The events of October 7 were monstrous, barbaric, and also a seismic event for world Jewry. This massacre and mass hostage-taking atrocity undoubtedly will have consequences that will reverberate forever. Hamas’s hateful and cruel invasion threatens to upend the Middle East and the current geopolitical equilibrium.
The scenes and the stories coming out of Israel have left the U.S. Jewish community shaken, anxious, and fearful. Everyone knows someone who is connected to this tragedy in deep and often unspeakable ways. There is an absence of a vocabulary to describe the impact but almost an obsession to discuss it.
The trauma of learning of the brutal massacres (rape, burning, and torture) at the kibbutzim and music festival is compounded by the unimaginable kidnapping of babies, children, and old people; of families and soldiers trying to protect the people of Israel.The unabashed public and vocal support for Hamas has been jarring and left many disoriented and reeling, compounding that pain.
Whether it is on campus, in Congress, or from cultural icons — support of Hamas and thus support for genocide is frightening and has shaken the American’s sense of safety. At kitchen tables, in dorm rooms, on group chats, and at Shabbat dinner tables, there is a debate underway about how to respond.
There are three approaches you are bound to hear if you listen carefully:
Hide from the anti-Semites. Limit gathering together in communal spaces, take off your kippot, hide the Jewish star, don’t engage in Jewish life in public. If we don’t make such a fuss, they will leave us alone.
Turn inward and cede the Jewish seat at the table. Walk away from secular academia, disengage from non-Jewish political and cultural institutions. Who needs them? We have our own schools, social networks, and community.
Engage and advocate. Actively call out injustice and antisemitism. Push back and name sympathizers of Hamas and their ilk for who they are and what they stand for as people and leaders. We deserve to proudly live in both worlds, without fear.
All three of these options come with their own risks. The first two are likely paths of least resistance and may make us feel safe. But I would suggest that they are each a form of appeasement in their own right and will leave the community less safe, less strong, and ultimately defeated.
Now is the time to engage and advocate — but also to commit and build. Commit to strengthening the religious and social infrastructure of the Jewish community here and in Israel. To build on the success of a civil society that has been the backbone of our success as a people for the last 80 years. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador, recently said on Dan Senor’s Call Me Back podcast that Israel has weak institutions and a strong society; America has strong institutions and a weak society. At this moment we cannot afford to have demonstrable weaknesses in either context. The Jewish community needs to strengthen our bonds both to one another and to our institutions.
If we want people to feel safe to engage and advocate, they must do so from a place of strength. Therefore, I think there are four musts at this moment. We must redouble our philanthropic and communal building efforts. We must deepen our connections to Israel. We must reinvigorate our connections to our religious and historical heritage. We must commit that we will lay the building blocks for the next generation of both a strong society and resilient institutions. Sadly, history has taught us they will need it.
Our enemy is squarely in front of us — it is loud and clear and dangerous. But if we meet that enemy with as much passion and desire for building and strengthening as it has for destroying, then we will prevail.
This is the challenge of our generation. Let’s meet it with fortitude, resilience, and a commitment borne of a love of the people of Israel.
Michael Schlank is a Jewish communal professional who has been the CEO of NJY Camps since 2020. He is a former president of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Mercaz Academy in Plainview.