In Divisive Times, Jewish Leaders Mostly Optimistic as High Holidays Approach
Uncategorized
September 13, 2023

By Menachem Wecker

(SEPTEMBER 5, 2023 / JNS) Nearly 60% of Americans told pollsters in late March and early April that life is worse for them than for those like them 50 years ago, and sizeable majorities think the U.S. economy will be weaker, the nation will be less important and more politically divided and the gap between rich and poor will widen by 2050, per Pew Research Center data.

A YouGov poll from April indicated that 65% of Americans think the nation is more divided than normal, while in June, Gallup data suggested Americans think the economy improved significantly in the prior month, “though they remain negative overall.”

Against this backdrop, and divisions among U.S. Jews about Israeli politics, JNS sought reflections from Jewish leaders about the degree to which they are optimistic about the looming Jewish New Year. JNS asked the leaders what worries them the most about the coming year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, what are some of the things upon which they are reflecting, and what are their Jewish New Year’s reflections.

‘Clean slate’

To Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Rosh Hashanah is “the start of a new season and a clean slate.”

“It leaves me energized and ready to take on the important lessons and tasks I have in the new year as a Jewish American and as a member of Congress,” Gottheimer told JNS. “This period of introspection helps me remember key principles like the importance of tikkun olam—to repair the world, or, put another way, to perfect our union.”

Perfecting the union is something to which Gottheimer aspired every day in his job. “It’s a philosophy that seems more necessary than ever,” he said. “I want to wish all a Shanah Tovah, and I hope that everyone has a sweet and healthy New Year!”

Gottheimer is optimistic as Rosh Hashanah approaches, he told JNS.

“My hope is that Congress will continue our bipartisan work to protect America’s economy and national security, including strengthening the historic U.S.-Israel relationship into the New Year,” he said. “Despite hyper-partisan rhetoric and extremism, the security of America and Israel is an overwhelmingly bipartisan priority that the vast majority of my colleagues and I remain committed to each year.”

The “ironclad” U.S.-Israel relationship is more important than ever given the growing “Iranian threat based in the West Bank” and as Hezbollah increases its destabilizing activities in Lebanon, the Congressman said.

“In the coming year, I look forward to working across the aisle to lead ongoing efforts to expand the Abraham Accords,” he said. “I am excited for the potential to broaden Israel’s normalization agreements with its Arab neighbors, especially through the newly appointed U.S. Senior Adviser for Regional Integration Dan Shapiro.”

In the coming year, Gottheimer intends to keep working to make life more affordable for families and small businesses. “That’s why I’ve fought so hard in Washington to claw more of our federal tax dollars back to Jersey, and away from the Moocher States, and to help get our property taxes down,” he said.

The congressman is also concerned about extremism on both sides of Congress that “try to hold the country and Congress’ work hostage, including turning the U.S.-Israel relationship into a partisan issue,” he said. “The vast majority of both of my colleagues—Democrats and Republicans—understand the importance of ensuring that the relationship remains bipartisan.”

Votes against the boycott Israel (BDS) movement and to invest in military support for Israel or Iron Dome are “massively bipartisan,” Gottheimer said.

New Jersey, Gottheimer’s home state ranked third-highest in the country last year for antisemitic incidents, at a time that is already setting records for antisemitism.

“As the only Jewish member of the New Jersey delegation, and as a member of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Antisemitism, these trends are extremely concerning and personal. Antisemitism is the world’s oldest form of hate, and it has no place here in New Jersey, our great country or in the world,” he said.

“In the year ahead, Congress must continue to loudly and clearly speak on its commitment to combating antisemitism, protecting Jewish Americans, fighting the BDS movement, and protecting America and Israel’s security from shared threats, including Iran,” he told JNS. “In the upcoming appropriations process, I’ll continue to fight for these efforts, while also working to secure key programs like the Nonprofit Security Grant to help protect our house of worship from attacks.”

Resilient ‘communal DNA’

Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, told JNS that Jews are optimistic by definition.

“Our history is filled with immense challenges and threats, but resilience has been very much a part of our communal DNA,” he said. “We need that as much today as ever.”

The “continuing rise in global antisemitism, with new variants seemingly cropping up daily, is a deep concern,” Mariaschin told JNS. “As is Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon and its fomenting regional chaos and terror, aided by its league of proxies and allies, beginning, but not ending with Hezbollah and Hamas.”

“We hope, too, that domestic consensus can be reached in Israel, especially as it faces increasing acts of terror at home, and bias in international forums like the United Nations, abroad,” he added.

This Jewish New Year, as every year, Mariaschin will pray for “peace for Israel and its people, for Jews everywhere and for a world free of hate and intolerance.”

‘Important moment’ for Jews

Ted Deutch is an optimist by nature, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee told JNS. “In my former line of work as a member of Congress, you pretty much had to be,” he said. “It’s really not altogether different at AJC.”

The AJC deals often with antisemitism, but Deutch senses “a societal shift to address antisemitism in America in a meaningful way” and as a problem for everyone to address, rather than just Jews.

“The national antisemitism strategy is a big part of why I’m optimistic about the next year,” he told JNS. “That’s why I’m devoting a lot of AJC resources to a task force to implement the strategy. This is an important moment for the Jewish community that we need to seize.”

The AJC found in its last State of Antisemitism in America report an overwhelming majority of Jews surveyed had experienced online antisemitism, including 85% of those under the age of 30.

“That’s a huge problem. We need to see online platforms take a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitic and other hateful content and enforce their own rules,” Deutch said. “AJC is in active discussions with many of the major social media companies about combating antisemitism on their platform. They must step up and take action.”

This High Holiday season, the AJC executive is thinking about “the enduring miracle that is Israel.” He has been to Israel many times, but going with his wife and children, and his “AJC family” for the nonprofit’s Global Forum in Tel Aviv, as Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, was one of his most special trips.

“We in the Diaspora play a vital role in securing a bright future for Israel, and I want to ensure that this and subsequent generations remain committed to that work,” he said.

‘Not predetermined’

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, of the Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue of more than 1,000 families, told JNS that he is working on trying not to get outraged, avoiding feeling he has a monopoly on truth and “finding the ability to remain true to values, principles and a lifestyle while loving, listening and learning from others.”

Goldberg, a prolific writer and podcaster, told JNS that he worries about a world that is increasingly “You are with me or against me.”

“The tribalism and divisiveness are deeply damaging and destructive,” he said. “As more issues arise that people feel strongly about and that are highly emotionally charged, we must find a way to listen, to learn, to seek to persuade and not to bully, and ultimately to disagree agreeably and to love even those we struggle to like.”

Looking ahead to 5784, which begins the first night of Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 15, Goldberg is optimistic, as he is every year.

“The future is not predetermined or a matter of fate. It is up to us, individually and collectively. We must be optimistic and then express the effort and take the initiative necessary to bring about the brighter future,” he said. “More than ever, we must take responsibility to shape the world, beginning with our world, how we speak, behave, what we believe and the difference that we can make.”

‘Forcing myself to feel hopeful’

As she looks ahead to the new Jewish year, Meredith Jacobs, CEO of Jewish Women International, is concerned about the safety of women, their rights and their financial security, “and by extension, children and families,” she told JNS.

“I worry about how politics in the U.S. and Israel will play out to the detriment of women. I worry now that we are somewhat post-COVID and are back in-person, that we will see incidents of gun violence and mass shootings ramp up again,” she said. “I worry, as I type this during the hottest week of the year, following wildfires and hurricanes, about the widespread impacts of climate change.”

Usually an optimist, Jacobs told JNS that she sees the High Holidays as a time for reflection, renewal and hope for a better world. “This year, however, I’m finding I’m forcing myself to feel hopeful,” she said. “My honest feeling is that the year ahead will be one of challenges.”

Among her 5784 resolutions are to keep doing all she is able “to build a world in which women and girls live without fear of violence, where they have access to economic security and where they can achieve any and all levels of leadership.”

Aging and youth

Rabbi Davie Wolpe, who is in his first year since stepping down as senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, told JNS that his thoughts this High Holidays season are on “aging and youth, and the divides between political views and social class and generations.”

“I hope to reflect on my years in the pulpit and as it arises in my own awareness, share it through teaching and writing,” said Wolpe, rabbi emeritus at the synagogue, whose Shabbat morning services draw 1,000 people on average. He is also a Harvard Divinity School visiting scholar and the inaugural Anti-Defamation League rabbinic fellow.

Wolpe is most concerned about “Information without wisdom; exploitation without wonder or tenderness; heedlessness about other human beings and the needs of creation and the stoking of hatreds in our world,” he told JNS. He is “cautiously hopeful” for the future since he has seen people do great things with God’s help.

“We have been given the ability to conquer our problems,” he said. “The question is our own wisdom and initiative.”

‘Promoting the importance of Jewish education’

The thing that concerns Mort Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, the most in the coming Jewish New Year is the 75% of non-Orthodox Jews who are intermarrying, “thus reducing the number of Jews in America, threatening the survival of many synagogues and reducing support for the Jewish State of Israel.”

Klein also worries about Jewish leaders, Jewish media, Israeli leaders and rabbis reducing support for Israel, and increasing hostility towards the Jewish state by failing to discuss publicly the war that Islamist terrorists wage against Israel.

“We all need to make clear that the Palestinian regime is paying Arabs to murder Jews, glorifies and incites Arab terrorists by naming schools, streets and sports teams after Arab Jew-killers,” he said. “We also must inform the world that the Palestinian regime has been offered a state four times in the last 20 years, eight times in the last 80 years, only to be rejected each time, making clear the Palestinian Arabs’ goal is Israel’s destruction, not a Palestinian Arab State.”

Klein is committing himself to promote that message more effectively and to make the case for “the importance of Jewish education.”

“I am optimistic that this strong, patriotic and courageous new Israeli government will be more effective in promoting these truths and protecting the people of Israel,” he said.

This article was originally published in JNS and can be viewed here.

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