On October 27, 2018, the piercing of bullets shot in hate took eleven lives, broke countless hearts and, for many American Jews, shattered a sense of security and acceptance that we had come to enjoy over generations of prosperity in the United States. In the three years since the shooting at Congregation Tree of Life, the American Jewish, and global Jewish landscapes have evolved. October 27th retains the dubious honor of being the date of the deadliest attack on the American Jewish community. But in the time that has passed, healing has been marred by more darkness:
The 2019 shooting at a Chabad in Poway, California, that left one woman dead and three injured. The Chanukah 2019 machete attack in Monsey, New York, that ultimately resulted in the death of one victim after 59 days in a coma. 2019 saw the highest level of antisemitic incidents since tracking of such things began in 1979, including incidents of assault and vandalism. 19% of Millennials and Gen Z-ers in New York have reported feeling that Jews caused the Holocaust. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 65% of respondents to a survey of American Jewish fraternity and sorority members said they have felt unsafe due to antisemitic attacks, with one in 10 fearing physical assault because of being openly Jewish.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of darkness, and to find oneself despairing over the state of the world. After all, when reading the statistics above, it can seem like the dream of Jews in the United States has failed. For generations of hopeful immigrants and refugees, the United States was the “Goldene Medina” – the golden country, a source of inspiration, hope and ultimately solace from the tumultuous existence of being Jewish and subject to victimhood in other lands. While the Jewish experience has been marked by wandering – in the desert, in exile, in search of acceptance – for American Jews, wandering has given way to dwelling, growing and ultimately thriving. The Jewish community’s status in the United States has not been that of guests, even beloved, long-term guests. In a reality that’s largely unique in the context of the Jewish experience, American Jews have felt fully welcomed, fully immersed, and deeply committed to the overall American experience.
The shooting at Congregation Tree of Life unlocked a reality for many American Jews. The hatred that simmered so deeply beneath the surface that we may have been lulled into thinking it was gone broke through So far, the fire has not been extinguished. Today’s children and adolescents are coming of age in a time when questions are being asked that many of us hoped had been put to bed for good: Is it safe to wear my kippah/Jewish star/t-shirt with Hebrew writing on it? Should I announce my Judaism through my words and actions, or is it better to fly under the radar? How do we as a community balance being open and welcoming, and the safety needs of a minority community?
For today’s children and adolescents, coming of age against an unprecedented backdrop of polarization, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on every facet of society, is shaping new ways of connecting, identifying and answering the foundational questions of identity. To be an American Jewish child in 2021 is to live in a world of dichotomies. There are more choices than ever before. There are more ways to ‘do Jewish’ on their own terms than any previous generation has enjoyed. There are more leadership opportunities, travel experiences and tailor-made options all with the shared goal of connecting children, teens and families with Judaism, the Jewish community, and their own identities. And yet, in the face of abundant opportunity, many families and individuals opt out of Jewish life, because they have not experienced the added value that it has the power to bring them. With Generation Z-ers, now ranging in age from 6 – 24, coming into their own, this demographic of universalists need new tools to answer the questions of particularism inherent in Judaism.
As Jewish educators and communal professionals, we find ourselves navigating a balancing act of nurturing Jewish joy and self-confidence in the face of the external forces of antisemitism. At the same time, we also want to meaningfully support and empower students and families who are facing the realities of hatred, fear and discomfort. While emphasizing the beauty, complexity and joy of Judaism, we cannot turn away from the darkness that too many of our families face, or will face in an ever-changing world. As we come to the Hanukkah season, a time when we’re taught to place the lights of the chanukiyah in our windows to literally publicize the miracle of the holiday, and our Judaism, we need to find a way to inspire our learners and communities in ways that spark Jewish joy.
Together with our partners, The Jewish Education Project is proud to announce the Shine a Light on Antisemitism campaign. Shine a Light seeks to forge a path to the intersection of Jewish joy and awareness of the challenge of antisemitism that we as a community face. From Thanksgiving through the end of Hanukkah, each day there will be opportunities for educators, families and allies to explore how we can shine a light on antisemitism, as well as light up our Jewish joy through learning, social media contests and reflection. Shine a Light has curated content for early childhood to high school-aged learners, ensuring that no matter what stage of the lifelong Jewish journey an individual and their families are on, there’s a space for them to join the timeless conversation of resilience, strength, and cultivating light, even in moments of darkness. The Jewish Education Project is proud to be a leader in this initiative, together with our partners in day schools, congregational schools, youth movements and other Jewish educational settings. We are committed to finding new ways to educate for Jewish thriving and flourishing against the backdrop of antisemitism that we know too many are encountering.
With the wisdom of our past and the vision of our shared future, the Jewish people of 2021 are committed to being part of the communities in which we live. We are bolstered by our allies, dedicated to civic engagement, and are deeply devoted to the work of justice and tikkun olam. In the two iterations of the 10 Commandments shared in Tanakh, we are commanded to both remember and keep Shabbat, shamor v’zachor. So too, at this moment, we’re remembering the lives lost, the innocence shattered, and the tears we cried for the Tree of Life victims, while simultaneously committing to keep bringing and shining light in the world in which we live.
For more information about the Shine a Light campaign’s educational resources, visit https://educator.jewishedproject.org/content/shine-light-antisemitism-campaign or contact Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, senior director, knowledge, ideas and learning at The Jewish Education Project, at firstname.lastname@example.org.