Are We Going to Stop for Lunch?

So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?
April 12, 2024
People participate in a march and rally to demand that the Israeli hostages being held in Gaza be brought home on March 10, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Jan Karski was among the first to warn the world about the Holocaust. A member of the Polish Underground, Karski courageously went back and forth between German-Occupied Poland and the Allied countries. During his missions, he infiltrated several concentration camps and brought word to the world of the horrors he witnessed there. And he was ignored.

This might have shocked Karski, but not the Polish Jews; they had been reaching out every way they could to their brethren in the United States, but to no avail. In 1942, just before he left Warsaw Ghetto to bring a report to the United States, these Polish Jews explained to Karski that:

Jewish leaders abroad won’t be interested. At 11 in the morning you will begin telling them about the anguish of the Jews in Poland, but at 1 o’clock they will ask you to halt the narrative so they can have lunch.

Breaking for lunch is the hard stop of feigned interest, the end of a meeting that was merely for show.  The Jews of America didn’t care enough to do anything.

When Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik reflected on the American Jewish response, he wrote:

Let us be honest. During the terrible Holocaust, ‎when ‎European Jewry was systematically destroyed in gas chambers and crematoria, the ‎American ‎Jewish community did not rise to the occasion…. and we ‎did ‎precious little to save our unfortunate brethren…..

We witnessed the most ‎horrible ‎tragedy in our history, and we were silent.

Jews are obligated to help other Jews. This is far from an obvious idea; no other national group inculcates a similar sense of mutual responsibility. Yet the slogan “all Jews are responsible for one another” is a foundation of Judaism.

The source of this obligation is unclear. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Likutei Amarim 32) wrote that “all Israelites are called actual “brothers” because their souls are rooted together…with only the bodies separated.” To be a Jew is to have an innate connection with other Jews; they are always brothers and sisters, even if they are from another family.

Rabbi Soloveitchik takes a non-mystical approach, one rooted in history and halakhah. Jews have a mutual covenant which was established during the exile in Egypt. It is based on shared experiences of persecution and suffering, which have remained a reality for much of Jewish history. Antisemitism doesn’t discriminate between Jews; when one Jew is attacked, every other Jew knows they’re vulnerable.

The Covenant of Egypt is a partnership between Jews forged by a collective history. This covenant becomes the foundation of Jewish identity. To stop caring about other Jews is to stop living as a Jew.

We are required to feel the pain and suffering of other Jews. As Rabbi Soloveitchik puts it: “If boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan ‎Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris or London must scream….”

In other words, Jewish unity begins in Egypt. A comment in the Midrash (Pesikta Chadata 13) sees the Egyptian exile as having a silver lining, because it forces all Jews to build bridges. Initially, the sons of Jacob who were born to Rachel and Leah looked down on the sons of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. But after 400 years in Egyptian exile, God says “I will redeem them and give them the Pesach ritual, …and they will declare, “We were all slaves to Pharaoh.” And then all Jews will be equal.”

The hidden lesson of Pesach is to remember we were all once slaves, and therefore we must all know each other’s pain. When a mob of antisemites chases Jews anywhere, it is a danger to Jews everywhere.

Unity most naturally emerges from uniformity. But now, Jews have become more fragmented and dispersed. Differences of religion, ideology and culture have made division the new default setting.  For the last 200 years, the age old value of unity is no longer a given.

With each new crisis, what remained to be seen was: would the Jewish community meet the challenge?

During the Holocaust, American Jewry failed; but a few years later, they would step up.

The Soviet Jewry movement began on April 27, 1964, when Yaakov Birnbaum convened the founding meeting of the College Students’ Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). About 200 people attended the first meeting.

Birnbaum’s vision was to start with students organizing protest rallies. Student action would inspire the larger Jewish community to join in the protests, which in turn would pressure the American government to act; and then the American government would pressure the Soviet Union to let the Jews leave. The vision seemed fantastically quixotic at the time; but less than a decade later, tens of thousands of exit visas a year were being granted to Soviet Jews. Birnbaum was right.

Driving Birnbaum was guilt. Just twenty years earlier six million Jews were murdered and American Jews did nothing. Would American Jews fail once again?

In a flyer inviting students to the April 1964 meeting Birnbaum wrote:

A recent visitor to Russia was approached by a man with glowing eyes, who whispered “Far voos shveigt ir?” “Why do you  keep silent?” We, who condemn silence and inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, dare we keep silent now?

Birnbaum was determined that American Jews would not repeat the mistakes of the past. The Jews of the Soviet Union were in pain, and the Jews of America would scream for them.

Now, in 2024, history turns to us again. So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?

Donor fatigue has started to set in. Fundraising campaigns are scuttled because people don’t want to be asked again. This is understandable. There is a certain rhythm to ordinary fundraising; causes make asks once or twice a year, and move on. This year has been different, with a new request for funds on an almost daily basis. I have been told more than once that people have reached their limits. It is certainly exhausting to keep up this level of support.

I cannot contradict this sentiment. There has been exceptional generosity over the last six months, with people giving above and beyond what they have ever done before. How much more can we ask for?

But I think we can change our perspective if we consider two things. First, this war is a marathon, not a sprint; unlike past crises, this conflict will not pass in a matter of weeks or months. Israel will need to keep going. And so will we.

More importantly, we need to recognize the screaming pain our brothers and sisters in Israel are enduring. People’s lives have been completely crushed. Rachel Goldberg-Polin, whose son Hersh has been held captive in Gaza for six months, says that every day she “puts on a costume and pretends to be a human.” A friend who lost a child in battle months ago refuses to be consoled, unable to find joy in nearly anything. And I hear from parents of soldiers that when their children are on the battlefront in Gaza, they cannot sleep at night, and they jump every time the doorbell rings.

Our fatigue pales in comparison with their pain. And now the challenge put before American Jewry is: Are we going to stop for lunch?

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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