My first visit to the United States of America was in 2011 as part of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students Leadership Development Program Delegation. I spent two weeks as a part of this program in the states immersing myself in the American Jewish community. We visited every Jewish organization and spoke to a variety of Jewish communal leaders and respected thinkers. I experienced shopping in an American grocery store and saw for the first time kosher hechsherim labeled on the most mundane of items, I heard Yiddishisms being assimilated into the vernacular of the everyday American, and I saw a non-Jewish passion for bagels that was reserved for only Jews in Australia. Most important, I saw a nuance in Jewish expression that truly represented what it was to be B’nei Israel – The people who wrestle with G-d. Indeed, for the first time I experienced a spectrum of Judaism that valued the Zachor (spirit) as much as the Shamor (observing the traditions) and saw how Jewish values could be observed through progressive actions. When this experience came to an end I knew two things – I wanted to work for the Jewish community and America would one day be my aliya.
Fast forward 4 years and both of these dreams became a reality at the same time. I began my dream job at the Hillel of Florida State University facilitating students in creating a Jewish community that would fulfill their cultural, spiritual, intellectual, and social needs. Blessed with an incredibly hard working and committed student body, this was something that was easily achieved. Further, of all the campuses I had overseen, attended, visited, or read about, Florida State University was unique in the safe community it had created for its Jewish students. Jewish students do not feel as though they must remove their kippot, or hide their Jewish themed Jewelry. IDF shirts and others with Jewish themes and Hebrew written saliently in large bold font are proudly worn on campus without fear of harm. Indeed, in its history there has never been an anti-Israel motion moved, let alone passed at FSU. A far different world from that which I had come from, or from that I had read about occurring all over the world and in the west coast. I believed that this was my aliya and that I was truly lucky to be living the Jewish life I was.
Now, in 2017, I’m not so sure that this is an aliya. Yes, I still have the most incredible Jewish communal job that there is, and yes FSU is still a sanctuary of Jewish safety, Indeed the Muslim Student Association just last week presented Hillel at FSU with flowers in solidarity. However, I did not realize how much of a sanctuary FSU was in America and it is precisely the reason why we were presented flowers that I am so scared. In the last 6 weeks there have been over 190 anti-Semitic attacks on the American Jewish community. Each bomb threat makes me think – when will the threats stop and the bombings begin? When the threats spread from America and attack Australia as they did last week, I think “which one of my friends or family were affected? Is everyone I love safe?” When my students post about the JCCs of their hometowns being hit, I get scared for the safety of their friends and families. I get scared for their safety, period. When I see Jewish tombstones vandalized in 3 Jewish cities, the only physical sign of a Jewish memory left on this earth, I become scared of what it would mean to start my own Jewish family in America. When I read about a gun being shot through the windows of an Indiana synagogue, I become scared for my students life. Then, when I go to fancy upper-class restaurant and I hear men and women in suits talking about their fear of the impact of New York Jews on America’s economy and culture, I become scared that these fears of mine are not irrational. I become scared that these fears are very real.
The mitzvah most repeated in the Torah is to not oppress the stranger because we remember what it was like in Egypt. The American Jewish community may feel more like a Mitzraim than a new Western Israel, but that is far more valuable. We now have the opportunity to remember what it feels like to be strangers and resist. We have the opportunity to stand with Muslim, Hispanic, and African American cousins, build genuine and enduring relationships with these communities and demand a better life as targeted minorities together. We have the opportunity to bind as a with other diaspora communities around Europe, South Africa, and Australia that are facing fears no different than ours, and we have the opportunity to once again bind as a family with Israel, a dream that was willed into existence for this exact reason. While the immediate future may be scary and dark, as Leonard Cohen most famously said “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” This fear that we feel collectively, is a collective opportunity.