think is wonderful. I think everyone can choose their own path in what they're comfortable in and still belong in the same community, which I think is something that different bigger Jewish communities like the United States or Argentina could like really learn from more.

Ashley: Or Israel for that matter.

Isaac: Really.

Ashley: I mean Israel has some of that. It has some of that unity. It has people obviously mixing together because they all live in the same society. But there is also that like, you know, infighting, the kind of skirmishes that happen all the time for jostling for position among different communities, different denominations, so to speak. So it is not a hundred percent unity. I mean, not that there is anywhere. So you grew up in Panama City Jewish community, Syrian Jewish community, not Syrian. Let's fast forward. You get to Cornell. Why Cornell? Why New York? Why the US?

Isaac: Many people go to the US if you can. Like it's much better than going to school here. It's an opportunity to get out of the community and, you know, like go to the best school that you can. It's more accessible than necessarily going to Europe. Especially it's like, we learn English here. I don't know. It's more Americanized, I'd say than other countries have that influence of, you know, the Canal Zone in the US. So it's very common for people to go to a school in the US. I chose Cornell that was kind of out of the ordinary. I don't know if any people have gone to Cornell in Panama, maybe like a handful.

Ashley: I'm one of them. I went to Cornell and I started at a different college and wasn't really loving it. Just transferred to Cornell and was quite an experience I have to say. It's a very interesting place.

Isaac: Yeah, for sure. I mean from Panama, it's rare because if you're going to go to an Ivy league, you'll go to like Panama or Columbia. We won't go to the middle of nowhere. I wanted to study architecture when I was in high school. Actually like for most of my life growing up, I knew I wanted to be an architect. And that bubble eventually burst while I was in Cornell. But I applied to, you know, architecture, professional architecture degree programs. Like Cornell, which is like a bachelor of architecture degree program. If anyone listening don't do it. But it's a...

Ashley: Why do you say that? Why do you say don't do it?

Isaac: It's awful. It's awful. It's abusive and toxic. And I would not recommend it to anyone.

Ashley: That was always the reputation that things there just were off the hook in terms of the workload, intensity, the exhaustion level. So the students it's like, I almost felt like those students were like in a different realm that just different rules applied over there.

Isaac: Yeah, no, they do. Like, we have different requirements. Like everything is completely different. Like I only have to take basically like five classes outside, in the future if I want to. It's like different requirements for freshmen writing seminar. Like it's all very different and very specific. And yeah, I would not recommend it. I think that making that choice is like 17 years old or 16, I don't know like whenever you're applying to college, it's not conducive. And I've actually heard this from many people who have graduated from this type of program or like done grad school. I think doing grad school and like getting a liberal arts education, even though it'll take you like one and a half years longer, like do that.

Ashley: But you got to Cornell, you left architecture for a different program, but then along the way, you became involved with Jewish on Campus. How did that evolve? Where did it come from?

Isaac: I mean. Yeah. So that's recent and it's recent that I left the architecture program. I think like maybe a year ago, probably exactly that I made the choice to leave. I transferred not very far. Still within the same college basically because most of my credits I needed to like transfer in. So I'm in a history of architecture and urban development major and it freed up my time. I never had time before. And I say that with no exaggeration. I was a very busy person, solid by architecture school. Loved it at times, hated it at times. But for better or for worse, I was spending all of my time on school and on buildings. So it freed up my time. I was having a relaxed schedule. And for all of my time that I was in school, I always was missing like the Jewish part. I came from a very tight-knit community, as we were talking about before, essentially a bubble, which was completely different when I was in college. Again, like I was within, this other realm. Cornell has a big Jewish community. It has like vibrant Jewish life.

Ashley: Yeah.

Isaac: I was not in it. I had no time to go and purposely participate. I was also not really interacting with Jewish people. I was in an architecture program with very few Jewish people. And those within the program were like, really not from very similar backgrounds from me to connect on that with. So it's completely separate apart from being in a very, very like progressive space in which, as we know, antisemitism is like starting to thrive a lot. So I was seeing things. I was getting comments. I was like in the classroom and it just like, I think all built up to the point where now that I had time. I think this was during the summer after last spring semester, like this year, like July, I was like, okay, I'm putting this page out. I put it out on Twitter. I got some help from people I didn't know on Twitter and I launched it. I thought that people needed to know what was going on, on college campuses. And the best way to do it was anonymous because Jewish students are really between a rock and a hard place like cornered.

Ashley: I want to unwind something, which is, when you said you were hearing like you were getting comments, you were seeing things. What were you seeing? What were you hearing that even kind of spur this on or give you the impetus to do it?

Isaac: Yeah, I mean, you know, whenever I was going to take off for a Jewish holiday, like our professor used to be like, really. Like, do you really need to? And another Jewish student left on Yom Kippur and a Jewish professor, I think was like, I've never left on Yom Kippur. Something like that. Like, it was a very, very toxic environment. I mean, that's...

Ashley: Strange.

Isaac: That's the best of it. I think like way too many lectures that were very much biased towards Israel. Like borderline, pretty badly calling for Israel destruction and, you know, pretty misleading information. The same thing would happen in basically every single class that I was taking. In the history department, it was completely biased against Israel. Like Israel would be brought up for no reason in the syllabus as this like white colonial state, whatever. I would get comments from like my friends, I think at the beginning where like Jews control Cornell. And I was like, what? I got all of these like micro aggressions. I didn't even cover all of them. But like, it made an environment where I felt like kind of off-put by it. And I have never been like a really religious person. I never really cared about my Jewish identity or religion, I think growing up and maybe I took it for granted. But that was never in my periphery or in my direction. You know there were people who loved it. There were people who were very much into it growing up and, you know, would put attention to that. And would pray with Kavanaugh(?) and with how do you say it. Like...

Ashley: Intention.

Isaac: With meaning. Yeah. Intention. Like I never liked praying. I never was a straight A student except in Jewish studies course. I'm like B’s. Because I didn't care and like, I just wanted to be an architect, you know. And that like came crashing down. I think I was forced to be pulled back into it and now I'm doing this.

Ashley: That to me is so much the story of Jewish identity, which is that you might try all you can to escape it. You won't. You can't. You know, even during the Holocaust, we saw people who consider themselves German Christians were shipped off to concentration camps because one grandparent was Jewish. They couldn't escape their identity and I think that's just one of these perennial lessons of Jewish history. So at Cornell, and you know, I hear you talking about Cornell and what that was like, and I saw maybe a smattering when I was there, which was in 2000, which was 2000, until 2002 or three or something like that. And you know, it bothered me but it was very minor. And the rest of the time like you never felt any animosity.

So I'm thinking about you as a young college student who gets to this great school and looking forward to this educational experience that you're going to have of open-mindedness and progress and ideas. And then it's tainted by something like that, because what you're saying sounds a lot like it's a menace. Something that was very menacing. Something that was kind of always lurking in the background that makes you, as you said puts you off. And it just sounds like a terrible way to go through college.

Isaac: It is. I think it's not necessarily specific to Jewish students or to Cornell. It's just like a universal thing that is happening to people who don't fit into like this horizontal line of all these beliefs that you have to accept within like this new progressive work world in which you have to be anti-racist, you have to like think this, think that, and like with it comes being anti-scientist and being hostile. So the only Jewish state. So it's like on this one line, so when you're in college, I think I could be wrong. I think it's a generally common thing to feel that it's just biased towards that. And it just naturally becomes a hostile environment for Jewish students. And I think that's what I was feeling. And with this environment, like and this is something that I've said so many times, I think universities can't pride themselves anymore in having academic freedom if their students are being suppressed.

And I know for a fact that Jewish students are feeling suppressed on college campuses. You can't have these quote-unquote wrong opinions. So yeah. I mean, I think it's a problem. And I know like I'm very vocal about it. I'm obviously gone into space and do activism for this specifically. But I know most students’ kind of like how I was going in. Like Jewish identity is part of me, but it's not everything. Like you to be a lawyer. You want to be a doctor. You want to be a politician. Whatever you want to be, and you're Jewish. So to do that, you kind of have to be quiet. And like you're having this environment where Jewish students have to like choose to either be socially ostracized or have a pretty uncomfortable experience or go through it smoothly, but keep quiet about their beliefs and their Jewish identity.

Ashley: Wow.

Isaac: So I think that's kind of the situation that's going on.

Ashley: I mean again, from what I experienced going to the same university, just what are we talking now? I don't know. Fifteen, twenty years earlier, which is a long time, that's a sea change. That's something completely different from what I experienced. Honestly, I couldn't even imagine what that's like and it's so drastic. But at the same time, I also feel like it's something that I was watching unfold in slow motion over the last 15, 20 years in regards to the discourse on Israel and how it became a way to poison every child. And academia's not only a prime target but also a source of so much of that. So it's not that big of a surprise, but it is a bit of a shock.

Isaac: It's been unfolding for a while. And I think like it's been a drastic change in the last five, six years. But it's been like a long time coming. And I think it comes in part, not just with the education system. I think like I was saying before, it's part of a larger climate and we are seeing drastic changes within society socially and this is part of a symptom. I think so many people have said it, like, I think Bari Weiss describes it. And like, I think the first chapter of her book, like a virus and many people, have made this analogy. And when society is not doing well, like this virus comes on. I think that's totally true. Anti-Zionism is like hostility towards Israel. It's like the new version or the new mutation of this virus.

Ashley: Yeah. But now the virus has become complex because entities or countries or individuals or organizations that used to hold that position are also changing direction. For example, the Gulf States possibly Saudi Arabia, a lot of countries in Central Asia and East Europe have these really favorable attitudes towards Israel where they, before that they did it. And then in places that usually were at least tolerant of Israel, like America is now kind of shifting as well to something that it never used to be. So it's a strange dynamic and it all involves, of course, the way people think about and feel about Jews at the end of the day.

Isaac: Yeah. You're right. It's crazy. It's just crazy to think about. You think about the Democratic party and how it's kind of slowly becoming the norm to be more and more quote-unquote critical of Israel. And the Democratic party in the United States has historically just been completely solid on Israel. Even, I don't remember, like right now I can't put a pin on it, but like even more so than the Republican party. So...

Ashley: Yeah. Definitely.

Isaac: Historically, it's been the pro-Israel party, the Republican party hasn't, wasn't. So it's super interesting to see this shift come about and it's unsettling. But it's not something that's comfortable. I'd say what happened was something that was coming.

Ashley: What about Jewish on Campus? Like what are you guys doing? What you're about? What's the mission and what's the vision?

Isaac: When we started, it was what it is. Like at first glance, it was a page where we were putting out stories of anti-Semitism. I wasn't thinking much when I was launching it. It was just a page put out something to do over the summer. Some like activism work seeing what's happening and it's grown from there. We saw the niche missing that many bigger organizations that have not been feeling of giving young Jewish people a space within the realm of social movements and social media, which have become inextricably linked. I think now, as well as like very, very necessary. So Jewish on Campus has been like folding into that niche, which is why we make like educational content as well as putting out the anonymous stories now. And we're growing more now. We filed for non-profit. We will have that soon. I think we've been working on that for a while now. We were returning the paperwork because we wrote one word wrong.

But we're doing that. We're kind of turning it into a bigger project, which will focus on giving a space to the Jewish students and the young Jewish people within this realm. Because like we see like society changing and personally with the risk of sounding pessimistic, I don't see it turning back. I don't see universities going back to a world where Jewish students are going to feel comfortable talking about being Zionist and all these things. I don't see necessarily activist pages on social media that are really big, just necessarily becoming very much pro-Jewish when it's so commonplace to like take another side. So we want to make a space where we can hold and cradle Jewish people, not necessarily just for fighting antisemitism. Although that will be a huge component of that. It'll also be like some sort of forum and place of discussion for Jewish people. And I can't really release a lot of that now. Like you'll see that very soon within the next few months of how we're kind of unfolding as an organization.

Ashley: So for Jewish students out there on campuses right now and who are feeling some of what you're feeling, what do you think is the best step for them to take? How can they take an action or series of actions that might help them feel more empowered at least to confront what's in front of them?

Isaac: I think finding community is always important. I think that's something that I was missing. And maybe kind of, that's why it was pushed into this point of being this hugely outspoken person because that was very much isolated within this world. So I think finding community is something very important. Within this hostile environment, like go to Halal or go to Shabbat, if you can. Habad, you know, all these places. Like, find Jewish friends as well as branching out, which is something that I wish I did. I think the other component is to start to speak out. I think the academic world is taking advantage of the fact that Jewish students will take it. We will sit there and we will be quiet during a class where we're being called ethno-nationalist, like genocide supporters. And we're just going to sit there, be quiet because of the professor or whatever. There will be like SJP stuff on campus and Jewish students will feel like that's valid.

Ashley: Well, let's talk about the moments...

Isaac: Most of the time it's not.

Ashley: When you're sitting there taking it. You know hearing a lie spread about Jewish people, about Jewish state or history and you're in the classroom and someone saying that, what do you do at that moment? Do you stand up and protest? Do you shout? Do you raise your hand? How do you confront that moment?

Isaac: I don't know. I think it's difficult. I mean, I'm sitting here and I'm saying speak out and I know it's not as easy. Because first of all, I haven't actually been in school since I started this. And when I was in school I never really did. I mean I made a big fuss about something recently that happened with a lecture, which I felt needed, like some sort of counterbalance and I was very outspoken about it. That was very much like my first time being really out there about my beliefs.

Ashley: And what does it mean to be outspoken like in a practical sense, like how do you take?

Isaac: I was posting on Facebook and Instagram, where I knew everyone within my circle. Like this is all happening within the architecture realm. And I was posting within there where I know there are many people listening, basically. Like the architecture community is super tight-knit, especially at Cornell. It's like a tiny major, smallest, like one of the smallest majors in the school. Everyone knows everyone and everyone's friends with everyone. So everyone was seeing my comments. Essentially, like there was like a lecture and just to summarize it real quick, there was like another point of view that was offered and it was done like kind of messily. And people within the department got really angry and they were like, Zionists did this. It was like very, very horrible language too in the way they did it.

Ashley: Wow. Wow.

Isaac: Like it was the Zionist and the right-wingers. And so I was posting like, there are Zionists, like among you. I am a Zionist. I believe in Israel's right to exist and this has been my experience. I really like wrote it out. I was like because there are not many people were like saying that. It was like during the lecture or something that like...It was like a complicated thing. But people are saying that academic freedom was being shut down or another point of view being offered. And I was like, listen, this has been my experience at the school, at this department. I have never felt academic freedom because I have felt that I can't speak out on my opinions and that my view which is like the view of 95% of American Jews has been represented. How is this academic freedom? I think it's not. It's just indoctrination. And you know, I made a fuss about it. I got a few unfollows from people I've been friends with for a while and some hostility.

Ashley: Basically, the really effective method for you was to go onto your social network. Like the go on social media and onto your personal networks where people knew you and you knew people. That's where you could speak out most effectively, which is a good point because I think a lot of people may not jump up in that classroom and be like, "Damn it. It's a lie." You know, I think that it feels very dramatic for a lot of us. But to get on Facebook, to get on Twitter, to talk to the networks on those social platforms who we know, you know, that's very, very effective and it's also very empowering because you're taking a stand.

Isaac: Yeah. I agree. I think it's been more on social media, especially because I've started this during the pandemic. So it's had to be there. It's nothing has been in person. I think you also have to take into account how hard it is to speak out. Like when there's a power dynamic. When you're sitting in a classroom of people who either disagree with you or have no opinion and then the professor also disagrees with you. And you're just there like, hello. And if you say something and you get a band of people like doing this. You'll even like mic at your grade doct and that's just like factually something that would happen that we've seen as like our submissions.

Ashley: But you know what the truth of the matter is, is when you get to a certain point in your post-college life, you look back and you're like the doct grade doesn't mean anything at all. The B versus the A, or the C versus the B or the D versus the C or the F versus the D, in the scheme of you holding onto your integrity as a person it just doesn't mean anything at all. And I remember feeling like it did. I remember looking at my grades and really feeling like I had to maintain those things. But first of all, no one ever looks for your grades. You know, no one ever asked, never once. But yeah, I think in general it does take that courage to be first. That's the big thing. That's what's really hard for people to go out and put themselves out there alone. You know to join with someone else's comparatively easier and to join two people is even easier.

Isaac: Exactly.

Ashley: To be the first. And that's hard.

Isaac: I think for other people it's harder. Especially like Jewish students who are very much involved politically on campus, like in the political groups, foreign social movements, or whatever, which I think they're all very much entitled to do and they shouldn't be having to suppress. But like, they would be ostracized for all these groups if they do speak out if they choose to have strong opinions on this. For me, I had nothing to lose. Like I don't like necessarily have the best GPA already. Like, it's fine. And I'm okay with that. Like, I'm a smart kid but I have nothing to lose. I'm not going to grad school. Like, you know, if my grades get doct, which I don't think they will, like for me, it's fine. So I'm going to be okay with like taking...

Ashley: Did you say UBL? Is that the acronym?

Isaac: Wait, what UBL?

Ashley: Did you say GPA or UBL?

Isaac: I said GPA.

Ashley: Oh GPA. Okay. Sorry.

Isaac: No, like, it's fine. Like I personally don't care but I understand if people do. So, like, I think it's important for some people to, you know, like take the hit. It's not necessarily going to happen, but...

Ashley: Yeah. But it's the threat of it and that's always the case again, with the power dynamic. It's like when people talk about sexual harassment, it's the threat of whatever that might be of that kind of consequence. And that's what helps keep people silent is the threat.

Isaac: Yeah for sure.

Ashley: And yeah, that's the important thing to break free from is that threat. What's next for you after you're graduating? Because that must be coming fairly soon. You're going to dive into the activism world, develop this thing. Are you going to stay in New York? Are you going to go back to Panama? Are you going to come to Israel? Just putting it out there. What are you looking at?

Isaac: I still have a year. I think I should be done by December because I took this semester off to work on this. So I don't know. I mean, I think I want to like continue to developing this and like, if it continues in the way we're planning, hopefully [inaudible 28:55]. It will be a larger project that will not be limited to me being in school and to kids on college campuses. Yeah. I don't know. I mean, I like the Jewish realm. I think I want to stay within it. Which is definitely not something I ever imagined probably like six years ago, but I think it is my calling to stay in it one way or another. I, you know, love this. Love like education on like Sephardi Jews. Like, it has always been something I've been very passionate about going into the Jewish world. And there are many paths for me I think. But definitely one will be advocacy.

Ashley: Amazing. Amazing. That's great to hear. I mean, you know, you don't hear it a lot, I think. And it's very, when someone actually decides to take that route, it's incredible because the impact over time is huge. So I hope you do. But what can people do now if they're hearing this and they're hearing about Jewish on Campus, what would you like them, what kind of action to take? What would help you?

Isaac: If you're a student, submit your stories. If you're a student on a college campus and you have experienced, anti-Semitism send your story.

Ashley: Okay.

Isaac: If you haven't and if you do send it. If not speak out, if you can. If you're in a position to do so, like do it. Do it. It's very helpful when people are speaking out against anti-Semitism because it shows that Jewish people have a united front and we won't take it. And I think that's a very important step that we need to take. If you're an alumni, stop donating to your school until it adopts the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and until Jewish students feel safe on campus. Like completely serious if you're a donor, don't donate to your school until they literally start treating Jewish people with dignity. If you're just like a bystander watching, like spread awareness. Follow pages like ours. Post on your story. You know like keep talking about it and educating yourself about anti-Semitism because it's so important to understand this phenomenon as complex as it is in order to stand up for Jewish people or for Jewish people to stand up for themselves.

Ashley: Amazing. I agree with you a hundred percent. I think that's the only way. And I really do believe that your fight, the one you're fighting on campus is not just a campus fight. The battle you're waging right now is really ground zero of the bigger battle against antisemitism, the kind of Bari Weiss has been talking about, the kind of a lot of people have been talking about. But I think you guys are in the belly of the beast in a lot of ways, and that's very hard. But that's also where you can make real change. So I wish you all the success in it and Kol ha-kavod as they say here.

Isaac: Thank you so much.

Ashley: All right, Isaac. Thank you.

Isaac: Thank you so much, Ashley.

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