For me, having just marked my fifth year at UJA, it’s an especially reflective period. After months of unceasing breaking news, there’s some relief in taking a more expansive view of events, reinforcing that the arc of history is long and more enduring than the latest headline.
Looking back over these last five years, in many ways the world has changed more than one would have expected. In other ways, it hasn’t changed at all.
Back on July 1, 2014, my first day at UJA, I spoke at a memorial for the three Israeli teens whose murder precipitated a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas. Just a month ago, another boy was found horrifically murdered near the same spot as the three before him. Then a seventeen-year-old was killed while hiking with her family. The names are different, but the pain is achingly familiar.
Similarly, as we witness the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, I’m reminded of the devastation in 2017 after Hurricanes Harvey and Maria hit Houston and Puerto Rico, respectively. Almost immediately, UJA dispatched 29 planes filled with desperately needed supplies. On one trip, we handed out food and other essentials in a poor, forgotten neighborhood in Puerto Rico, an Israeli flag beside us as the only clue a Jewish organization had come to help. Right now, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, we’re working once more with our partners to help provide relief in the Bahamas, assessing the damage and collecting and delivering humanitarian aid.
But there’s also much that’s changed over these last five years. It’s startling to remember that in 2014, as I visited France shortly after the attack on a synagogue in Sarcelles, anti-Semitism was talked about almost exclusively in reference to Europe. In 2015, after the attack on a kosher supermarket in France, few anticipated something similar would strike our shores. Today, in a post-Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway world, with almost daily news of anti-Semitic attacks in Brooklyn, keeping our community secure has become a major local priority.
It’s precisely because of this new reality that the need to find common ground is ever more pressing. When I started out, many asked what I believed to be the greatest challenge facing our community. I answered that the fraying bonds among Jews weighed heavily on my mind. But the situation then seems almost quaint in comparison with today. Mirroring national trends, divisiveness has grown and incivility has been normalized. And the relationship between many segments of the American Jewish community and Israel continues to erode.
These cannot become the stories that define our community.
The stories we want to define us — the ones that we’ll want told many years from now — speak to our role in being there for each other, guided by Jewish practices and traditions to make the world a better place for all. I’ve been privileged to hear a number of these. Here are but a few examples:
On a trip to Rehovot in Israel in 2017, I learned how our investment in Birth to Bagrut, a program for Ethiopian-Israelis, has completely transformed a generation in that city. The proof: the passing rate for Ethiopian-Israelis taking the high school matriculation exam, a key indicator of academic success, was over 92% in Rehovot, where nationally it was about 60% for Israelis and only 50% for Ethiopian-Israelis.
At Camp Szarvas, two hours outside of Budapest, a young woman shared how she had just recently discovered her Jewish identity. It’s not so unusual in much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where Jewish life was once all but extinguished. Now, with thanks to our support, she — and many thousands like her — are dancing and singing to the same Israeli songs my kids do.
Closer to home, on an early visit to a UJA-supported food pantry in Queens, I saw elderly clients patiently waiting to receive pre-packaged food on a line that wound around the block. It was heartbreaking. That’s why we’re currently moving our food pantries to a digital choice system that eliminates the lines, increases dignity and efficiency, and ensures that clients get the food they want for their families.
There are also the stories of people who just want to be seen and heard by a welcoming community. Bernie, a Holocaust survivor, who found a support group that’s become like family. Jonathan, who attends an LGBTQ family camp, where he can finally reconcile his Jewish identity and his gay identity. Amanda, a young woman with a developmental disability, who has a full social life and secured a job because of a program for 20-somethings with special needs, run by a UJA partner.
Every one of these people is grateful for a Jewish community that’s there for them, an indelible part of their personal story. Not one of them questions the Jewish affiliation or politics of those who extend a kind welcome or provide support when it’s needed. Whether you’re receiving or giving help — our differences shouldn’t matter.
And so as we begin Elul, in this moment of reflection and preparation for new beginnings, I ask: As a community that has withstood so much and achieved so much, what must we do to ensure that, five years from now, we’re telling the story we want to tell?
What’s clear, at the very least, is that it’s a story we must craft together. And if we do, just imagine what a story it might be.