From Our CEO
Transforming Pain Into Purpose
February 16th, 2024

Almost 10 years ago, in June 2014, three Israeli yeshiva boys were kidnapped by Hamas and later found to have been murdered, precipitating a 50-day war. It was by far the most intense battle between Israel and Hamas prior to October 7.

Some may recall how the broad Jewish community came together and rallied around Gilad, Eyal, Naftali, and their families. When we learned they had been murdered, we mourned together and quickly mobilized resources to support the people of Israel, who were under rocket fire from Gaza.

The day after the boys’ bodies were discovered, July 1, I began my role here at UJA. People often asked me then about my hopes and aspirations for the Jewish community. What I answered then, and still believe, is that our most pressing priority remains building stronger bridges across the Jewish community, repairing the fraying bonds between Jews of different backgrounds and beliefs — religious and political.

To put it into perspective: There are approximately 16 million Jews in the world, 2.3 billion Christians, and 1.9 billion Muslims. The Jewish people represent about 0.2% of the world’s population, and yet we spend far too much time fighting and vilifying one another, weakening our community from the inside.

That summer of 2014, I glimpsed a window into a united Jewish community — a window that did not remain open for long. That was before the Tree of Life massacre in 2018 and the precipitous rise in antisemitism. Before the pandemic in 2020 and the Ukraine war in 2022. At various points during each of those crises, we found enormous comfort in community. We knit together, if briefly, and then came undone again.

And now October 7.

The full horror of October 7 and the world’s reaction — ranging from silence to tepid condemnation to justification — has prompted a new reckoning. Many Jews across the spectrum are re-examining their priorities, and what it means to be Jewish in America today. What it means to belong to a community. What it means to believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland.

Jewish pride, dormant in many circles for too long, has been unleashed. There’s a new hunger among American Jews to learn about their heritage and engage in Jewish life. People have started showing up at synagogues in record numbers. Lighting Shabbat candles in record numbers. Hosting Shabbat dinners in record numbers.

One friend of mine tells me that for the first time in his life he’s wearing a yarmulke in public (“except when eating a cheeseburger”) to publicly manifest Jewish pride. Others are now wearing Stars of David to say, this is who I am.  

We don’t yet know if these trends are fleeting or here to stay, but there’s an opportunity now to transform intense pain and heartache into purpose and possibility. The pain itself can’t be allowed to define us. Fighting antisemitism, though critical, cannot be the raison d’etre for being Jewish.  

Transforming the pain is key. Otherwise, as Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt notes, we “cede control of our identity to our oppressors.”

In fact, while we need to do all we can to combat antisemitism, an even greater focus now should be doubling down on Jewish education, Jewish spaces, Jewish experiences. We need to provide our community with more high-quality content and opportunity for connection, ensuring that Judaism is valued as a treasure, to be cherished and passed down from generation to generation.

So when this war ends, when the hostages, please God — are all home — we continue to fill our synagogues, light our Shabbat candles, and create an even more vibrant community. Not because we feel under siege, not because we have no choice, but because it’s where we find fulfillment and connection.

And if we need a roadmap, look no further than this week’s Parshat Terumah.

The Israelites, still wandering the desert, are invited to each contribute and donate to help build a Tabernacle.

Gold, silver, copper. Wool, wood, oil. It will be built by all of them. And because it will be built by all — and for all — God will dwell there, among them.

Today, our Jewish community is that Tabernacle. This very uncertain world, the desert.

Even now — especially now — we can build something beautiful, something that belongs to us all.  

And then we might merit to have the divine dwell among us.

Shabbat shalom