WORCESTER – “The members of this class refuse to be silent, refuse to be bystanders, and refuse to not give everything they have to the issues that are important to them,” said Isabel Block, of Georgetown, in her valedictory address at the College of the Holy Cross graduation.
A few months ago, Block was one of the class of 2019’s top 25 students in the running to become valedictorian. When she submitted her speech for consideration, she worried it was too pointed to be accepted.
“I wasn’t super confident it would get chosen, because it wasn’t all rainbows and sunflowers, but that’s what I wanted to say, if I had the chance to say something,” said Block. Her speech, which used Mandarin Chinese, mathematical theorems, and quotes from Elie Wiesel to commend her peers for standing up to anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry on campus, struck a chord with the nominating committee. On May 24, Block delivered the address as a proudly Jewish valedictorian of the prestigious Catholic college in Worcester.
As one of the few Jewish students on campus, Block practiced what she preached, educating her peers and professors about Judaism and anti-Semitism. For three years, she served as the Jewish representative for the Multifaith Community Day of Prayer, an annual gathering.
Block found the atmosphere at Holy Cross to be relatively relaxed, even though there were crosses in every classroom. “It didn’t feel suffocating,” she said. “You can be as religious or non-religious as you want.”
That isn’t to say it was free of anti-Semitism. During Block’s time at Holy Cross, swastikas appeared three times around campus. After the second one surfaced, the college sent out an email that Block felt did not address the issue seriously enough, especially after administrators had recently distributed a much angrier email in response to vandalism of a nativity scene.
Block reached out to the administration to point out the difference in tone between the two emails. “I said, ‘This is how your email is being read by a Jewish student,’” said Block. “We need to use stronger language, we need to make the students feel like if this person is found, then there will be consequences.” The next time a swastika showed up, the college responded more forcefully.
Block kept busy well beyond her role as the school’s unofficial Jewish ambassador. She double-majored in mathematics and Chinese, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Befitting her valedictorian status, Block was also a member of the Pi Mu Epsilon Mathematics Honor Society and Alpha Sigma Nu, the honor society of Jesuit universities. Beyond her courses, Block participated in a female a capella group. She also served on the student advisory committees for the math, computer science, and modern language departments, helping to incorporate student feedback on courses and professors.
Soon, Block will join Liberty Mutual as a full-time actuarial trainee.
“My time at Holy Cross was amazing,” said Block. “I made incredible friends, and built excellent relationships with my professors and mentors.”
Block chose Holy Cross because of its strong reputation and alumni network. Because she grew up in Georgetown, Block was used to being one of a few Jews and experienced anti-Semitism in the town’s public schools.
“Aside from swastikas being drawn at the elementary school and at the high school, one was etched into the football field,” said Block. “My brother has had pennies thrown at him – a kid on his baseball team called him a slur. A girl in my grade tweeted, ‘I like my bacon like my Jews.’ It’s been quite the whirlwind. When you know it’s your family and your cousins and maybe one or two other families, it’s hard not to feel like it’s directly at you.”
Despite this less than ideal climate, Block received a strong Jewish foundation growing up. She was bat mitzvahed at Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, and went to Israel on Y2I and Birthright trips.
As Block told the crowd at her graduation: “We are too strong and too knowledgeable to be silenced.”