A World of Differencesby Rachel Eden November 5, 2019
If the Jewish community were to vote on a singular message to pass on to the next generation, what would it be? Jews are notorious for their strong opinions, so perhaps a consensus is impossible. Still, I’d like to nominate a message I believe is critical today more than ever. To the next generation of Jewry, I share the idea of educational expert Rabbi Noach Orlowek in his book My Child, My Disciple: Being different can be either a source of pride or a mark of shame.
Regardless of your race, adherence to religious observance, or political affiliation, our national identity is intrinsically Jewish and we are inherently different. Jewish identity even transcends ideology itself. The Nuremberg Race Laws didn’t discriminate based on a Jew’s religious beliefs. While many of us accept the fact that we’re Jewish, how many of us do so begrudgingly? Or with a hefty dose of self-deprecating humor? How many of us exemplify a confident Jew, proud of her heritage and people? How many of us prioritize a Jewish education for young people and how many of us back up those ideals with our checkbooks?
The more we educate ourselves and others about what being Jewish means to us, the more we can drive a global positive narrative. This strategy has been implemented for a variety of causes and groups with impressive results. For example, the Pew Research Center conducted an analysis of public attitude toward political engagement in July 2018. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag had first appeared five years prior to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. During these five years, the hashtag had appeared consistently nearly 30 million times on Twitter (over 17,000 times daily on average). A simple Twitter hashtag essentially created awareness around a growing concern and ultimately became a springboard for a national conversation.
The rise in openly hateful attitudes and behaviors towards Jews internationally is no secret. This past September, Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion, released an unprecedented report pointing out the increasing “prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes and the risk of violence against Jewish individuals and sites.” Just last month, The Sydney Morning Herald reported two anti-Semitic incidents of bullying in Australian public schools. The first appeared in a widely circulated video clip on social media: A 12-year-old student was forced to kneel at the foot of his classmate and kiss his shoes while being called a “Jewish ape.” The second incident involved a 5-year-old Jewish boy who was harassed for weeks by other children in the school bathroom for being circumcised, and was called a “dirty Jew” and “Jewish cockroach.” Both boys withdrew from their schools due to anti-Semitic bullying. The mother of the 5-year-old stated in an interview that her son told her, “Mommy, you shouldn’t love me. I’m a worthless Jewish rodent. I’m vermin.”
Chairman of Australia’s Anti-Defamation Commission, Dvir Abramovich, said in a statement, “There is mounting evidence that families are forced to take their children out of public schools and to enroll them in Jewish day schools due to a growing sense of insecurity and fear that their children will be harmed simply because of who they are.” The Jewish people should take a lesson from the hashtag initiatives and other innovative modes of education by building our own national sense of self and sharing our message with others positively.
A few colleagues and I received an email last April following the shooting in Chabad of Poway, with the subject line: ‘With love from Pittsburgh.’ The Head of Pittsburgh’s Community Day School, Avi Baron Munro, sent the message, “I write with a broken heart … six months ago to the day we were where you are now … I have no words of comfort or reassurance for you. I can only tell you that as school leaders, we had to figure out how to navigate the return to school and we are now further along on that journey. If there is any way I can be of help given our shared trauma, I just wanted you to know that I and my leadership team are here for you in whatever way might be meaningful.”
This is what it means to be part of a Jewish community: uniting with our brothers and sisters and standing for justice and kindness. In a world with growing awareness for accepting others’ differences, sharing how we feel from a context of our differences is critical to uplifting our national identity and how others perceive us. We must take pride in being different, and where we feel shame, we must question how it arrived within us. As Shimon Peres astutely said in a 2013 interview, “I think we live in a world of differences, not in a world of likenesses. And I think democracy today is not just the right to be equal but also the equal right to be different, and the person who doesn’t understand it doesn’t understand what’s happening and what is the future of our world.”