As we approach Rosh Hashanah, I am reflecting on the Jewish year that is about to end.
Since the holiday comes “late” this year — because the High Holidays never come on time, only early or late — I have had some extra time to reflect. Personally, as with most years, this year had some extraordinary highs as well as some sad lows.
The highlights started for me last summer, when I became a member of the Berrie Fellows Leadership program. Thus began an 18-month journey of learning and evolving with 20 amazing Jewish leaders from northern New Jersey, who are committed to making positive changes in our community.
This Jewish year ended with two amazing trips to Israel this summer. The first trip was with my family; it was the first time my two children had ever been there. I was able to experience the wonder of Israel through the eyes of first-time visitors, who were exposed to its beauty and also awed by its history and its importance to the Jewish people.
The second trip to Israel was with the Berrie Fellows. On that trip, we studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute. While we were there, and through visits we made to various Israeli organizations and institutions, including the Knesset, we learned more about Israel as a first-world democracy, with remarkable achievements in technology, business, and science. But these achievements were juxtaposed against the daily conflicts that Israelis must navigate through in order to live there. These include conflicts between Jews and Israeli Arabs, conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, and conflicts between the large and growing charedi population and the secular Jews. But despite these changes, there are inspiring leaders whom we met — political, business, and secular leaders — who are working every day to improve their country and make Israel a better place for all who live there.
I also experienced professional highs this year, as the resurging real estate market helped to improve business prospects both for my mortgage brokerage business and for my real estate law practice. Low interest rates, coupled with improving job prospects, led to a housing market recovery that is now at or near pre-economic-crisis levels in northern New Jersey.
The saddest personal note for me was the death of my father-in-law, Herman Schnipper, last month. He was 92 years old. Another member of the Greatest Generation, who fought for our freedom in World War II, is gone. Every day, we are left with fewer and fewer of this generation, who sacrificed for all that we have today. Much of this we take for granted and some of this we are losing as we spiral downward in such important virtues as civility, generosity, and kindness.
I see this loss every time that we at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey struggle to fund our campaign. Every year, we try to reach ever-more-affluent younger Jewish people, who have plenty of money to spend to join fancy clubs, go on exotic vacations, and buy homes larger than they can ever fully use. However, remarkably, they never have a few extra dollars available to help those who are less fortunate, such as the now elderly survivors from the Greatest Generation, including Holocaust survivors, or to support programs for families in crisis.
I think that the biggest loss we are facing as a Jewish people this Rosh Hashanah is the loss of the sense of Jewish peoplehood. As it has become easier to be a Jew in America, as Jews in America become more and more accepted, as evidenced by the intermarriage numbers, we are forgetting about what has kept us connected. No longer looking to be the “a light unto the nations,” we are content with the small light of our cell phones. We confuse our social interactions on Facebook with real interactions, and we no longer have the empathy and compassion that is needed to be a real community.
I don’t think that it is an accident that there is rising anti-Semitism in the world. Nor do I think that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is an outlier.
As Jewish people, we have a lot to be thankful for and a lot of which to be proud. Israel is a strong nation, respected for its contributions in many areas. We are proud members of American society, and we treated most of the time just like all others (except for that Christmas thing each December, which gives us a little in-our-faces reminder that we are not entirely assimilated). We have the choice to observe Shabbat or not, to eat kosher or not, and to live a Jewish life or not. These choices, however, come with ramifications, and we all should think long and hard about what kind of a Jewish future we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.
As a member of the Berrie Fellows, we are thinking about all of this. But we are only 20 people — 80 people altogether, if you include the other three Berrie cohorts — and we cannot do it alone.
As Jews, we need to be just as diligent about preventing anti-Semitism as we are about preventing racism or bullying. They all are important. But we cannot use our successes, our assimilation, or our open-mindedness to allow us to forget who we are.
If Jewish people do not defend Israel nobody else will. When it comes to Israel, the world takes its cues from us. When Jewish people care more about the Palestinian narrative (which is valid and needs to be addressed) than they do about the survival of our country, we need to reevaluate our priorities and philosophy.
The greatest threat now to Israel and to the survival of the Jewish people is not an external one. It is an internal one. While supporting every other worthy cause, both financially and otherwise, Jewish people must remember that if they care about the survival of our “peoplehood,” there must also be a place for Jewish charity, action, and support. The BDS movement is not just about Israel. It is about the destruction of the Jewish people. It needs to be addressed and destroyed, along with anti-Semitism everywhere, whenever it rears its head.
In this regard, we should learn from our African-American friends, who never let any issue of possible racism go unanswered. We need to do the same. We must understand and internalize the understanding that if the only “occupation” someone cares about is the one in Israel, than they are not “anti-occupation.” They are unequivocally anti-Israel, and most likely they are anti-Semitic as well.
This Rosh Hashanah, while we are in synagogue, looking forward to a new year, we all should take the time to think about the future of our people. And if this future matters to you, then you should think about what you can do to help insure that our future is as bright as our present is and our past was.
As one of the speakers at the Hartman Institute told us, this is the greatest time to be a Jewish person in the history of our people. I hope that we continue to believe that and make sure that this holds true for those who come after us.