Dec 6, 2019
By
David Bryfman

Why Jewish educators must not hide from tough questions about anti-Semitism

David Bryfman, CEO of The Jewish Education Project, speaks at the 2019 Jewish Futures Conference.

Good morning everyone and thank you for coming to today’s Jewish Futures Conference: Pride and Prejudice – Jewish Education’s Battle Amid Growing Anti-Semitism.

I know what you’re expecting me to say – that I’m so glad and happy to see all of you here today, but I actually don’t want to say that. What I do want to share with you is my uncertainty. The mixture of sadness, indignance, confusion, and yes, even optimism

When we first conceived of the Jewish Futures conference almost a decade ago, my colleagues and I, including my dear mentor Jon Woocher of blessed memory, imagined that this would be a gathering of optimism and forward thinking. Of joy and celebration – to imagine the world of possibility in Jewish education.

Never did I imagine that here I would be today, the grandson of holocaust survivors, opening up a session on the oldest hatred of them all – anti-Semitism.

And yet I am incredibly proud to do so. I am enormously proud that we at the Jewish Education project are willing to say that we must never avoid the most critical issues of our day. And I am even more proud to say that, when we tackle these critical issues, we do so with one goal in mind – to address the question: What do our Jewish learners need most from us right now and in the future?

I am also enormously grateful that I have a team around me that is able to make something like today happen – I want to take this opportunity from the outset to thank the team that helped put today together including Debbie Seiden with support from so many others – and especially to Malka Fleischmann our Director of Knowledge and Ideas who you will hear from later. Today’s conference was really made possible because of all of her deep thinking and hard work. Also, to thank my senior team of educators and leaders and all of the staff of The Jewish Education Project – as well as our board, many of whom are here today as well, including our president Martine Fleischmann whose energy and passion is infectious and inspires us all. Also, to thank our friends and colleagues at UJA Federation of NY who make all of our work possible and for whose partnership with are grateful for every day. And to our friends at the Covenant Foundation – especially Harlene and Joni, for when I mentioned the topic of today’s conference without blinking an eye lid said that they wanted to help support us in this endeavor.

And with all of this heartfelt gratitude and deep support I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there’s something about today’s focus that also just really sucks.

I was once debating with some sociology friends – there are two types of Jews in the world. Those who believe that everyone is out to get us, and those who believe that the Jewish people are safe and secure. Maybe it’s a spectrum and not so cleanly bifurcated, but I do want to acknowledge that our worldview does already color how we approach or avoid today’s conversation.

I have already been the recipient of many emails and conversations about how we can have this speaker, or that speaker. How can we frame the conversation today this way or that way. I want to say from the outset that it is impossible for all of you to agree with every speaker today since they don’t even agree with one another. And I want to emphasize a few ideas to which we at The Jewish Education Project are fiercely committed:

 

  1. We want to encourage and support a Jewish educational system that engages divergent points of view. Much of our best learning is a result of exposure to perspectives that are markedly different from our own.
     
  2. As always, we believe that discomfort is a key ingredient in growth. We believe that, as they say, the magic of profound learning happens just outside of one’s comfort zone.
     
  3. Fear can be a debilitating force in the life of a growing child, and we do not believe that it should occupy great space in Jewish educational programming and curricula.
     
  4. By and large, today’s Jewish youth identify as global citizens and many of them are still more afraid to go to school than they are to go to shul. They don’t relate to anti-Semitism as such a singular cultural disease, and so, our approach to the increased hate we’re seeing in this country and in the wider world must be more global. We cannot care only about Jews and the anti-Semitism they face.
     
  5. Anti-Semitism is not the same as anti-Israel or anti-specific policies of an Israeli administration.
     
  6. And, finally, if you’re expecting today to walk away with a whole lot of ready-made curricula and talking points, then you’ve probably come to the wrong conference. The Jewish Futures conference was built on the premise that we would always pose more questions than answers – that we would bring a multitude of ideas to an eclectic group of Jewish educational stakeholders, and, together, generate productive discussions and maybe even some solutions to the vexing issues of the day. This year, as ever, we are committed to that goal. We are here to learn through open-minded questioning, and we are confident that the wheels that begin turning in your minds today will eventually take the Jewish community to inspiring new places.

I have sat through many uncomfortable discussions in the last 12 months about anti-Semitism. Not uncomfortable because they challenged me in a good way – but uncomfortable because I felt uneasy that the message they were sending was disturbing, unnuanced, unsophisticated, offensive, and most importantly for me – neglected the people whom I, and so  many of us care most deeply about, our Jewish learners and their families.

In recent months, I sat through:

  • A lecture about anti-Semitism which cited statistic after statistic about anti-Semitic incidents and was clearly designed to scare the crap out of the audience
  • I sat in a meeting about Israel travel programs that decided that they would use the increase in anti-Semitic incidents to boost numbers traveling to Israel
  • I sat through a fundraising meeting where you could feel the energy in the room around meeting fundraising goals because of the increase in anti-Semitic incidents

 

But, like so many of you, I have also experienced anti-Semitism in other ways.  

  • I also sat and listened to my friend and rabbi, Rabbi Timoner, share news of the shooting in Halle, Germany, with her Brooklyn congregation, and, as she did, I wondered how 4 generations of people seated in Yom Kippur services in her synagogue were interpreting that shocking report.
  • I sat through many conversations with my colleagues in Pittsburgh and listened to them and offered as much support as we could as they struggled and continue to struggle with the tragedy that occurred in their neighborhood.
  • I attended our local Chabad shule the week after the shooting in Poway just to be with the community.
  • And, on an all too regular basis, I listen to my own children talk about lock down drills and ask simple questions, like, why do people not like Jews?

Today, we promise to provide you with an opportunity to think about the times we live in – not to debate statistics or politics, not to determine communal strategies and responses – all of those things are important and essential – but not for today. Today is about one thing, one audience – our learners – the children, youth and adults who turn to us for guidance. Today is about determining what sort of promising and pride-inducing world we can shape for them and encourage them to build within a wider world full of hatred. Today is about envisioning a more global perspective for lifelong learning that imbues young people with the skills and emotions they need to mature in an unpredictable and, at times, very unsafe world. 

It is our obligation today not to hide from the tough questions and challenges that lie before us. It is our opportunity and responsibility today to engage in the necessary discussions that are critical today.

As I said, I am so deeply sad that I have to be here today to open today’s conference, and I am also incredibly proud that all of you have decided to give of yourselves in this journey with us.

I would also be remiss of us not to say that we wouldn’t be here today were it not for the events which have precipitated this recent upsurge in anti-Semitism. And I also want to acknowledge and dedicate today’s conference to the lives of those lost at Tree of Life synagogue and in Poway.

  • Joyce Fienberg, 75
  • Richard Gottfried, 65
  • Rose Mallinger, 97
  • Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
  • Cecil Rosenthal, 59
  • David Rosenthal, 54
  • Bernice Simon, 84
  • Sylvan Simon, 86
  • Daniel Stein, 71
  • Melvin Wax, 88
  • Irving Younger, 69

And Lori Gilbert-Kaye of Poway

May today’s conference provide some comfort and honor to their memories as well as to all other victims of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and hatred.

David Bryfman is the CEO of The Jewish Education Project. 

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