Combat Antisemitism

New Spertus Institute certificate program to prepare Jewish communal executives to combat rising antisemitism

Jewish leaders need tools and training to respond to the complex and challenging threats reflected in contemporary antisemitism. Beginning in January, a new Spertus Institute certificate program will address this need with the expertise it demands.

The synagogue attack in Colleyville, Texas, in January. The physical assaults against Jews following the May 2021 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Jewish college students under a constant barrage of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions on campus. With antisemitism running at historically high levels, Jewish leaders are having to navigate a treacherous minefield when it comes to community relations, especially in the age of social media.

The situation is prompting Chicago’s Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership to launch a new certificate to provide Jewish leaders with the tools and training to respond to the complex threats reflected in contemporary antisemitism, Dean P. Bell, Spertus’ president and CEO, told eJewishPhilanthropy. The Combating Antisemitism certificate program follows the Spertus approach of “applying Jewish learning and using experiences to help engage and address contemporary and emerging issues,” Bell said. 

Applications are now open to those in executive leadership positions in North American Jewish organizations of all types, including social justice, social services, synagogues, advocacy, education, community relations, philanthropy, campus engagement and interreligious partnerships.

Starting in January 2023, the program will consist of a two hour weekly online session lasting 11 weeks, with an in-person seminar in Chicago at the approximate midpoint in February. The curriculum will cover three key topics, Bell said: community relations, external relations and communications. The community relations module, he continued, centers on navigating the diversity of constituents, for instance activists’ varying attitudes toward defining and addressing antisemitism. External relations is about building alliances and relationships beyond the Jewish community, “so that when something happens, you can call on them, and they can call on us,” he said. Communications will have a significant social media component: how and when to make statements, and understanding how social media is used productively and negatively when it comes to antisemitism, Bell said, adding that these topics will likely be among those to be covered in person, because they are more relational.

Bell, who also holds a faculty appointment as professor of Jewish history, said that the certificate program will cover the history of antisemitism as well as contemporary events and, given the rise of antisemitic sentiments over social media, “place [antisemitism] into conversation with other issues with other kinds of bigotry and hatred and bias.” The goal, he added, is for cohort members to “understand the range of opinions and perspectives their constituents and others have as they’re engaging with them, but also as they’re forming their own responses.” 

Bell said a related goal of the program is to create a trusted network of colleagues who can consult with one another on an ongoing basis. “The diversity of the cohort, in this case, will be really important,” he said.

The faculty will include academics as well as those who approach their work with a community lens, such as leaders from federations, the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Community Relations Councils, social media and different kinds of Jewish philanthropy. Participants will be matched with coaches who can help them develop related projects for their local communities. 

The project began with a proposal to the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, and then attracted interest from several family foundations from across the country, and a couple of larger foundations in the Midwest, Bell said. Spertus has raised about $300,000 for the program and aims to raise another $200,000-$300,000 to support the initial launch and its development. After the first three pilot cohorts, Spertus leadership hopes to expand access to other Jewish leaders.

Because many people equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, Israel will also be a focus of the program, Bell said. And with conversation on antisemitism expanding into the cultural realm as well — in the entertainment space, where non-Jewish actors don facial prosthetics to “play Jewish,” for instance — Bell expects that the program will include conversations about some of these potentially explosive areas. 

“Our goal is to bring people into conversation with a diversity of perspectives, so they can understand the assumptions and positions of their own head, but also of others as well,” Bell said. “Our goal is not to be prescriptive in this regard,” he said, adding that participants will “evaluate the full range of perspectives on what we think about as antisemitism,” and form their own judgment.