July 18, 2019

Poll: More Than Half of Austrians Don’t Know Extent of Holocaust

Photo from Wikipedia.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an organization that advocates for the German government to provide reparations to Holocaust survivors, released a poll Thursday concluding that more than half of Austrians don’t know that six million Jews died during the Holocaust.

The poll, which surveyed 1,000 Austrians from Feb. 22-Mar. 1, found that 56 percent of Austrians were not aware of the full extent of Jewish deaths during the Holocaust. This included 36 percent of Austrians believing that two million Jews or less died during the Holocaust; 42 percent of Austrian millennials and Generation Z believed this as well.

Additionally, 58 percent of respondents believed another Holocaust could happen in various European countries and 47 percent said a Holocaust could occur in the United States today. Another 36 percent believed that there are “a great deal” of neo-Nazis in Austria and 50 percent said there are “many” neo-Nazis in the United States.

On Holocaust education, 82 percent of respondents said that every student should learn about the Holocaust in school.

Julius Berman, president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said in a statement that the poll showed “disturbing trends” on Holocaust education.

“Without education, we risk the history of the Holocaust being distorted and otherwise denied and those who were murdered being forgotten,” Berman said. “Effective education is paramount towards ensuring that what happened in the past does not repeat itself.”

What Happened to America? How We Became a Divided Nation and How We Can Move Forward

We Americans are furious. We are fed up. We are enraged and outraged. We vent our wrath on Facebook and Twitter against those who have the nerve to disagree with us, and we avoid even the most casual of social encounters with people who voted for the other candidate.

But we also know that underneath almost every angry person is a frightened person. If we move past the anger to instead consider the frightened American voter and where their fears come from, we can move closer to addressing the unhappiness and divisiveness that has roiled our politics, our public discourse and even our personal relationships.

Politics does not exist in a vacuum. It is a reflection — and often an exaggeration — of society. Shrewd campaign strategists in both major parties have watched us for years as we have become more wary and more suspicious of each other. They have learned how to exploit our tribal instincts and to leverage our alienation for their partisan advantage. But in 2016, the politics of fear broke through to a new level.

The Politics of Fear
In the last presidential election, two unusual candidates — Donald Trump from the right and Bernie Sanders from the left — decided that they could benefit from stoking the fears of voters rather than calming them. Both understood something that more traditional candidates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton did not: A significant number of Americans no longer trusted the reassurances politicians had always offered. Instead, many of us wanted our leaders to indulge our passions and help us identify scapegoats who we could then blame for our problems.

“What’s wrong with America? Nothing that less fearmongering and more confidence and courage can’t solve.”

Trump and Sanders both obliged, targeting their messages at two different groups of frightened voters. But both men recognized the same source of these fears: a society that was struggling with the most dramatic economic and technological upheaval since the Industrial Revolution. Just as the transition from agriculture to industry in the early 20th century roiled the American psyche at that time, the current transformation from an economy heavily reliant on manufacturing to one dependent on rapidly changing technology was having a similar impact. Both shifts were profoundly disruptive to a workforce that had been trained to succeed under the former system but was left deeply disoriented by changes for which it was unprepared. Both shifts exposed the worst fears of workers who felt left behind.

Working-Class White Men
Trump focused his efforts on an older generation of blue-collar workers. Many female and minority voters were put off by Trump’s messaging on social and cultural matters, but white working-class men made up the core of his support base from the first days of his candidacy. These men were told many years ago that they did not need a college education to achieve professional success and economic stability. They learned that working on an assembly line or a factory floor or a construction site might not allow them to get rich, but they could certainly purchase their own home, provide for their children and save enough for a comfortable retirement.

Millions of working-class Americans did everything they thought they were supposed to do to hold up their end of the bargain. They went to work each day, became active in their communities, and provided the structure and support for their children’s future achievements. What they did not foresee was how the world’s economy was preparing to abandon them. 

One hundred years earlier, workers whose livelihoods had depended on agriculture understood how to navigate the Industrial Revolution. They moved from their family farms to cities where they could get jobs in factories. It might have been a difficult transition but at least it was a straightforward one. In 2019, however, laid-off factory workers know they are not going to move to Silicon Valley and acquire venture-fund financing for a social-networking startup. The very best they can hope for is a short-term job-training program that teaches the most rudimentary skills of computer repair or data entry. The worst is represented by growing rates of opioid dependency, homelessness and suicide in the nation’s Rust Belt. Not surprisingly, workers are frightened by a future that doesn’t seem to have room for them — a fear Trump masterfully exploited.

Disaffected Millennials
On the other end of the political spectrum, Sanders reached out to another, equally frightened voter group — disaffected young people.

Like working-class white men, young people of the millennial generation have been struggling to do everything asked of them. In the 21st century, getting into increasingly expensive colleges doesn’t just require good high-school grades and strong test scores, but an array of extracurricular and volunteer activities, as well. As they rise through the educational system, the pressure intensifies. Most successful college students know that succeeding academically is no longer sufficient to guarantee them a well-paying job, so they pursue internships, externships and fellowships with preternatural focus and determination. 

Unfortunately, they happened to graduate from college during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, or during its uneven and unsatisfying aftermath.

Sanders appealed to their fears with tremendous effectiveness, convincing these young people that he was the one candidate who was willing to pay attention to them. Most of his young supporters understood that his promise of free college was unlikely to happen, just as most of the working-class Trump voters knew that his pledge to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border would never be fulfilled. But unlike the establishment politicians of both parties, at least these two men were responding to their fears and worries. 

The unemployed 50-something factory worker and the underemployed 20-something barista may have expressed their fears in different ways, but both felt cheated by an economic system that shortchanged them and a political system that ignored them. Both groups felt like they were being denied their piece of the American dream and didn’t understand why no one seemed to care. Trump and Sanders not only validated their fears but provided handy targets to blame. Demonizing someone — whether immigrants or bankers — was cathartic and energizing for them. And it was good politics for the two candidates.

Fear on the World Stage
Just as children and voters run away from things that frighten them, countries also retreat from scary things. America’s current retreat into isolationism is in line with a century of historical trends. After both World Wars and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, our exhausted and depleted nation turned inward. After every significant economic downturn, American voters decided to prioritize domestic concerns over foreign engagements. It should be no surprise that after more than a decade in Afghanistan and in the years since the economic meltdown of 2008, Americans simply want the rest of the world to leave us alone for a while. We never seem to learn the consequences of that disengagement, a lesson that is again becoming painfully apparent.

For many years, the Republican and Democratic parties’ attitudes toward international disengagement have manifested themselves in markedly different ways. Republicans expressed their concerns through a reluctance to promote a more welcoming immigration policy, while the Democrats’ wariness could be seen in their antipathy toward expanded free trade. Trump demonstrated his political savvy by being the first major political figure in recent history to strenuously oppose this country’s bridge-building efforts on both policy fronts rather than one or the other. Regardless of the outcome of his current debate with Congress over border security, he became our nation’s Wallbuilder in Chief long ago.

The fears that motivated such nationalism and isolationism are not unique to this country. The recent “Yellow Vest” protests in France, the rise of reactionary populist movements throughout Europe and the ongoing debate over Brexit in Great Britain provide ample evidence of the global nature of this challenge. But for the last several decades, the United States has played a unique role in maintaining and strengthening the international architecture on which the varying interests of individual countries could be balanced. 

For more than 40 years after the end of World War II, the world’s security, economic and diplomatic landscape was shaped by a bipolar leadership structure headed by the United States and the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, the United States stood as the unchallenged organizer of an international infrastructure. But the current multipolar setup, with a growing number of aggressive global players, is an arrangement that has historically led to precarious provocations, chaos or widespread violence. Concerns of increasingly tense Middle East discord, of a resurgent Russia and an increasingly aggressive China continue to fester. Fears of international economic, military or environmental catastrophe will not be diminished without a more assertive and consistent U.S. presence on the world stage. But taking on such scary international demands requires that we as a nation present a more unified front to a global audience. Which means we must first confront our fears here at home. 

How Fear Spreads
Fear is contagious. Over the last two years, the ranks of frightened Americans have continued to grow. The two specific demographic groups that animated the 2016 campaign have been joined by much larger numbers of voters on both sides of the aisle. On one side are those who fear that — because of their gender, race, ethnicity or immigration status — they are being deprived of their rightful opportunity to share in the American dream. On the other side are those, just as frightened, who worry that they are having their share of that same American dream taken from them as the nation’s economy and culture change in ways they do not understand. The resulting animosity between those who hate Trump and those who hate those who hate Trump causes the surface anger and the fear underneath it to cascade. 

The challenge for our country’s political leaders is to explain to both groups of frightened people that the American dream is not a zero-sum game, that when some among us realize that dream, they do not prevent others from that same achievement. Rather, they increase its likelihood for all. But bringing people to understand such a reality requires a unifying message that is more challenging and complicated to communicate than it is to create bogeymen and stoke fears of the unknown.

“The percentage of Americans who would refuse to marry someone of a different race or religion is at an all-time low. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who would refuse to date someone of the opposing political party is at an all-time high.”

How Fear Stops
Throughout history, our best leaders have made that extra effort. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously outlined the “Four Freedoms” to which we are all entitled: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Unstated but implied in his speech was that each of those freedoms is most secure when we rally together to protect them on behalf of others who are the most vulnerable to losing them. Such a view puts an added obligation on those of us who are most able: We must stand with those who are most fearful.

What frightened people fear most are people different than them. Our society has made tremendous progress on this front, as public-opinion research has shown that the percentage of Americans who would refuse to marry someone of a different race or religion is at an all-time low. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who would refuse to date someone of the opposing political party is at an all-time high.

Certainly, we have a long way to go. We’re getting better at overcoming our fears of people who don’t look like us or talk like us, but we’re becoming much less accepting of people who don’t think like us or vote like us. We are trading one form of intolerance — and fear — for another.

Looking Harder for Common Ground
Ronald Reagan preached the value of cooperation by saying, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally.” The next step forward from Reagan’s quote would be to consider that someone who disagrees with you 80 percent of the time is still someone you can work with 20 percent of the time. But it requires a lot more work to find that 20 percent. It’s much easier to simply vilify them for those matters on which you disagree and add to the animosity and anger.

Tribalization is tempting, but rising above it is often worth the trouble. The time and effort expended in finding common ground not only may lead to substantive agreement and forward progress, but it may make the other person a little less frightening. Recognizing the humanity of someone who wants the same things for their children that you want for yours — even if they disagree with you on which political party is better equipped to deliver those things — is a small step toward tolerance and away from fear. Maybe we can remember that the person with whom we disagree isn’t someone to be hated, but rather someone with whom we can try to find even some small agreement.

The most important part of communication, of course, is listening. As a first step, exposing ourselves to the writing and thinking of smart people on the other side of the divide can help us understand that not everyone with whom we disagree is stupid or evil. Our goal should be to find intelligent thinkers who have different ideas than ours about how to take on our community’s most pressing challenges, listen to them rather than lecture them, and ask them questions rather than hurl insults at them.

And no fair seeking out the screamers and the polemicists on the other side. Pretending to engage with an avowed hate-monger is just an excuse to reinforce our own beliefs, congratulate ourselves for being so much more enlightened that our adversaries, and build the ideological and partisan walls even higher. There are smart people who come to different conclusions than we do. We owe it to ourselves to find them — and to hear them. Then after we have listened to them, the most productive response is to ask questions rather than hurl insults.

(Be warned: This approach requires a high level of intellectual courage, as well as plenty of self-confidence to defend our ideas and entertain the possibility that others might have good ideas, too. It’s also good to have ample quantities of humility.)

On the last day of every semester in the college classes I teach, I give my students one final assignment. Although I cannot grade it, I tell them the assignment will be the most important they receive over the entire course. I ask every conservative in the class to watch Rachel Maddow once a week and I encourage every liberal to read George Will or Bret Stephens with the same frequency. The goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind, just to open it.

“Maybe we can remember that the person with whom we disagree isn’t someone to be hated, but rather someone with whom we can try to find even some small agreement.”

What’s Right With America
In his first inaugural address, Bill Clinton offered a thought that can still help us with this current challenge. “There is nothing wrong with America,” he said, “that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” 

What’s right with America has always been collaboration and cooperation and the extra effort needed to overcome disagreements to work toward common goals. What’s right with America are Americans who understand that fearing those who are different just gets in the way of recognizing that the diversity of those differences is what has always allowed our country to succeed.

What’s right with America is building bridges, but the whole point of a bridge is to connect things that otherwise would be separated. This type of construction requires reaching out across obvious demographic and ideological dividing lines to overcome fears and work toward achievable, admirable goals. 

What’s wrong with America? Nothing that less fearmongering and more confidence and courage can’t solve. The question is whether we sit around waiting and hoping for the politicians to make that transformation, or whether we take the lead and show them that while fear may be an effective short-term political strategy for them, it is going to get in our way as we work toward putting our country back on track.

Talking to those with whom we disagree — and listening to them — may seem like an outdated concept. Certainly, advances in communications technology make it easier than ever to avoid them. But maybe it’s worth the effort, if only to replace fear with trust.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications and leadership at USC, UC Berkeley and Pepperdine. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

What Happened When I Attended Both New York Women’s Marches

The Women’s March has held an interesting place in New York since the first one in 2017. The New York Women’s March has never been affiliated with the Women’s March, Inc., the Washington, D.C. march, which has led to some confusion through the years. 

This year, Women’s March, Inc. tried unsuccessfully to partner with the unaffiliated New York Women’s March Alliance, which is how New York ended up with its annual Women’s March on NYC, organized by Alliance leaders for the past two years, and a Unity Rally organized by Women’s March, Inc. 

Many worried that these two competing events would lead to a fractured liberal base, which is what the right wants. To some extent, this seems, unfortunately, to be happening. I spoke to many people before this year’s march who were not going to participate, thinking it was affiliated with the national organization.

Both marches have undergone their share of controversy this year. The New York Women’s March Alliance event has been accused of lacking intersectionality. Women’s March, Inc. has had several issues surrounding anti-Semitism in its leadership. Unfortunately, all of these issues with anti-Semitism seem to have distanced us from the true goal of these events, which is equality for all. 

On Jan. 19, I attended both the rally and the march, and they were as diverse as those who had organized them.  

A few hundred people attended the Unity Rally, organized by Women’s March, Inc.’s NYC director, Agunda Okeyo. The rally began with Okeyo asking, “Where the Jews at?” and a small group of cheers being heard. It felt like they were trying really hard to not look anti-Semitic, and it made me cringe. This shouting of your membership in a minority group was not done for any other groups. Things weren’t helped when in the first few minutes of Okeyo’s speech, someone shouted from the audience, “The Women’s March does not represent Jewish people! The Women’s March is the real Nazi Party!” People were not very interested in interacting with a journalist from a Jewish publication because, they said, they “knew the narrative” we are “trying to promote.” 

The Unity Rally felt like a space where I did not belong, which is fine because everyone does not belong in every social justice space. This rally was mostly filled with women of color and there was a warmness and sisterhood in the air. A big theme of Okeyo’s speech was that immigration is a feminist issue. But for a number of possible reasons, the rally was not full of energy or much spark compared with previous Women’s March, Inc. protests I have attended.

When I arrived at the Women’s March Alliance event on the Upper West Side, one of the first things I noticed was that the attendance was much lower than in past years. On some blocks, there were less than 10 people marching. People commented on the lack of turnout. Here, at least, I saw numerous signs about combating anti-Semitism. One young woman said, “It sucks that we have to be at the march, marching against the other march where we are marching for universal rights.”

A group of three women said they were out marching because they have always marched. They had marched to protest the Vietnam and Iraq wars and for equal rights since they were young women. They said as time went on, they noticed that young people weren’t joining the movement. What they love about the current women’s marches is that so many young people come. They have a lot of hope for the millennials as the next generation of fighters for equal rights. 

One of these women, who recently had major back surgery, said she was marching because the cause is so important to her. Some people came to the Women’s March on NYC because it was the better-advertised event and they didn’t know about the controversy, but these people were in the minority among the groups I spoke to. 

Despite low attendance, the Women’s March Alliance event, unlike the Unity Rally, was full of energy and movement, featuring drummers and music. 

People were excited to interact with groups and some of them merged and conversed. Several groups saw me walking alone and invited me to march with them. While there was a communal feeling of closeness that permeated the march, I was disheartened to see very few women of color participating. It seemed that the rumors of a lack of intersectionality were true.   

After taking part in both events, I was left with a major question: Were fewer people marching and rallying because of the divisiveness or were they just tired? 

I also was left to question what any of this action actually accomplishes. After three years, does this particular event hold any power, or does it only serve to make us feel less powerless against an oppressive regime? How can we move past divisions in our social justice movements?

Regardless of the infighting, children like Hudson Brown, a 7-year-old New Yorker who marched, give me hope for the future and remind me of the shared goals we are fighting for. Asked why he marched, Hudson’s father said, “Because I want all people to have equal rights and I want peace.”

Alexandra Pucciarelli is a writer and researcher based in New York. 

Letters to the Editor: Natalie Portman, Teen Mental Health, and Millennials and the Holocaust

Natalie Portman’s Israel Decision

Is Natalie Portman wrong about not visiting Israel to pick up the Genesis Prize? Right? Justified? Anti-Israel? Playing into the hands of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions group? Influential people are lining up on both sides. But strategically, it’s the wrong conversation. There is a bigger, more critical and worrisome story beneath the surface of the Portman controversy that supporters of Israel and believers in Zionism have to wrap their heads around.

Powerful people like her, the people they influence and too many of the next generation are distancing themselves from the current Israeli establishment. We can vociferously argue the drawbacks and merits of everyone’s beliefs, but the fact is we are in danger of losing these people. And we cannot lose them. The ramifications are too great.

If Israel were a product and we were the marketers who saw a growing trend among important segments of the market, that consumers no longer were buying as they once did, we would be doing everything we could to understand why and what needed to be done to shore up our marketplace.

Instead, we just argue, write, voice outrage, support and offer many opinions. All the while, as the marketplace continues to hemorrhage.

Is our job as Israel-lovers to just to keep talking, writing and having conversation? Or is it to understand our marketplace and take action?

Gary Wexler via email

Portman’s refusal to accept her Genesis Prize in Israel makes me very sad. I used to adore her, and now I can’t watch her. Leftist conflict with Israel isn’t new, but do liberals really think they can just turn their backs on Israel and remain Jews, and that their children and grandchildren will still be Jewish? When the Babylonian exiles returned to Jerusalem, those who stayed behind, the first Diaspora, showed great deference and support in rebuilding the Jewish state despite serious controversy. And ever since, Diaspora Jews have cherished the Holy Land.

The miracle of Jewish survival has occurred in part because we don’t just believe in God, we have a deal with God, a covenant, based on our allegiance to the Promised Land. This connection has inspired Jewish hopes and pride, and kept our people together for 4,000 years. Now, as Jews by the thousands make aliyah to escape persecution, and Iran threatens Israel with a three-front war, “progressives” here and in Europe relentlessly slander Israel.

Rueben Gordon via email

Teen Mental Health Help in L.A.

Regarding your story “Making Teen Mental Health a Priority,” (April 27) help for teens with mental health issues is in our own backyard.

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services (DHMSH) transforms lives by providing quality mental health care and substance abuse treatment from 11 sites and in nearly 100 schools. The agency helps almost 100,000 adults and children throughout Southern California each year. Its suicide prevention center — the first in the nation to provide 24/7 crisis counseling — receives more than 80,000 calls on its crisis line annually and provides support groups for people who have lost loved ones to suicide or have attempted it.

My late mother-in-law, Beatrice Stern, closest of friends with Didi Hirsch and a former DHMSH board member, took a leading role in sparking positive conversations about mental illness by establishing the DHMSH Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards. What began as a small fundraising luncheon has grown into a large dinner, which last week honored musician Rick Springfield, actor Oliver Platt, pro football player Joe Barksdale and the Born This Way Foundation for their work toward erasing the stigma of mental illness.

Marilyn Stern, Westwood

Liberal Democrats, by Definition

I come from a long line liberal Jewish Democrats. When I married my husband, (who is Jewish), I married out of the “faith” because he is a Republican. I read to him Karen Lehrman Bloch’s column “I Am a Liberal. Are You?” (April 20) to verify his stance on each point she highlighted. He agreed with every line. Turns out Republicans can be liberals, too.

Jan Burns via email

Emotional Links to Israel

Thank you, David Suissa, for reminding me of why I swell with pride when hearing of Israel’s great accomplishments, and why my heart aches when I hear of Israel’s sorrows (“A ‘Better’ Word for Israel,” April 20). Having been born and raised in the United States, and having lived my entire life here, I needed that reminder of why. What an eloquent column that shines the light on two big words: fair and unfair.

Pamela Galanti, Chatsworth

Cartoonist Is Off Base

In light of President Donald Trump’s success at staring down nuclear missiles from North Korea, producing amazingly low unemployment numbers (especially among the poor and most vulnerable), the growth of the stock market and Gross National Product, decimating ISIS, moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, raising workers’ pay and bonuses through tax cuts, and confirming federal judges, the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” cartoon by Steve Greenberg in your April 27 issue was particularly disgusting.

Warren Scheinin via email

The Amazing Metuka Benjamin

Metuka Benjamin could have achieved super success as a leader in politics, business or any leadership role she could have chosen (“Milken Schools President Is Moving On,” April 27). Consumed by her intense love of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, in particular, she applied her skills, talents and magnetic personality to the building of Jewish schools and the relationship with the State of Israel, not just in words and emotions, but with action. She envisioned and built one of the largest Jewish schools in the U.S., complete with a “living bridge” to Israel as a laboratory of Jewish and Zionist identity for Los Angeles students.
For people serious about the relationship between Israel and our 18- to 26-year-olds, Benjamin is just beginning, again. You may want to follow her next move. Stay tuned.

Howard Gelberd via email

Millennials and the Holocaust

The recent Claims Conference study that revealed millennials’ lack of knowledge about the Holocaust is, as Stephen Smith pointed out, due to “an uneven educational environment” (“Mandate to End Holocaust Ignorance,” April 20). The question is: What to do about it? While eight states have Holocaust Study “mandates” that vary in nature — and approximately half of the states have Holocaust teaching “recommendations” — should all states, via federal legislation, particularly, require Holocaust instruction?

One facet of the foregoing is the all-too-often failure to provide financing for Holocaust curriculum implementation. Without dollars for teacher in-servicing, materials and associated educational costs, just how “even” can Holocaust instruction become?

California is a perfect example of an unfunded, via taxes (1986 forward), but funded, via contributions (post 2002, for several years) mandate. Fortunately, for millions of California students, organizations such as Stephen Smith’s USC Shoah Foundation provide rich, ongoing, accessible Holocaust study resources. Still, a national “mandate” without means (i.e., teacher training and related funding costs) should make us cautious about what we wish for.

Bill Younglove, Lakewood

The Middle East Powder Keg

Iran having a base of military operations in Syria must never be allowed (“Collision Course,” April 27). This not only puts Israel at risk, but world peace, as well.

Add Russia’s involvement in the area and you have a recipe for a catastrophe.

George Vreeland Hill via email

Mandate an End to Holocaust Ignorance

Photo from the National Museum of the USAF.

A recent Claims Conference study that showed Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust was unexpectedly low, particularly among millennials, drew national attention but should come as no surprise.

The survey revealed that 66 percent of millennials could not identify what “Auschwitz” was, and 41 percent thought that 2 million or fewer Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

Although the figures are startling, the detail of history becomes less relevant to subsequent generations as events recede into the past. It is not young people’s fault they don’t know these facts; the fault primarily lies with the people who decide what is important to teach them. The survey is not an indictment of a lazy millennial generation, but of an uneven educational environment.

The problem is not new. A survey conducted by Peter Shulman in 1992 showed similar patterns of ignorance. At the time, 38 percent of respondents could not identify Auschwitz, compared with the 41 percent in this most recent survey. A quarter of a century on and we are worse off.

Students will not spontaneously start reading about Auschwitz — they need structure.

There is no lack of organizations and teaching resources that can provide young people with the knowledge they need about the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a national remit funded by the federal government. There are scores of Holocaust centers and online resources such as “Echoes and Reflections,” a curriculum supported by the Anti-Defamation League, Yad Vashem and the USC Shoah Foundation (which I run). There are enough teaching resources for every child to know precisely what Auschwitz was, how many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust and much more.

So, how do we close the gap between the obvious need for students to learn and the provision of educational support and resources to meet that need? We need to come up with a national plan. More states must mandate teaching about the Holocaust, more school district supervisors must ensure compliance of such mandates, and more principals need to understand that teaching about the Holocaust is an opportunity to educate and engage students with much more than knowledge alone.

A well-organized, well-funded lobby is needed to achieve this goal.

Ivy Schamis, who teaches a semester of Holocaust studies at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was in class, using the USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness platform the day Nikolas Cruz shot and killed two of her students.  The students in her class talk about the meaning of Auschwitz in the contemporary world. Schamis told me the Holocaust class was introduced because of a state mandate, and the school’s principal also was intent on ensuring the school’s curriculum made the most of the opportunity to expose students to complex world issues.

Almost all of the students who have gained national prominence for their involvement in responding to the shooting took the Holocaust class. Cruz did not.

Of course, it is not only important what students learn, but what they do with what they learn. I accompanied Schamis to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., where one of her students told me: “We were in her class learning about hate, and then seconds later we experienced it first-hand.” The Parkland students had already thought through what it meant to counter hate. He told me the classroom they were in had a “Never Forget” poster. It’s no coincidence they chose the hashtag #neveragain for their campaign. They had lived the idea of “Never again” in Schamis’ class.

We have two options. Either we shake our heads at the latest survey results and decry the ignorance of the younger generation, or we begin a serious and concerted effort to ensure that there is a plan for states to implement mandates as well as online Holocaust training for teachers.

Students will not spontaneously start reading about Auschwitz — they need structure. And educators need a plan for implementing that structure. Either that, or 25 years from now we will be seeing the same survey results all over again — only worse.

Stephen D. Smith is the Finci Viterbi executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

Poll: Nearly Two-Thirds of Millennials Don’t Know What Auschwitz Is

Photo from Pixabay.

A poll released on April 12 shows that nearly two-thirds of millennials don’t actually know what Auschwitz is.

The Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study found that 66% of millennials couldn’t identify Auschwitz; among all adults that number was 41%.

In fact, 49% of millennials couldn’t identify a single concentration camp or ghetto; that number was 45% among all U.S. adults. Forty-one percent of millennials also thought that two million Jews or less died in the Holocaust and 22% didn’t even know or weren’t sure what the Holocaust was. Among adults, those numbers were 31% and 11%, respectively.

Making matters worse was the fact that the poll found that 70% of all U.S. adults felt that less and less people care about the Holocaust and 58% thought that something like the Holocaust could happen again in the future.

The aforementioned numbers could be due to the fact that 80% of U.S. adults have never been to a Holocaust museum and 66% don’t know a Holocaust survivor.

However, there was some good news in the poll: 93% of U.S. adults said that all schools should teach their students about the Holocaust and 80% think it’s “important” that people know about the Holocaust to ensure that it never happens again.

Still, the whole point of #NeverAgain is to ensure that people don’t forget about the horrors of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study shows that there are “significant gaps in knowledge” in the country. This is at a time when anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. increased by 60% in 2017 and anti-Semitic incidents throughout Europe increased.

However, a recent study found that anti-Semitic attacks globally declined by 9% in 2017.

Read the full results of the poll here.

Israel is losing support among minorities and millennials, study finds

People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, New York May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

What do you think of when you think of Italy?

Maybe you picture beautiful works of art set against rolling Tuscan hills. Maybe a steaming plate of spaghetti topped with marinara sauce served with a deep red wine.

Now what do you think of when you think of Israel?

If you’re like most Americans, you picture walls of concrete enclosing an austere and strict country. The men wear black hats, the women long skirts. Everyone looks pretty serious.

That’s what Brand Israel Group, former advertising professionals who set out to sell Israel to Americans, found in a series of focus groups beginning in 2005. Brand Israel has since commissioned two surveys of the American public — in 2010 and 2016 — and hasn’t liked what it found.

According to the surveys, Israel has pretty broad backing among American citizens, but is losing support among a range of growing demographics. As pro-Israel advocates tout “shared values” between the United States and Israel, fewer and fewer Americans actually think they believe the same things as Israelis.

“Shared values are the bedrock of our relationship, and young Americans do not believe Israel shares our values,” said Fern Oppenheim, one of the group’s co-founders. “That’s a huge issue. We have to have a narrative about the heart and soul and humanity of the Israelis.”

The survey was conducted online last September and October by the polling firm Global Strategy Group, and sampled 2,600 Americans among a range of demographic groups. Here’s some of what it found:

Knowledge of Israel has gone up — but favorability is down.

More people say they know more about Israel now than they did in 2010. While only 23 percent of Americans said they knew at least a fair amount about Israel in 2010, the number rose to 37 percent in 2016. Knowledge of Israel grew among every demographic group except college students, where it fell precipitously — from 50 percent to just 34 percent, a number on par with the national average.

But it appears that the more Americans learn about Israel, the less they like it. In 2010, 76 percent of Americans viewed Israel favorably. In 2016, the number fell to 62 percent. Levels of support dropped as well. In 2010, the study found that 22 percent of Americans were “core” supporters of Israel, which dropped to 15 percent by 2016.

Israel is losing out among a range of growing demographics, from Latinos to millennials.

The groups with relatively high levels of favorability toward Israel, according to the study, included men, Republicans and older Americans. The groups that like Israel less are the mirror image: women, Democrats and millennials, along with African-Americans and Latinos. And those population groups are all growing.

A majority of all these groups still sees Israel favorably, but the numbers are falling. Favorability among Democrats dropped 13 points, from 73 percent to 60 percent. Among women, it dropped from 74 percent to 57 percent.

Among African-Americans and Latinos, favorability toward Israel fell 20 points each, from about three-quarters each to just over half. Fewer than half of African-Americans and Latinos believe “Israel shares my values.”

Most college students hardly hear about Israel at all.

Colleges are hotbeds of anti-Israel fervor, right? Not so much. The study found declining results for Israel among college students, but a majority still view Israel favorably. Moreover, most college students hardly encounter the Israel debate at all.

Favorability toward Israel fell 17 points among college students between 2010 and last year, but still stands at 54 percent. Nearly all Jewish college students used to view Israel favorably, but even after a 13-point drop, the favorability stat still stands at 82 percent.

Still, Oppenheim noted a shifting picture among Jewish college students. While 84 percent of Jewish college students leaned toward the Israeli side of the conflict in 2010, only 57 percent do now. Support for the Palestinian side, meanwhile, grew more than sixfold, from 2 percent to 13 percent.

Notably, nearly a third of Jewish college students said they experience anti-Semitism on campus. Of those, more than 40 percent said the anti-Semitism was not connected to Israel.

But what college students can agree on most regarding Israel is that they barely hear about it. More than three-quarters of college students said Israel rarely or never comes up. On college campuses with an organized pro-Palestinian presence, the number drops only slightly, to 70 percent.

Americans see Israel as ultra-religious and war-torn.

Israel has spent years and millions of dollars trying to portray itself as the place where Gal Gadot invented the cherry tomato on the beach using Waze. Or something.

Israel’s touting of its tech industry, warm climate and Mediterranean food may have worked a bit on Americans, who view Israel as innovative (78 percent) and cool (63 percent). But about three-quarters of Americans still see Israel as dominated by conflict. And although only 10 percent of Israeli Jews are Charedi Orthodox, 73 percent of Americans view Israel as ultra-religious.

So while American Jewish leaders have protested this week that a small Charedi minority dominates Israel, that minority, for many Americans, is the image of the Jewish state. 

The ‘Boomer Rebellion’

My grandparents never lived to reach the age of 64, as I recently did. They were dead in their 50s, murdered by chopped liver, corned beef, kishke and schmaltz — a pale yellow goo of chicken fat that was used like butter at almost every meal. 

A few decrepit relatives did straggle on into their 60s, but the daily sedentary boredom of playing the card game Kaluki seriously diminished their physical and mental capacities. Aside from being wheeled into the occasional bar mitzvah or wedding, they were pretty much done with life.

None of them could ever have imagined that their gene pool would produce progeny like me. I’m the gray-haired guy sweating profusely through a hot yoga class four days a week. Among the swami photos in this crowded room in Studio City, I am surrounded by young would-be actors and their lithe, sexy, muscular bodies. 

During the first down dog, my knees crack, upsetting everybody’s meditative silence. At the ending shavasana, my labored breaths override the soothing silence. But aside from these disruptive noises, I am utterly unnoticeable — absolutely invisible — to my younger classmates. On the rare occasion that a wrinkle-free millennial happens to cast an irritated glance in my direction, I beam back my most blissful yogi smile, silently thinking, “Let’s see if you’re still doing this at my age.”

Participating in a hot yoga class isn’t all that my grandparents’ generation would have thought impossible. They wouldn’t have dared believe that a person their age could someday rise up, refuse to be victimized by a destroyed economy and make the transition to a new professional path. Or that members of their age group would be updating their brains, becoming facile with new and constantly evolving methodologies as they learn to engage with and navigate a changed world. 

They certainly couldn’t have pictured pouring their anger and energy into inspiring an uprising among their generation to take back their rightful place in society, where they would demand respect for their wisdom, skills and innovative creativity. And they couldn’t have conceived of anyone older than 60 having the power to shake up a new generation’s belief systems.

The Great Recession of these last several years, even if it is officially “over,” has changed so much for so many. This economic disaster forced legions of the boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964 — to abandon their plans for retirement. In our 60s, some of us are now valiantly struggling to re-create our savings and ourselves. It is the biggest challenge of our lives and careers.

I am one of those people.

I didn’t see it coming. I had a 40-year career in marketing, communications and advertising, where at times I was a superstar. When I started out, I was one of the hippest young guys in town, working in the world’s top ad agencies, creating award-winning campaigns for Fortune 500 clients such as Apple and Coca-Cola. 

When I finally felt secure enough in my early 40s to de-hip myself, I transitioned out of the ad world and into the nonprofit sector, where I learned a whole new field. Now, with a nonprofit marketplace for my skills, I built another agency and traveled extensively, working closely with some of the most influential and passionate people on the planet. 

In my mid-50s, I transitioned again, this time from agency owner to consultant. I took great risks to convince self-made business people, the kind who donate millions of dollars to causes, that I understood the path to their philanthropic success. Through all these transitional ups and downs in my career, I was always in demand and never lacked for work.

Then I turned 60.

That’s when everything changed. Soon after, the Great Recession hit my income. I had never faced the kind of professional challenge these two simultaneous events presented.

The nonprofit spigot turned off. It no longer paid the kinds of fees I had been commanding, and turned to the hordes of young people who were coming into the job marketplace and who knew how to work and navigate social marketing sites. Nonprofits believed that these young people with their social marketing skills possessed all the knowledge necessary for a new world — plus, they could be hired for peanuts.

Although reality kept staring me in the face, I kept on fighting … until the first of a series of wake-up calls knocked me over. Eventually, I understood the gravity of what was being communicated, both directly and through nuance:

I was considered old.

I was perceived as irrelevant.

The economy had crashed and I had been replaced by 22-year-olds. 

There I was, in my early 60s. I was not wealthy. I could not yet afford to retire, nor did I want to. I had planned on and looked forward to working for many more years. I had never anticipated that at this stage in my life, I would need to head into yet another professional transition. And I knew that if this was happening to me, it was happening to others like me. There had to be other boomers, particularly in creative professions, staring down the barrel of the same fate.

What followed over the next four years involved fear, panic, jealousy, exhaustion, depression, emergence, challenge, learning, discovery, transition and triumph. These years of transition have been the hardest and most challenging of my life. Yet, they have produced the greatest personal growth, propelling me to learn and excel in ways I never thought possible. 

This has all taken me places I never thought I would go. I have emerged as a university adjunct professor whose reputation is soaring and whose classes have waiting lists. I am also the COO of a global initiative on a university campus, reaching out to Fortune 500 companies. A blogger with a huge following. An author. A seminar facilitator. None of it would have been possible without this struggle and a refusal to be victimized by my age and by the misguided perceptions of a younger generation.

Yet, millions of my fellow baby boomers who have plenty to offer society are still stuck and disregarded. Although the economy is bouncing back, boomers have been labeled as too old and irrelevant to be an integral part of this recovery. 

We have lost several years during this recession as young people moved in. Millennial leaders increasingly regard us as fossils. They believe we are too technologically befuddled to participate dynamically in this new era of creativity. Tweets, posts, downloads, Instagrams and links trump experience and wisdom. 

Investment for startups goes to young people. Philanthropic funding goes to them, too. It’s as if we don’t have value, stamina, ambition or sense of purpose. We are treated as if we are already decrepit, slowly being murdered by a pernicious new form of schmaltz and chopped liver.

This is all a gross injustice that is being perpetrated upon millions of active people and expansive minds of my generation. We are being thrown out, way before the expiration date! Our politicians say that the economic comeback means that Americans are once again poised to lead the world in so many arenas, but shouldn’t we also be leading the world to understand the big ideas and the possibility that older people can contribute to society on so many levels? 

The lasting legacy of the boomers does not have to be only the ’60s. It can also be how we returned to our rebellious and soulful roots in our later years and created a Boomer Rebellion that changed the world forever.

Here’s the question: Does my generation have what it takes to pull off a rebellion at this stage in life?

We do.

Look around. We are radically altering the aging landscape. We flock to cross-training and meditation retreats, attend Wisdom 2.0 conferences in Silicon Valley. We return to psychotherapy and drink wheatgrass juice and four cups of green tea a day. Chicken fat spread has been replaced with a testosterone spread for men’s armpits. Kishke casing injected with a puffy filling has been replaced by collagen injections for women’s lips. 

Those of us now in our 60s come from the generation of the ’60s. We saw possibility then, and we see possibility now. We changed the world once. Boldly. Powerfully. Pervasively. Globally. And just think — we did it all without technology! We did it based on our value system. OK, so we also did it with a lot of sex and drugs, but I’ll bet you those were more energizing and stimulating forces than Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

We need to return to our ’60s roots and find a current way to apply our generation’s culture, the one that changed the world then, to change the world again. We need to do it for ourselves and for all future generations as they age, too.

We are different from my grandparents’ generation because we are a generation in constant pursuit of what it takes to remain vibrant:

Our minds are absorbing the ways of a new world. Our knowledge is growing. Our wisdom is increasing. Our creativity is flourishing.

We adapt. We are filled with possibility. We have vision. We have goals. We have dreams. We have power.

According to National Public Radio reporter Ina Jaffe, we represent approximately 20 percent of the population. We account for about 50 percent of all consumer spending and control about 60 percent of the country’s disposable income. Yet, a quarter of us are struggling.

No matter our age, we have much life ahead of us. We are not giving up. This rebellion is ours to seize.

Gary Wexler is executive manager of The Third Space Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the author of the recently released “Sorry, Millennials, We’re Not Dead Yet: The Boomer Rebellion.” This edited excerpt is reprinted with permission.

Judea Pearl reaches out to young Jews

“I look at young Jewish boys as the army of the future, the elite force of the army of decency.”

With these strong words, Judea Pearl — activist, scholar and father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — used an Oct. 17 lecture to a group of Millennials to emphasize how important it is that proud Jews be a force of good in the world.

“This is what I feel about them, and that is what I want them to feel about themselves,” Pearl said.

He appeared before a group of about 30 people as part of an event organized by the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) regional chapter of ACCESS, the young professionals initiative of the global Jewish advocacy organization that trains professionals in their 20s and 30s to represent AJC on the local, national and international levels. 

It took place in the Encino home of philanthropists Richard and Marcia Volpert, and drew ACCESS members who work in law, medicine, government relations and other fields. It was open to the public, but offered at a discount to ACCESS members. 

The talk on young American Jewry could be considered commentary on the recent and much-publicized study by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Released last month, the report showed Jewish affiliation, particularly among young Jews, on the decline.

Without mentioning the study by name, Pearl, a UCLA professor emeritus and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, suggested that the way one achieves Jewish pride is by absorbing the history of the Jewish people and by placing Israel at the center of identity.

“By saying we are proud of the story, we are building the future together in the same shape, same mold,” he said during remarks that lasted about one hour and included a

Cole Ettman, one of the evening’s attendees, agreed that the history of the Jewish people — which spans thousands of years, from times living in disparate tribes to modern society with Jews acting as leaders in art, science, business and technology — can be an effective bait to grab the attention of the unaffiliated.

An ACCESS member who works as chief operating officer of the law firm Levine and Blit, Ettman used his soapbox during the Q-and-A to suggest that Pearl’s philosophy should be embraced by larger outreach efforts. While other organizations may promote Judaism by getting young Jews to wrap tefillin or keep Shabbat, identifying with the Jewish story is what’s essential, he suggested.

“You’ve got the right path, and it is enough,” Ettman said.

Pearl’s appearance followed a brief rendition of Bach’s “Sonata No. 1 in G Minor,” performed by 20-year-old violinist Stephen Tavani — the event doubled as one of the many concerts taking place worldwide this month as part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days. 

An initiative of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, World Music Days is an international network of live music performances during the month of Daniel Pearl’s birthday. This is the 12th consecutive year of concerts to honor Pearl and his love of music.

Founded by Daniel Pearl’s family and friends, the Daniel Pearl Foundation is a nonprofit that works for peace by supporting programs and fellowships around music, journalism and cross-cultural dialogue.

My Judaism: Millennials speak out following Pew poll

The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project issued its “Portrait of Jewish Americans” on Oct. 1, setting off alarms throughout the Jewish community about the future of Jewish life. Among the greatest concerns is this statement: “Among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the Millennials — 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.” 

To hear the voices behind the statistics, the Journal invited Millennials to speak for themselves about what it means to them to be American Jews. Each tells a different story: 


The recently released Pew survey distinguishes between “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” — otherwise called secular or cultural Jews. I tried to determine which of these two kinds of Jews I am, but neither term felt quite right, and I grew increasingly confused and frustrated as I delved deeper into the survey results and found, for example, that 16 percent of Jews by religion don’t believe in God, and 18 percent of Jews of no religion do believe in God.

Ultimately, I realized that the source of my frustration was that I was searching for clarity instead of accepting complexity. My relationship with Judaism is continually changing and full of unresolved questions. Like many of the Jews surveyed, I defy straightforward classification. So perhaps I’m better off describing my Jewish identity piecemeal, as opposed to trying to categorize myself within a binary.

Like 40 percent of Jews by religion and 20 percent of Jews of no religion, I identify with the Reform movement. I attended Hebrew school for eight years, although there was many a Sunday morning when I wanted to stay in bed, and many a Wednesday afternoon when I longed to be at play rehearsal instead of trudging through the Ve-ahavta. During my bat mitzvah, I gave a speech about trying to come to terms with the hypocrisy of the Jews becoming slave owners shortly after escaping slavery in Egypt. I (usually) fast on Yom Kippur, infrequently attend religious services and have a (Hebrew) tattoo. And I don’t believe in God.

This is the first time I’ve written that, and acknowledging it feels liberating, necessary and a little bit terrifying. Liberating and necessary because it’s central to my religious identity and terrifying because inside of me there lives the shadow of my younger self: a girl who always wrote G-d, panicked at the thought of accidentally dropping a siddur on the ground and desperately wanted to believe but was hounded by uncertainty.

Although I don’t believe in God, there are few things in life that I find more soothing — and spiritual, even—than reciting the Shema. I’m well aware of the contradiction. But when I recite the Shema, though I don’t feel a connection to God, I do feel a profound connection to the generations of Jews who came before me, who recited these very same words. I feel comforted by a sense of community and humbled by the history of the Jewish people and their strength of spirit. The Book of Genesis says God created man in his image, but I think it’s the other way around. Perhaps what I’m praying to, what I believe in, is a God that comes from and exists within the human spirit.

I arguably fit within the trend of decreasing religiousness among young Jewish Americans, but I will not be among the growing number of Jews raising children without religion. I know with certainty very few things about my future, but I know that when I have children — if I have children, which I hope I will — they will be raised as Jews, in a Reform community.

For this decision, I credit my parents and my upbringing in a Reform congregation that presented me with a religion open to interpretation and adaptation, where thoughtful inquiry was encouraged, and doubt was acknowledged and accepted.

I want my (hypothetical future) children to learn about Jewish history and values, and to feel connected to and a part of the Jewish community. And when it comes to God and religious belief, I want to empower them with the tools to ask their own questions and the freedom to decide for themselves what being a Jew means to them — just as my parents did for me. And I can only hope that they, in turn, will someday do the same for their children.

Isabel Kaplan is working on her second novel, a screenplay and a nonfiction book about arson and murders in the 1930s.


My home life was not typical of an Orthodox household. We kept kosher, went to shul and observed major holidays. But if you sat in hashkama minyan between my father and grandfather, you were treated to very unorthodox commentary. “Pesach and Chag He’Aviv were two different holidays,” my grandfather would mutter during Torah reading. Or my father, during the haftorah: “See how the rabbis ruined Judaism?” I was raised to be suspicious of Orthodoxy, even though it was what my parents had chosen for me.

In yeshiva, my suspicions were ignored. The big issues — biblical criticism, Darwinism, theodicy — were decided before discussion began. Biblical criticism was an anti-Semitic canard; Darwinism and creationism were seamlessly compatible; and the Holocaust was inexplicable, hence, irrelevant. We had no time for these nuisances anyway, not with nine periods of Gemara a week. Thus, we spent more time agonizing over talmudic minutiae than over the justifications for its existence.

Judaism was about prescribed ritual, end of story. We attended Shacharit every morning, while the principal stood facing us on a stage at the front of the room, scanning, screaming and shuckling. If you talked, he screamed. If you dozed, he screamed. If you sat when it was time to stand, he screamed. After awhile, I began to associate halachah with two things: fear and coercion.

But college was where my loyalties were really tested. There, you chose your lifestyle, and if you chose Orthodoxy, you were forced to make sacrifices. I began asking myself why I was sacrificing this or that and started thinking seriously about what the answers I’d been given amounted to — obscurantism, sophistry, superstition. It wasn’t about temptation; it was about what I was being tempted away from.

And then there was the temptress. Forget for a moment things like sex and cheeseburgers. In college, there’s this shattering encounter with Western wisdom for which yeshiva students are utterly unprepared. I remember my first Kant class, in particular, taught by the best professor I ever had, a steely-haired German fellow with a thundering voice.

The arguments were incredibly complex, but they had a vivid, irresistible logic to them. I had this sense of bumping up against a transcendent intellect, the Transcendent Intellect. All this other junk in the Jewish tradition, all the pitifully tenuous logic, all the willful distortions — none of that could be divine. Judaism couldn’t offer anything this complex or compelling. So what was it all worth?

After college, I spent a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem trying to find out. There were nuances to Judaism that my yeshivas had obscured or overlooked. The Bible could be complex when it wasn’t read through Rashi. And if you viewed halachah as an evolving ethical system, more of the minutiae started to make sense. But even Pardes didn’t have enough of the answers. And there was a lot of time spent apologizing for indefensible norms and notions. What was more, it was too little, too late.

I met with a teacher after the program ended and told her I was done with Judaism. Why, she wondered, couldn’t I discard the bad in Judaism while retaining the good?

Say you were wronged by someone you loved, a girlfriend who treated you badly, not once or twice, but for the whole of your relationship. You made a clean break. Then your friend comes along and reminds you of all the good times. Why can’t you look the girl up every once in awhile? Why can’t you hold on to what still works? But of course you can’t. The wounds are too raw, and the good and bad are all mixed up inside you. You can’t be friends, at least not for a few years. And maybe longer. Maybe you can never be friends.

Daniel Schwartz is a freelance writer studying screenwriting at UCLA. He blogs at WhotheEffisJeff.


When I sat down to write this piece, I found myself at a bit of a loss. How do I define my “Jewish journey” when I feel I’m still at the start of it? Feeling overwhelmed, I did what many a writer has done before me — turned on my television. A little “SNL” would surely inspire, no? Ironically, during the “Weekend Update” segment, Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy came on. Lo and behold, this was the inspiration I was searching for! As I laughed and rewound and laughed some more, I found myself a bit unsettled by what unfolded. The sketch was fairly simple; it was Jacob explaining to Seth Meyers, Cecily Strong and the rest of the audience what he had done the previous evening. Jacob told Seth:

“We celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shabbat! And since my bubbe was over, we acted like we celebrated every week!”

Jacob went on to explain Shabbos and why we as Jews celebrate it, but I couldn’t get that line out of my head. It brought me right back to my own youth. A little background: My family is Jewish on both sides; my parents came from highly observant homes. They immigrated from South Africa in the late 1970s, eventually settling in Los Angeles by way of places including Texas, Nebraska and Northern California. The physical practice of our familial Judaism, however, was varied in my youth. We had one mezuzah, Friday night dinners somewhere between once and three times a month (much like Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy), and attended temple on High Holy Days only when I became a teenager. This was after a botched attempt at a bat mitzvah, as my training was interrupted by a relocation to San Diego. In San Diego, my friends looked to me as highly Jewish, since I attended the Orthodox synagogue on the holidays — but I didn’t understand any part of the prayers being spoken. However, that immigrant mentality that so pervades my family strongly informed my understanding of what it is to be Jewish and allowed me to feel confident in calling myself a Jew.

Currently, I’m more observant than I was growing up, but I’m definitely not someone you would call strict or even highly knowledgeable about the traditions of the religion with which I strongly identify. I’m spiritual and believe in God, yet sometimes I find myself struggling through basic Bible stories. I know Bruegel the Elder did a painting of the Tower of Babel — but I’m not totally sure what the details of that story are. I feel the tenet of community within Judaism, and Judaism in Southern California, in particular, has always seemed an important one, at least to me. More than anything, that sense of belonging, of being strangers in a strange land, has lent itself to the formation of my Jewish identity.

When I relocated back to Los Angeles, a city of immigrants in its own right, to pursue a career in entertainment, I became even more confused with where my Judaism fit into my life. I’m almost certain the people I surround myself with, both personally and professionally, strongly identify me as Jewish. But again — where was this coming from? I don’t have that answer. And yet the sense of community, above all else, remains. I feel comfortable knowing many in this industry and I share a religion and the associated values that are instilled (whether culturally or through study). Maybe it will become clearer as my education grows and my journey continues. Until then, I’ll try to follow some sage wisdom that Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy relayed to Seth and Cecily:

“Moving forward as an adult in the Jewish community, I promise to fulfill the following commandments: Perform mitzvot, or good deeds; study Torah; and some day, visit Israel, even though I have nightmares about it!”

Courtney Batzofin currently works for a small production company and freelances for several publications.


It took being the anonymous target of someone’s shabbily aimed rocket for me to truly internalize my Jewish identity —one I’ve historically had a complicated relationship with, despite being heir to many generations of Diaspora Jews.

Let’s be clear: I have an affinity for kishka and kugel that no gentile would quite understand, as well as an unwavering opinion about hamentashen — apricot is the best.

But I do not practice Judaism in the religious sense. Of course, I’ve been to many a Kol Nidre service, and there isn’t a Passover in memory that hasn’t included Manischewitz, gefilte fish and some bread of affliction. 

Despite that, I’ve always been highly self-conscious of my brand of “pick-your-own” Judaism. 

Then I went to Israel for the first time in 2010, on a two-week Birthright trip, and everything changed. Instead of a distinct discomfort with my religion, I felt proud of my cultural heritage. I found I could engage with my inherited traditions without having to buy into a belief system that I could not completely reconcile with my own worldview.

I returned to Israel in the summer of 2011 to film my thesis documentary about the social protests sweeping through the region. I witnessed tens of thousands of Israelis rallying together for social change — more Jews than I’d ever seen in one place, all participating in something that wasn’t about Judaism. Religion was simply a side note to the politics at hand.

For the duration of that trip, I stayed in Sderot, a city 2 kilometers east of Gaza City that has been a flashpoint for the ongoing regional conflict. Sure enough, while I was there, qassam rockets were launched targeting Sderot; bombs were dropped on Gaza, and a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus occurred in the Sinai.

After the third or fourth time that I felt the reverberations of bombs one weekend, I had a moment of extreme clarity. I realized the rocket-launchers on the other side of the border wanted me dead because I’m here, and probably Jewish. They didn’t know me, but they’d sure be happy if they hit me. 

And then I thought about the kid over there in Gaza who was thinking, “You, bomb-dropping Israelis, don’t care if you destroy my home and my family in your quest for retaliation.”

The insanity of the situation — the fact that most people on both sides of this volley of weaponry were probably thinking the same thing, “What the hell did I personally do to you?” — demolished any shred of inclination toward true religious observance that I’ve ever had: God and the scenario at hand were mutually exclusive. But it also reinforced my cultural identity as a Jew. Not just in my own eyes, but in the eyes of strangers as well. 

My heritage is undeniable. My unruly, curly hair gives me away as a Jew if my judicious sprinkling of Yiddish words hasn’t already — and so does the tattoo of a hamsa that I got inked onto my shoulder in Tel Aviv in 2010. The irony is not lost on me.

It’s important to me to make clear to the world (and to the pearl-clutching religious folks who are lamenting the loss of “the secular youth”):

Have no doubt — I am 25 years old, and I am Jewish. 

Julie Bien is the blog manager and a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal.


About seven years ago, in the middle of a discussion with my father about Judaism, I said, “I’m not sure I believe in God.” 

“You don’t believe, or you aren’t sure if you believe?” he responded.

“Agnostic,” I replied.

I was well on my way to becoming part of the 10 percent of Jews raised in the Conservative movement who now identify with no denomination, as outlined in the just-released Pew Research Center study of American Jews. Although I was becoming less religious, even at that time I was hardly on the path to becoming a Jew of no religion (7 percent of Jews raised Conservative) or not identifying as Jewish (also 10 percent). There was too much that I enjoyed about Judaism.

As a child, my warmest Jewish moments came spending Saturday afternoons with some of my closest friends, who were Orthodox, and when I occasionally spent holidays with Orthodox relatives in Connecticut.
Yet by the time I enrolled as a freshman at Tulane University, in 2008, had I given my Jewish standing any thought at all at that point, I probably would have assumed that since I was on my own for the first time in a city with plenty of distractions (New Orleans), the odds of increasing my observance while in college were low.

Then, one Friday night early in fall semester, after attending a play in the French Quarter with one of my classes, I decided to stop by the Chabad at Tulane for dessert. It was warm and comfortable. So much so that I felt at ease challenging the rabbi with plenty of questions (or problems) I had with Judaism.

Soon after that, my Friday night routine included going to Chabad for Shabbat and then going out with friends. As I made new friends at Chabad and became close with the rabbi’s family, I regularly studied with him, and witnessing the warmth of an observant Jewish home again made Shabbat a fun day — even if I hadn’t entertained the possibility of fully observing it.

Shabbat became a weekly source of pleasure, so as a rising sophomore, I decided to observe the weekly holy day the way Orthodox Jews do. Not because I felt it was my obligation, but because I enjoyed those 25 hours more when I was acting Orthodox.

Among the non-observant, Shabbat is often viewed as a day on which you can’t do stuff. You can’t use your phone; you can’t use your computer; you can’t drive; you can’t watch movies. For me, however, dedicating an entire day to spending time with God, friends and community is warmer, more pleasurable and provides more meaning than making Saturday just like Sunday. 

If Pew had called me when I was a freshman, I would have labeled myself an unaffiliated Jew, among about 30 percent of American Jewry, according to Pew. Perhaps that is not a healthy trend for the future of Judaism. But what those numbers don’t reveal are the stories like mine: What portion of that 30 percent is actually growing religiously and doing things (learning, lighting Shabbat candles, cooking holiday meals with other students) that they have never regularly done? Maybe non-affiliation isn’t a problem, when there’s also an opportunity for being welcomed into increased religious involvement in Jewish groups like Chabad and Hillel.

Now, as a self-identifying observant Jew (can I call myself Modern Orthodox if I still eat tuna subs at Subway?), I know that those days that I “unintentionally” spent observing Jewish law on many Shabbats and holidays were, at least in part, my way of bringing more enjoyment into my life. That’s a compelling case for observance. 

Jared Sichel is a staff writer at the Jewish Journal.


I graduated from college in 2009, a year when even the administration couldn’t pretend to be optimistic about our chances of success in the job market. The university president gloomily addressed us, and our parents, about the economic climate and the declining worth of our pricey degrees. We were, essentially, patted gently on the shoulder and told there was nothing more they could do for us now, so we should go with God. 

Every generation feels it alone has been marked out for uncertainty and turmoil, but for us, the adults of the world seemed to agree with that assessment: Nothing will ever be the same, they said, and we can’t tell you what will happen next. 

Of course, eventually, we all got jobs, though it took longer than we wanted it to, and the future is still and always will be uncertain. It happened that my jobs have been Jewish ones, in large part because I left Connecticut, where I’d gone to school, to come back to Los Angeles, where it doesn’t snow, and where my Jewish parents have Jewish friends. 

I promise this is not a mercenary story.

Since graduation, I have been a substitute teacher at a Jewish elementary school and a freelance writer for a Jewish newspaper, and next week I will start a position as the program coordinator at a Jewish community center. My goyish friends think this is hilarious. The Jews, as a rule, seem to get it.

I think it helps that I went to a Jewish elementary school: I learned the Hebrew alphabet alongside the English one, and I know the rituals and the prayers like the seasons, like myself. It wouldn’t be fall without Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or spring without the complicated misery of Passover and trying to explain to non-Jews why I can’t eat that, or that, or … anything, actually, sorry. 

But really I think what has happened is that I’ve always believed, always felt myself to be faithful, and what I’ve gotten through these jobs is a structured way to remain involved in the community. It’s easy to drift away and tell yourself you’re still a Jew at heart; I’ve been lucky to have so many opportunities to keep in practice at something that goes beyond the parts that involve faith.

It doesn’t hurt that I like ritual and that I love being part of a community; I left Connecticut for a lot of reasons, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that loneliness was among them. I had friends, of course, close ones whom I loved dearly, but I did not have any kind of family out there.

In June, my grandmother died, and my family’s chavurah, a group we’ve been a part of since I was 12 — a collection of families whose daughters are like my sisters — came over to our house for a shivah minyan. Jews do not suffer grief alone; we gather our loved ones to us, we say familiar prayers and move slowly through the stages of mourning. 

In December, we’ll host a wedding shower for one of those girls. It will be in the same living room where we held the minyan, and where we celebrated before our bat mitzvahs, well over a decade ago. 

Whether you think you live in trying times, the future is always uncertain. The promise of ritual is that there will always be something familiar there for you, an action to perform and a ceremony to repeat. The promise of community is that you will have someone to go through those motions with you. I practice my Judaism because it provides me with continuity and with comfort, through the hard times and on to the good ones. 

Zan Romanoff is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal and is about to begin a position as program director at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center.


Three types of students walk past the Union of Jewish Students table during student organization fairs at UC San Diego, where I am a junior. The first, non-Jews, approach our table, ask what we do and then walk away. The second group, the USY and Hebrew school alumni, excitedly ask us when our next event will be. Then, finally, there are the folks who glance at the Star of David on our banner, the lulav and etrog on the table or the yarmulke on my head and then walk away hurriedly in a manner such that we can only understand them to be non-identifying Jews.

Findings from the new Pew Research Center survey on Jews in America indicate that this third group of students may be the fastest-growing demographic. At UCSD, a campus of more than 20,000 undergraduates — 8 percent of whom are estimated to be “Jewish” — this trend is visibly affecting the number of Jewish students who are involved in Jewish life. Meanwhile, the identifying and practicing Jewish students here and across the country are working to ensure the stability and growth of the Jewish community.

Granted, it’s no easy task to be a shomer Shabbat Jew keeping strict kosher, on a campus with little in the way of kosher amenities, while living with four non-Jewish housemates. I might be described as an observant or Modern Orthodox Jew, but, in my experience, it is far too simplistic to boil down religious Judaism to just who eats what and on what days. For many of us, community is the core value of Judaism. Our campus’ Jewish leadership is constantly working to strengthen both the number of people in our community and the quality of the services and amenities available to us. 

For me, the notion of the Jewish People is hybridization of the Jewish and the People. Our community needs our common faith, values and practice, while Judaism can only exist via a community in which it is followed. The founder of cultural Zionism, Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg — better known as Ahad Ha’am — is attributed as having said, “More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.” This is the focal reason I stick with the religious practices of my upbringing. Not only to further my own spirituality, but to assure the continuity of our community.

At UCSD and college campuses nationwide, the Jewish people are at a turning point. Dozens of campuses host annual Israel Apartheid Weeks, and the Anti-Defamation League reported in July that anti-Semitic incidents on campuses had tripled in 2012, even as overall anti-Semitism is on the decline. Jews and pro-Israel advocates have been on the defensive, needing to respond to attacks and criticisms from anti-Zionist groups and, in some cases, anti-Jewish activities. In a way, these outside groups are dictating the Jewish life and activity on campus. 

However, we college students now have the opportunity to define what our community is about. Now is the time to celebrate our culture, heritage and faith — and not only act in response to others. Those who choose not to participate will do what they want, but the future leadership of the Jewish People, is ready to engage, grow and thrive — regardless of what any survey may tell us. 

Zev Hurwitz, a graduate of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, is a junior at UC San Diego, managing editor of the UCSD Guardian newspaper and president of United Jewish Observance on campus.