Michael D. Cohen
Michael D. Cohen

High Holy Days Reflections on a Communal Call to Action

During this High Holy Day season, we have much to reflect upon as we consider the events of this past tumultuous year and its implications for our community. There is much to consider as we work to secure our collective future.

As the East Coast director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center I know that our mission is clear, if daunting: to combat anti-Semitism, bigotry, and everything that supports terrorism; while at the same time building bridges of tolerance and respect with our neighbors and people from other cultures and faiths.

Let’s look at the international scene. From Germany, where authorities increasingly refuse to treat attacks on synagogues as anti-Semitic; to Sweden, where police allow a neo-Nazi march in front of a synagogue on Yom Kippur; to the United Kingdom, where anti-Semitism and anti-Israel invective are finding homes on the nation’s campuses and within the leadership of the Labour Party — all this portends a challenging year ahead.

Nationally, we all witnessed the events in Charlottesville. We saw American white supremacists march under torchlight, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” shocking the nation. We have seen attacks on our people from both the far left and far right increase over the past year. This gives us pause.

Locally, in northern New Jersey, we have seen Mahwah and Upper Saddle River fight to protect themselves from “those people” as they battle against the expansion of an eruv. I saw people in the audience heckle a Holocaust survivor as he tried to preach a message of tolerance. (See page 6 for more on the eruv.)

In Ridgewood we all saw the reports of swastikas etched into the pavement, followed by swastikas found on a boarded-up condemned building in Mahwah. This was only a week after similar drawings were found on a bridge in South Orange, and only a year and a half after swastikas, painted in shaving cream, were found on a field at the Dwight-Englewood School.

Simon Wiesenthal himself often said that in order to be a realist as a Jew you have to believe in miracles. Mr. Wiesenthal did not rely on miracles, however, but instead on constantly increasing his activism. So does the institution bearing his name.

Over the last 12 months we have seen a dramatic increase in our next generation’s desire to become involved in the struggle to effectively fight back bigotry. I have seen the numbers of participants in the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s government advocacy internship program, which was established just two years ago to teach the pragmatic aspects of activism, triple.

I look at the local municipalities that have been willing to join us in passing anti- BDS resolutions, resolute statements of a zero tolerance policy toward anti-Semitism and hate, and I realize that those towns do not all have large Jewish populations. In other words, they did what was right as opposed to what simply was politically expedient.

I look at the interest our local schools and communities have in expanding the usage of apps and other devices that contribute to our ability to both raise awareness about digital hate and digital terrorism, and to become part of a solution in exposing such despicable uses of new technologies. I see the increased use of digital apps that record and alert us to hate groups that target our unsuspecting children on social media, and our increasing efforts to communicate with the companies, like Facebook and Twitter, that govern much of the web to dramatically upgrade their filters to prevent such messages from reaching their intended targets.

I choose to look at the solidarity against hate that I witnessed at a press conference at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly after the bomb threats against Jewish intuitions, rather than at the bomb threats themselves.

I choose to believe that while the bigots around our nation are becoming more blatant and flagrant in their very dangerous activities, we will work harder, smarter, and more effectively in obliterating their messages and do better at preparing our communities for that which inevitably we cannot filter.

This High Holy Days season, let us remember that we always must act in solidarity with our fellow Jews and reach out in friendship and respect to all those around us who are willing to respect and work with us.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.
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