It’s Time to Wake Up

By Ruth Lichtenstein, Hamodia Publisher

German Jewish students are humiliated in front of their classmates. (Witness to History)

Until now, we’ve had it very good. We got used to living in America, the land of freedom and opportunities. We felt very welcome and quite comfortable here.

Life hummed along a well-known route: We merited to develop wonderful communities, with our spiritual and material needs met. In the summer many of us traveled to the mountains, in the winter to Florida, and in between to Eretz Yisrael.

At the end of summer bein hazmanim, the boys went back to yeshivah, many to Eretz Yisrael. Lots of girls would travel too; it became the norm to attend seminary in Eretz Yisrael. Mid-winter would come and the traveling would resume; after all, there’s vacation, and we need to visit the kids.

We, Orthodox American Jewry, felt content. Look, we said to ourselves, look at our magnificent communities; look how we rebuilt after the Holocaust, see the numerous Torah institutions, the yeshivos and shuls; look at the scope and variety of our chessed organizations, our record-breaking tzedakos. We are flourishing beyond comparison, bli ayin hara.

We celebrated one siyum after another; we helped Jews in needy communities across the world and non-Jews in disaster areas; we donated to important causes in Eretz Yisrael. It’s true that here and there we had different issues and challenges, but after all, no one can expect everything to go smoothly.

Just before COVID hit, Hagaon Harav Elya Brudny, shlita, said in an interview to Hamodia: “Now let us look at our existence in this country. Certainly, we live in a medinah shel chessed, a land that affords us rights and the ability to live our lives as we choose. But despite this benevolence, we are still not part of ‘management.’ In many ways, we are like the guests who are living in the basement at the goodwill of the superintendent.”

When the current war broke out three weeks ago, we were all in shock. During the first days, many of us were busy with the questions of “How should we go home?”, “Should we bring the children back?”, “Should we let the children stay in Eretz Yisrael?” and similar considerations.

But then, as the days passed and more and more horror stories came in, and the incitement against Jews in social media spread to the mainstream media, it dawned on us that something had drastically changed. We were thrown out of our complacency when we noticed how the BBC and The New York Times seemed to be waiting for the hospital in Gaza (or any similar site) to be bombed in order to scapegoat the Jews with the deaths of innocents, even when videos confirmed unequivocally that the explosion was caused by Hamas missiles. We suddenly understood that the war is not just about Eretz Yisrael. It has come here. We suddenly understood that while there is a military war being waged in Israel, there is a new front for us — the propaganda war.

The news last week from Ivy League schools is just one frightening example. The horrifying story about Jewish students barricaded in the library of Cooper Union College as they were threatened by pro-Hamas demonstrators shook us. The inflamed mob came through the front door, and the Jewish students were offered an escape through the back. Then came a demonstration in Crown Heights. How much fear did it evoke, especially to those residents who remembered the pogrom of 1991? With Hashem’s kindness and with the help of the NYPD, it ended with no casualties. And Sunday, we heard what happened in Dagestan, under Russian rule, where rioters stormed the airport looking to harm Jewish or Israeli passengers, another form of a pogrom.

So what happened? Two almost-pogroms, Jewish students under siege, frightened parents of university students, presidents and leaders of prestigious institutions mumbling under their breaths, issuing emails that can please parents or make them angrier, compromising the PR machine of those institutions whose donors are pulling back their donations (like Harvard losing $500 million)?

What was barely noted is what is happening beneath the surface in public schools. We cannot afford to ignore it any longer. At Hamodia, we have testimonies of Jewish students suffering harassment in public schools, testimonies of teachers who fear losing their jobs, testimonies of principals afraid to talk. A dark picture emerges. Is anyone protecting Jewish kids in public schools?

From casual conversations around New York, other voices are heard that shake us up: “I am afraid to go out with a yarmulke” or even “I bought a pistol.”

In the past, did we think of having to worry about the “danger” of wearing a yarmulke or walking to shul in a tallis on Shabbos? When we heard stories about Jews who 70, 80 years ago kept their shtreimels at home, did we think for one minute that it could happen here?

And more important, perhaps the time has come to raise additional questions:

What are we doing for our brethren in Eretz Yisrael now?

We davened for them — good. Let’s keep it up.

We’ve donated money — good. Let’s not stop.

Let’s think about what we can do for 230-plus hostages. Is there anything we can do for the parents who are losing their minds with worry?

What can we do for the orphans whose parents have disappeared, or were kidnapped, tortured, or murdered?

What comfort can we give to widows, widowers?

To read about it on social media maybe gives us an instant gratification of information. But we all know that this is nothing more than a terrible addiction.

Can we step into the shoes of one of these Jews and do something special for him or her? Are we ready to collect merits for one soldier so that he will, b’ezras Hashem, return home safely?

But our duty, American Jewry, does not end there. For in each community, each group in each region, the time has come to think about what times we live in. Let’s not forget, we went to sleep in 2023 and have woken up to a frightening new reality, reminiscent of pre-World War II.

The time has come to exercise our legal rights, to lobby for its own sake, to raise our own voices, not only to protect us but to demand from our elected representatives, Jews and non-Jews alike on each level, city, state, and federal, that they raise their voice in the necessary venues to release the babies, children, women and men, as each day, each hour is critical for their lives.

The time has come to say things as they are. We know very well who is for us and who is against us. The time has come to tear off the mask of the media, such as The New York Times and BBC, to stop hiding behind the façade of “professionalism” and political correctness and remember that ‘militants’ is a euphemism; murderers are murderers.

Yes, my friends. In Germany, too, the story did not begin in one day. Listen to the Jewish students, not in Ivy League schools here but in universities in Poland in the 1930s, who said, “I’m scared to go out in a yarmulke,” “I’m scared to wear a magen David.”

No, my dear fellow Jews, we do not need to fall into despair. The time has come to act, to work on ourselves and with others, to daven to the Ribbono shel Olam with all our hearts and souls, to believe that our tefillos are heard, and to be proactive for the future of our communities. Because that is what has preserved us until now, and that is what will preserve us in the future too. n

Ruth Lichtenstein

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