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Administration's Healing Circle Leads to RTC's Peaceful Protest

Updated: May 10

By: Barbara Kay and Jennifer Ward


While rain poured down on the Purchase campus on Wednesday, April 3, Dr. Milagros Peña, Purchase’s president, and Me’ilani Nelson, Purchase Student Government Association (PSGA) president, hosted a “healing circle” in The Performing Arts Center (PAC).


Attendees of the healing circle stand around with their LED candles. (Photo by: Natalie Tulloch)


“[We’re] coming together as a community today to both acknowledge a sense of grief and focus on healing, so I invite you to take a candle…let us turn this over to Imam Chace and Rabbi Milgrom to lead us in this moment,” said Peña, referring to the LED candle sticks that were provided for the guests.  


Alongside Peña and Nelson was the Chair of College Senate and Faculty Presiding Officer (FPO), Andrew Salomon, and the President of the Professional Staff Council, Betsy Aldredge. It also included guest speaker Imam Shafieq Chace, with the Westchester Muslim Center in Mount Vernon, and was led by Rabbi Shira Milgrom, an author, and who was also the Rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami, in White Plains.


The initial email for the healing circle, sent out by Peña, stated, “We are offering this time as an opportunity to hold a sacred space for the campus community to come together and acknowledge the heaviness of the loss and unrest that so many of us are feeling during these difficult times.”


Attendees of the healing circle exchange words as they grab their LED candles. (Photo by: Natalie Tulloch)


Thirty-five people were in attendance, including four University Police Department (UPD) officers, four members of Hillel at Purchase. There were also 15 protesters with the radical organization, Raise the Consciousness (RTC). 


Hillel did not respond to The Phoenix’s inquiry for comment. 


“Like the great poet Diego says, ‘Wherever there is darkness, there is crime. We often prosecute the perpetrator of the crime and not the creator of the darkness,’” said Chace at the event, which occurred on the twenty-fifth night of Ramadan. “We need to look beyond the darkness with sunlight, hence I think it’s symbolic that we carry these lights in front of us.” 


“I pray for peace and I pray that whatever is happening in the world today--wherever, there is so much happening, no shortage--we pray for peace all over,” continued Chace.


Milgrom shared the same sentiment as Chace, stating that there is more pain and violence in the world than can be handled. She encouraged those in attendance to “find a place of alignment and a place where we can be seen.”


Milgrom requested that the attendees take a few minutes to walk around the space, candles in hand, and acknowledge their fellow participants, while “Light is Returning,” by Charlie Murphy played. 


“While the song plays, we invite you to walk in silence and to stop when you’re close to someone,” Milgrom explained. “Take a moment to see and be seen, then move on to someone else.” 


The group did this in the middle of the 18-minute-long event for four minutes. The healing circle ended with Molgrom reading a poem by Yoni Rechter, “The Place Where We Are Right,” and a reflection joined by Chace. 


According to the National Library of Medicine, a healing circle, also known as a hocokah, consists of people sitting around in a circle and praying while committing to each other’s healing. 


While the healing circle held by Purchase administration consisted of prayers and poems recited by guest speakers, there was no opportunity for attendees to speak at the event. It was only after the event that those in attendance were able to approach the administration and voice their opinions. 


This led to RTC criticizing the title of the event as a “healing circle” due to the lack of dialogue that a traditional healing circle would incorporate. RTC held signs saying “no healing until” and “no healing without” referring to the accountability that they feel the administration is not taking on behalf of the SUNY system. 


Members of RTC silently stood in a line while conducting their protest. After the healing circle ended, they left the PAC chanting "Free free Palestine." (Photo by: Natalie Tulloch)


A representative of RTC, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “It was not a healing circle at all. It's an insult to the students, frankly, it's an insult to us, that they think that we want that kind of compliance. 


“What we want is for the school to represent us, and to take action, and to listen and to speak out,” they continued. “We are asking our administration to speak up for us and put themselves on the line for us.”


RTC also criticized the choice of guest speakers, as they felt this framed Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza as an issue between only Muslim and Jewish people when people of various religions and ethnicities are being killed. South Africa has put a resolution forward to the UN to declare that Israel's attacks on Palestine are genocidal, as described by the article linked. The decision has not, at the time of this article, been made.


“Having the event be hosted by a rabbi and an imam frames the occupation of Palestine as a religious conflict, it's not a religious conflict. It is a colonial project and the Palestinian resistance to colonization is not motivated by antisemitism or Jewish hatred,” said RTC. 


The main goal of this healing circle, according to Salomon, was to begin to open up an official conversation on campus between students and administration. He was disappointed that some attendees and protestors felt otherwise. 


“It was the idea that the four campus governance leaders would try to do something to create the opportunity to talk and listen, maybe reduce the temperature a little bit on campus,” said Salomon.


"I thought it was a good start. I can see where students feel that it was, from their perspective, the adults are going to talk to us and we're just supposed to sit there and listen," he continued. "I certainly don't want it to be that way and I'm really sorry that they felt that that was their experience."


Attendees stand around the demonstration placed on the floor by RTC. (Photo by: Natalie Tulloch)



“I believe in the First Amendment, and that's an important part of who we are as a country," said Peña. "What we believe in, and at the same time, when you're a campus leader it's important to recognize that the First Amendment right also has to be cognizant of the views of others and the manner in which we don't allow ourselves to have.”


“Others feel like they can't enjoy being part of a community because someone has particular views, strong views," she continued. "How one expresses it can make it hard for people to feel comfortable where they live, work and go to school."


Stuffed animals painted red to represent blood, laid on the floor placed by RTC, with the words "How Will They Heal?" surrounding them. (Photo by: Natalie Tulloch)


In RTC’s statement that was handed out at the healing circle, they announced that they were “calling on the administration to join us in solidarity in calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, the dismissal of ombudsman Paul Nicholson for his assault on a student, and an immediate divestment from all of our schools’ financial and political ties to Israel.”


Back in December, Paul Nicholson, Director of Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), as well as the ombudsman, was criticized after a student entered his office with the intent of removing an Israeli flag that stated: "We Stand with Israel." The student was then physically forced out of the office by Nicholson and has since been suspended for the spring 2024 semester.


Nicholson referred to RTC-- who called the student a "comrade--" as “ridiculous” in a statement sent to The Purchase Phoenix via email.


“[RTC has] done nothing but make Purchase an unfriendly, hostile campus for many students and staff and promote, if not directly responsible for students vandalizing our campus,” Nicholson wrote. “They are protesting without knowing all the facts but despite being ignorant, their right to protest is protected.”


At the end of the video, filmed by the student, attached to the change.org petition RTC made on behalf of him, the student stated, “There are students here who don’t feel safe.” 


“On Monday, April 8, we will be experiencing a different kind of darkness with the eclipse of the sun,” said Milgrom. “What would it mean for us to start here in a place of connection? The world is in chaos and there’s more pain and violence and brutality than it seems we can handle. But, it’s possible to start internally, to find a place of alignment and a place where we can be seen.” 


© The Purchase Phoenix, 2024


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