The mission continues

Two Octobers: 1973 and 2023

A little over three weeks ago, I was shocked and stunned along with the people of Israel and the entire Jewish world by the monstrous and horrific terror attacks by Hamas. The emotions I felt on Oct. 7, 2023 brought me back 50 years to Oct. 6, 1973. It was the first day of the Yom Kippur War and my 18th birthday. I had just spent the previous summer in Israel on my first-ever trip. The emotions I felt 50 years ago came back in torrents: Rage. Anger. Hate. But I also felt great care, concern and compassion for my brothers and sisters in Israel. 

Back in 1973, I considered what I could do. How could I help? I wondered if I should return to Israel to volunteer or remain at college and mobilize campus support for Israel.

I ultimately made the decision to stay in school and do whatever I could to help Israel on campus at SUNY Stony Brook. My decision led me to become Hillel president and a youth advisor and religious school teacher at a local synagogue — and, most importantly, to make a lifetime commitment to serve the Jewish people, Israel and the Jewish community. 

For the past 43-plus years I have been privileged to be a Jewish communal professional. I have been at the epicenter of modern Jewish history and life. I proudly served as the president of a Jewish federation, executive director of a large Conservative congregation and CEO of a statewide association of Hillels, among other positions. 

I protested for the Soviet government “Let My People Go” at rallies of the Soviet Jewry movement, and I traveled to Russia to personally meet with refuseniks. I stood on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport to welcome plane loads of Soviet Jews to Israel during Operation Exodus. I accompanied Ethiopian Jews on a flight of 3,000-plus years from exile to freedom in Eretz Yisrael

I went to Israel in the midst of wars and terror attacks to offer my support and solidarity. I sought to bring comfort and aid our Israeli mishpacha during their times of mourning, healing, pain and sorrow. I went to Israel more than 50 times with Jewish community leaders and members to celebrate Israel, her beauty, success, achievements and accomplishments. I made lifelong relationships, partnerships and, above all, friendships.

On Oct. 7, however, I was glued to cable TV news and reading every post and tweet that came across my iPhone. Where I once led organizing efforts to mobilize community support for Israel with rallies, letter writing and fundraising, I found myself sitting in attendance at those very same events. Instead of soliciting donations, I wrote my check. Instead of being able to lobby my elected officials I found myself yelling at the talking heads on the TV.

And then… something happened. While the vast majority of the messages on my social media feed were initially expressions of support for Israel and the moral imperative of Israel and the IDF to eliminate the threat posed by Hamas, now there were increasing posts from friends and others expressing feelings of despair, hopelessness, pain, being emotionally drained, not feeling OK.

I get it. I would never question how people are feeling. I offer them my support and compassion. Yet I was troubled by these comments. 

These are hard and challenging days. The pain is immense. The concern is palpable. The questions as to how and why are numerous. The hatred for Israel and the rise of antisemitism is frightening. How do we explain to our children and grandchildren what is happening in Israel and to the Jewish people? All valid feelings, questions and concerns. But hopelessness? Despair? Helplessness? 

No. Not now. Not ever. And then I found my voice and reason for being today: to stand proudly and to speak loudly as a Jew. To offer my support and encouragement to my professional colleagues and to members of my Jewish community. This is precisely the time that we need each other. This is the time that we need to be resolute, to have moral clarity and sense of purpose. 

This is the time to proclaim our love for being Jewish as well as our love for Israel. This is the time to tell our children and grandchildren that they are an integral part of Jewish history and the Jewish people of Israel, and that they have nothing to fear nor of which to be ashamed. We need to instill in them a passion for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. We need to show them this by our words, deeds and actions. We need to take them with us to community rallies, to prayer vigils. We need to make Shabbat with them and show them how we write checks for tzedakah to help Israel and Jews in need around the world. And soon, very soon, we must take them with us to Israel.

Despair? Not me. Not ever in Jewish history. The Maccabees did not despair; nor did Mordechai Anilewicz, Hannah Senesh, nor Anne Frank; nor Soviet nor Ethiopian Jews nor Yonatan Netanyahu nor the brave men and women of the IDF. We always turn our hearts, minds, souls, prayers, actions towards Jerusalem. We always have hope. Whereas societies and civilizations throughout the millennia have come and gone, the Jewish people has not only endured but has always emerged stronger — and we will once again do so following the events of Oct. 7. We must do this for ourselves. We must do this for our children. We must do this for those murdered. And we must do this for those held captive to help set them free! We have but one choice: to stand proud and talk loudly. Am Yisrael Chai!

Elliot Karp is the former CEO of Hillels of Georgia.