Today, exactly 76 years ago, on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan 1940 the Nazi government issued the order to gather all Jews in Warsaw into the Warsaw Ghetto. This was the largest of all Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, with more than 400,000 Jews.
In February 1944 the ghetto was destroyed. Most of the remaining Jews were sent to the Treblinka death camp, and the Jewish community of Warsaw died with it.
Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Europe’s Jewish population was decimated, with only 10 percent of Poland’s Jews surviving the horrors.
Many of the survivors fled the ashen soil of Europe, leaving behind memories blackened by flames and unfulfilled dreams, to find refuge in Palestine (to become the land of Israel three years later) or elsewhere, many in North America.
This is our story—the story of how brothers and sisters found themselves separated by the great ocean, with their feet newly planted on soil very foreign to them, in Israel America, Europe and other parts of the world.
We not only stood together at Mount Sinai where we became a nation, but through centuries of shared history, faith, culture and shared destiny, we are bound together. Circumstance and the fate conspired, led us to where we are today, scattered around the world.
North America Jewry, comprising more than six million Jews, many of whom are Shoah survivors or the descendants, represents almost half of world Jewry. Half of our nation, a half Israelis consider brothers and sisters whom share our DNA and destiny.
This week the United States ended one of the most fascinating, wild and troubling elections it has ever held.
Israel followed these elections carefully— its politicians staying wisely this time around at a remove—knowing that whoever the next president was to be, that person would have an enormous impact on the relationship between our two nations.
We hope that President-elect Donald Trump will continue in the bipartisan tradition of his predecessors, recognizing the special bond between his great nation and ours.
North America Jewry has always been there for the Jewish state, supporting, lobbying, encouraging and questioning.
However the relationship is dynamic. In six months Israel will celebrate 69 years of independence. During the years of building and framing a Jewish state, world Jewry examined its connection and commitment to Israel. American Jews have maintained a long-standing relationship with the Jewish homeland. Over the years, their connection has produced billions of dollars in ongoing philanthropic assistance, a powerful and effective pro-Israel lobby, tens of thousands of visits annually, a steady stream of olim (those who make aliyah, and choose to live in Israel permanently) and other examples of contact and support.
But these feelings of connection may be weakening, as a younger generation becomes more indifferent, less involved, much more critical and less passionate about Israel. On the upside, North America Jewry no longer looks to bond with Israel and with Israelis based on a narrative of crisis, but rather through deeper connections, looking to have a genuine, authentic relationship with Israel. One that is based on honest open dialogs and pride.
Almost a quarter of North American Jewry is connected to Jewish Community Centers. So those challenges and the distancing we’ve seen, offer opportunities for JCCs to bridge existing gaps.
JCCs throughout North America must reexamine the place of Israel in their mission and program, redouble efforts on behalf of the members they serve, and become more active players in the larger community arena as well.
JCC Association initiated the conversations that led to creating its Vision and Statement of Principles for the 21st Century for the JCC Movement at the 2010 Biennial in Atlanta. One of the principles states that “Israel is an eternal birthright of the Jewish people, linking us to our past and to Jews around the world today.”
Israel is, and must remain, central to our understanding of Jewish identity and peoplehood. JCCs have a unique ability, and responsibility to create real and meaningful connections to Israel for their members and for the larger community.
In 1789 Congregation Beth Shalome in Richmond, Virginia wrote a prayer for the government of the United States of America, perhaps the first written for the new U.S. government. We see its traces in prayers recited across Jewish congregations of all denominations each Shabbat:
El Tseva’ot, You have provided peace and quiet for the heart of our government;
You have placed the President of the United States to act as our leader;
Through prayer we humble ourselves before You,
To our supplications lend an ear and rescue us.
Today we join you in your prayers, hoping for the success of the new president, a success that will have great impact not only on the future of the United States, but on Israel, and the entire world.
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center