In April 1964, a German-born immigrant named Jacob Birnbaum sent out a letter to Jewish college students with the following explicit challenge: “We who condemn silence and inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, dare we keep silent now? The time has come for a mass grass-roots movement – spearheaded by the student youth…There is a time to be passive and a time to act…”
Thankfully, thousands of young people answered his call, and for the next two decades, the Soviet Jewry movement inspired American Jews toward acts of profound dedication and sacrifice for the sake of their brethren on the other side of the world.
Today, nearly sixty years later, we are faced with a new reality that demands that once again American Jewish youth step up! This is a seminal time when those in their teens and twenties can assert their commitment to solidarity by actively supporting the efforts to regain security and stability for Israel and its people.
As a teen, the Soviet Jewry movement seared into my consciousness the need to express my Judaism through deeds. I was inspired by our teachers, youth leaders, and rabbis who flew on covert missions to the U.S.S.R. Despite the dangers, they smuggled in Jewish books and sets of tefillin and taught Torah and Hebrew to clandestine gatherings of local “refuseniks.” Once we reached college age, some of my close friends followed in their footsteps and made their way to Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Riga and more. They were driven by a deep understanding that the most compelling lesson of the Holocaust was to act when fellow Jews are in danger.
When Israel was threatened in 1967, in 1973, and during the First Gulf War, American Jewish youth also stepped up. They rallied, they raised funds, and thousands came to Israel to volunteer; in agriculture, in factories, in hospitals, in social welfare – whatever was needed. Whether they eventually made their homes in the United States or chose to settle down permanently in Israel, their connection to its people and their welfare was fortified forever.
For so many of my generation, in Israel and America, the core value of stepping up during a Jewish crisis is foundational to what it means to be a Jew. As parents and educators, we hoped that these ideals were still palpable enough for the next generation to act upon them when and if they were needed.
On October 7th, Simhat Torah morning, we were brutally reminded that nearly 80 years after the conclusion of World War Two, we live in a world with enemies intent on murdering Jews of all ages, sexes, and physical conditions, in the most heinous and inhumane manners. Along with the ongoing shock and sadness, we have drawn strength from the resolve of Israeli society, especially the young people. Notwithstanding painful political and social cleavages, Israel’s younger generation from every lifestyle and ideology is stepping up. They are demonstrating they understand the need to confront unequivocal evil head-on and do so together, whether through active army duty or through remarkable initiatives of volunteerism and support to those in need.
In this light, it has been inspiring to witness the responses of young American students – including relatives and children of close friends – who arrived in September expecting one version of an Israel study gap year program at universities, kibbutzim, yeshivot, midrashot, seminaries, and kollels, only to find themselves plunged into a vastly different tragic reality. They have donated blood, packed supplies for soldiers and displaced families, helped families whose fathers were called to reserve duty take down their sukkot, run activities for children, offered to babysit, given English lessons, baked and cooked for Shabbat, pitched in at hospitals and nursing homes, played guitar in the parks and more. There is so much to do, and many American young adults understand that this is their moment to step up.
My fellow Israelis and I have also been bolstered by the increasing number of delegations from abroad, some, prominent rabbis, educators and communal leaders, and others, simple Jews and non-Jews who care and hopped on a plane.
Unfortunately, other Jewish young adults, including some with the strongest educations and religious backgrounds, have chosen to return to North America. I am a father and a grandfather. Our son, son-in-law, multiple nephews, a niece, and scores of children of friends are serving in active duty. I respect the need to be responsible and take precautions to stay out of harm as much as possible. I also recognize that individuals have emotional challenges that undermine their moral allegiances. Yet, for the majority of young people, it is difficult for me to comprehend the conscious act of distancing as much as possible at this time of critical pain and acute challenges. More than 1,400 Israelis have been killed, over 200 have been taken hostage, and hundreds of thousands more have had their lives completely unraveled.
I turn to American Jews, especially the young people, to recognize that wherever you reside, this is a generational moment. If you are abroad, take an active part in supporting Israel. If you can come, then come. If you are in Israel, stay with us, we need you and we will be stronger and safer together.
No matter what, face up to the call of Jacob Birnbaum, “dare we keep silent now?…There is a time to be passive and a time to act…” This is one of those times.