By Zack Bodner
I write to you as a fellow JCC leader who’s been working in the field for nearly thirty years. Like you, I’ve spent my career endeavoring in one way or another to help Jews find deeper meaning and belonging by connecting them to the greater Jewish community. We have all worked in the realms of Jewish culture, literature, spirituality, learning, film, food, education, wellness, and so many more. But right now, I’m asking you to make all that other work secondary and to make Israel the centerpiece.
For nearly all of us, Israel has had a place on the list of values we hold dear and topics in which we invest time. But its spot on our priority list has varied, depending on our JCC’s focus, our own personal comfort level with the topic, and our community’s political make-up. Today, however, I write to urge you to ensure your JCC proudly makes Israel your top priority.
This moment in time is not just another tussle that Israel is engaged in with her neighbors. This isn’t just another spate of Jew-hatred in Europe. This isn’t just another round of antisemitic incidents on campus. This is a massive global war against the Jewish People, and Israel is at the center of the fight, the Jew among the nations.
There are 2700 YMCAs with 10,000 branches in the US, but less than 180 JCCs. If we can’t make Israel a top priority at this moment, then we might as well turn our JCC into a YMCA. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with YMCAs, of course. They do important work. They create a lot of good in the world. They are vital for a community’s well-being. But they aren’t obligated to look after the Jewish People; our institutions are. We are.
Hillel famously said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Many of us have spent the last fifty years embracing the second clause of this quote. We have fought for the powerless, the down-trodden, the under-represented. Specifically, many of us have fought against homelessness and poverty, fought for immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights, fought for equitable representation for racial minorities, and even fought for Palestinian rights in the Middle East. We have fought for everyone else and put ourselves second.
Now it’s time to embrace the first clause in Hillel’s call to action, and to be for ourselves. In fact, if you aren’t already standing up proudly for Israel, why aren’t you?
Are you afraid your members won’t show up due to security concerns? Some might not, but that has always been a risk and you’re not making yourself more of a target by telling the community what they already knew—that Jews come here!
Are you afraid they will leave you for ideological reasons? Most won’t. Again, they know who you are and what you represent, and the ones who do leave you will have unmasked themselves for who they really are and you’re better off without them.
Are you afraid that by standing proudly with Israel, it somehow means you don’t care about the loss of innocent Palestinian lives? Of course, that’s not true; we can mourn the loss of all innocent lives; we just need to remind people that every innocent civilian who dies – Israeli or Palestinian – is because of Hamas.
Are you afraid the young Jews who are conflicted about Israel may not come to your JCC if you are too emphatic about your support? That’s also a mistaken assumption. Young Jews respect principled organizations that stand up for what they believe in. Remind them that you are pro-Israel and anti-Hamas, not anti-Palestinian.
Or do you simply not know how to support Israel right now? If that’s the case, then here are three easy first steps:
- Fly the flag. Put up the Israeli flag at your JCC. Sing Hatikvah at your events. Put up posters that say “I support Israel” on your campuses. Pass out swag that your constituents can proudly wear showing that they support Israel.
- Talk about the righteousness of Israel’s fight. Bring in experts to talk to your staff, your constituents, and your broader community. Help the people around you understand the current situation and feel pride in associating with a Jewish, Zionist organization.
- Promote pro-Israel advocacy. Encourage your members to go to rallies, to put up “bring them home posters” around town, and to reach out to elected officials to lobby for Israel and against antisemitism. (There are ways to do this that won’t risk your 501c3 status, by the way, so I’d encourage you to work with your local Federations and JCRCs.)Friends, I’ll be blunt: if you can’t make supporting Israel and fighting against the antisemitism that has exploded due to the war on Israel a centerpiece of your work right now, then you risk becoming irrelevant as a Jewish organization.
This is the moment to mobilize our JCCs to stand up for Israel. This is the moment to stand up against Jew hatred. This is the moment to unequivocally show your Jewish pride. If not now, when?
President & CEO, Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto, CA
Zack Bodner is the CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California, which initiated an annual conference, Zionism 3.0, that became The Z3 Project, a global effort to reimagine Diaspora-Israel relations.