As we speed toward the shofar blast trumpeting the arrival of 5778, what comes to mind are not the ample triggers that could divide us, but the way in which our community came together in response to the challenges and curveballs.
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey is proud to have played a leading role looking out for the entire Jewish people and connecting us to each other in meaningful ways.
What we’ve seen in the past few weeks is that when one segment of the community is literally under water, the worldwide Jewish community comes together in response. The outpouring of support in the form of millions of dollars donated from the federation and Jewish communities across North America is as heartening as the fact that Jewish camps in Texas opened their bunks and kitchens, offering free food and shelter.
Hundreds of volunteers, including many from various Jewish federations, left their jobs to help in the clean-up, living the Jewish value of caring for the vulnerable. Also helping were mental health professionals from the Israel Rescue Coalition, IsraAID disaster recovery volunteers, and a team from federation partner, ZAKA, the famed Israeli search and rescue group. The following week, as thousands were being evacuated in Florida, federations across North America were again ready to help as needed.
Another city was in the news recently: Charlottesville, where hate was on display during the Unite the Right rally. Bias attacks are not new. According to the Anti-Defamation League, New Jersey has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic acts, not least of which were the bomb threats phoned in to Jewish institutions this year. While most proved to be false alarms, the evacuations of children and seniors were very real, and very frightening. As a result to these threats, many Jewish and other faith-based institutions, including schools, installed advanced security devices and procedures. The federation helped make that possible for dozens of institutions, which took part in security training sessions and assessments it facilitated and sponsored. Moreover, with support from the federation’s Security Task Force, those efforts won Homeland Security grants.
Jewish organizations are hardly the only ones concerned with security and bias preparedness. In the past 15 years, more than 300 law enforcement professionals — from police officers to district attorneys — have participated in a program designed by federation partner, CHHANGE, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education. This year’s program, co-sponsored by the Heart of NJ federation and the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office, sensitized the officers to the needs of communities of faith, such as our own. The officers meet with Holocaust survivors, participate in study sessions about bullying, hate crimes, and their role as first responders, and they visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
And, in a separate effort, the federation convened security and bias preparedness briefings for Jewish and interfaith community leaders.
While the Jewish community has strengthened bonds with law enforcement and interfaith neighbors, ironically, certain connections within the Jewish community itself have loosened. Mirroring the rest of the country, Jews in Monmouth and Greater Middlesex counties are increasingly mobile and decreasingly joiners. Few have grandchildren who live down the block, and those who learned Hebrew and about Yiddishkeit from their grandparents don’t have the chance to teach them to their own grandchildren.
While some traditional connectors may be loosening, new ones are developing. For example, PJ Library, the brainchild of the Grinspoon Foundation and supported by the federation, brings Jewish-themed books into the homes of Jewish children every month at no cost. Parents and children read together, creating Jewish memories together in their homes. What’s more, PJ playdates and events pop up all over the area, bringing young Jewish families together and helping them form joyful and lasting bonds. PJ Library has been growing by about 20 percent each year and today it reaches some 2,000 children in our area. Its constituency has expanded, as well: Whereas originally it was just for little ones; now the program has grown with its readers, distributing age-appropriate offerings through age 11.
Another program reflecting the federation’s mission to strengthen the community is a new Hebrew Free Loan program that helps defray the costs of fertility treatments, surrogacy, and adoption. Of course, Hebrew Free Loans are available for any type of need, from job loss to medical bills and even business loans, but the Building Jewish Families program helps build our Jewish community — one child at a time.
Indeed, the Jewish future depends on our children, and having joyful, immersive Jewish experiences at a young age is linked to strong Jewish identity and participation later in life. That is why the federation redoubled its commitment this year to making Jewish summer camp more affordable for as many families as possible. In fact, camp grant applications are now open for next summer.
Our young people are also one of the community’s greatest sources of volunteers and help make people feel more connected. Teens linked with each other and with their parents’ and grandparents’ generations in record numbers this year through community service and leadership training programs, such as the federation’s JTeam Teen Philanthropy and JSERVE programs. Typical teens connected with children with special needs through programs like the Friendship Circle, Hand in Hand, and Yachad. And adult volunteers helped the community feel a little closer by bringing Kosher Meals on Wheels to seniors, and by visiting hospital patients — just two of the dozens of volunteer opportunities in our area.
Then there is the connection between U.S. Jewry and Israel. While the U.S. government views Israel as an admirable ally, there are those in the Jewish community who, for a variety of reasons, seem unsure. True, when Israel is under threat of attack, donations to federations and other pro-Israel non-profits rise. But with one of the world’s strongest armies, world-famous technology innovations, and accomplishments from agriculture to health care, people forget we still have members of the extended Jewish family in need around the world — including in Israel.
On many campuses, both high school and college, Israel is held to a harsh double standard. Some discount Israel’s history and threaten its right to exist. Caught in the middle are students who, while feeling some emotional connection to the Jewish state, lack the tools to combat the charges hurled at them.
To date, more than 600,000 young Jewish adults from around the globe, and some 900 local young people this year alone, have taken advantage of Birthright’s free, federation-supported trips to Israel. They have had eye-opening and heart-opening experiences that touched them deeply and fostered strong personal bonds with the land, people, and ideals of Israel. The federation also helped send more than 100 high school students to Israel on summer and vacation programs, and its Israel missions for families, adults, and interfaith clergy slated for the coming months are quickly filling up.
So as 5777 recedes, federation’s leaders, professional staff, partners, volunteers, and donors move forward with — and for — the entire Jewish community, humbled by what the community has seen, heartened by what it has accomplished, and strengthened by what it has learned.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.