Fighting the (other) good fight
Now is the time to support positive pathways to Jewish identity and Jewish pride.
Standing on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, I was awestruck in the presence of nearly 300,000 people, Jews along with friends of the Jewish people and supporters of Israel from other faiths and communities. It is hard to convey my emotions when the enormous crowd stood proudly and shouted loudly “Free them now!” and “Am Yisrael chai!” and sang Hatikvah. I was inspired by the presence of our international Jewish leadership, Jewish and Israeli entertainers, our Israeli brothers and sisters, the family members of hostages, non-Jewish public figures and our elected officials, who addressed us from the podium against the backdrop of the U.S. Capitol and a sea of Israeli and American flags.
The most meaningful experience, however, which moved me to tears of pride and hope, were the thousands of Jewish youth in attendance from Jewish communities, day schools, youth groups and Hillels. Yes, there were hundreds of Christian young people who proudly proclaimed their support for Israel and the Jewish people, as well; but the presence of these Jewish children and young adults, more than any speaker — their lifted voices more than any other chant or song — filled me with enormous Jewish pride and tremendous hope for Israel and the Jewish people.
So where do we go now with our Jewish youth, the day after? It is true we must continue fighting antisemitism and anti-Israel bias, and continue our efforts to protect the safety of all Jews and the security of our Jewish communal institutions. We must also continue and enhance our efforts at education and awareness, as well as efforts at building allies, alliances and coalitions to protect Jewish rights and support Israel. I am proud that so many important Jewish organizations are presently doing this work and will increase their efforts as a result of current events — but this is not the rallying cry on which I want our Jewish youth to focus.
I do not want our young people to develop a Jewish identity built upon fear and persecution, hostages and hate. Instead, I want the Jewish community to provide even more opportunities for our Jewish youth to continue to be strong, fearless and vocal Jews filled with Jewish pride and a love for Israel and the Jewish People.
While support for Israel and combating antisemitism during this war is critical, now is the time for the American Jewish community to double down on its efforts to instill a positive sense of Jewish identity and enhance experiences that contribute to Jewish pride. How? There are many opportunities:
- Significantly expand programs like Root One, Birthright Israel, Honeymoon Israel, Masa and other Israel experiences.
- Seriously increase support for Jewish youth groups, Hillel and other college-age programs that proactively reach out to and engage Jewish teens and young adults.
- Continue to make all forms of Jewish camping a community priority.
- Address the high cost of Jewish day school education and take steps to reduce the tuition barriers that keep many families and their children from enrolling.
- Make it a priority to really develop effective alumni efforts for all of these programs so that the Jewish community can mobilize, engage and retain the very young people we are investing in.
- Actively recruit the best and brightest of our Jewish youth across all these programs to consider careers in service to the Jewish people and Jewish community. Provide tuition assistance so they can get a graduate level education that prepares them for this sacred work. They are our future rabbis, cantors, educators and communal professionals.
- Synagogues must open their doors, arms and hearts to welcome Jewish young adults, couples and families to joyful, celebratory Jewish life. Congregations must address the obstacles and barriers to membership; and realize that by engaging young Jews while they are young will lead to a lifetime affiliation in the future.
The past six weeks have affected all of us. We have been filled with many emotions, foremost feelings of concern for Israel and our worldwide Jewish family. We have also experienced a significant and tremendous revival of Jewish pride and passion. As Jewish leaders of our people and communities, I hope and pray we channel this energy in positive and productive ways to lead us to a renaissance of Jewish and Israel experiences that will secure the Jewish future.
Elliot B. Karp is a former president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.