Jewish students at public schools told by classmates they belong in ovens. Teachers vilified because their social media contains pro-Israel content. Corporate professionals feeling abandoned after October 7. College students concealing their Jewish identities, fearful they can’t show up safely on campus.
These vignettes, all from New York in 2023, speak to how very much the lights of Hanukkah are needed right now.
To help dispel this heavy darkness, and building on work UJA’s been doing for years, we’re helping lead the charge in fighting antisemitism on multiple fronts.
In public schools: For the second time since October 7, this Wednesday UJA leaders met with NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks, along with members of his senior staff. We were joined by a group of Jewish teachers who spoke of the often-heartbreaking harassment both they and Jewish students experience on a regular basis.
The war in Israel has exacerbated what was already a disturbing rise in antisemitism in public schools. Which is why for two years now, we’ve been funding programs that educate teachers around Israel, Judaism, and contemporary antisemitism. And now, together with our partner The Jewish Education Project, we’ve developed the New York Education Initiative to provide additional critical resources: from educating teachers, to helping facilitate workshops for parents, to ensuring public schools respond appropriately to antisemitic incidents.
On college campuses: There’s never any “context” for allowing Jewish hate on campus. Since October 7, we’ve significantly increased our funding to Hillels serving 20 local college campuses to strengthen Jewish life, increase the number of campus organizers, and provide legal counsel for students and academics facing harassment. We’re also actively mobilizing our resources and relationships to work directly with university leadership, in order to advance policies and practices that dramatically improve the climate for Jewish students on campus.
At workplaces: We’ve long advocated for and facilitated workshops on contemporary antisemitism for corporate leaders. Taking this work to the next level in conjunction with the Shine A Light initiative, on Wednesday we hosted a meeting at UJA for 230 senior human resource leaders from finance, law, and other corporate sectors. We were joined by leaders from the Department of Labor to reinforce the message:
Protect your Jewish employees. Create more Jewish employee resource groups (ERGs) to foster a sense of community. Understand why the silence or tepid, half-hearted statements after October 7 felt like a betrayal to Jewish employees who have seen other ethnic minorities supported without equivocation. Learn about the modern face of antisemitism and respond forcefully to any harassment.
So at this dark moment on so many fronts, how can we turn the tide on antisemitism?
Hanukkah offers an answer…
We’re taught from a young age that the lights of Hanukkah commemorate the miracle of a small bottle of oil staying lit for eight days. But, as the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks argued, the miracle was only about days 2 to 8 — after all, we expected the oil to last that first day.
What then is the miracle of the first day?
When the Temple had been desecrated, when all seemed lost, the Maccabees looked for the oil. The miracle was their faith, believing that something pure could survive even in the worst tragedy.
And then Rabbi Sacks, presciently, wrote this:
“There were times when any other people would have given up in despair: after the destruction of the Temple, or the massacres of the crusades, or the Spanish Expulsion, or the pogroms, or the Holocaust. But somehow Jews did not sit and weep. They gathered what remained, rebuilt our people, and lit a light like no other in history, a light that tells us and the world of the power of the human spirit to overcome every tragedy and refuse to accept defeat.”
What was true then is true now. We must choose to search for the light, and we must add to it, increasing it every night, every Hanukkah, every generation.
Shabbat shalom and Hanukkah sameach