Rachel Hoffer

Some things are hard to believe even when they are happening right in front of your eyes.

Looking out from behind the podium in a Hyatt Regency ballroom in Washington, D.C., on July 20, I almost had to pinch myself. The 250 people gathered were members and alumni of Jewish Federation of North America’s “Cabinet Activation against Antisemitism,” who had mobilized to learn how to combat antisemitism. As I spoke to the gathering about my family’s commitment to Judaism, I displayed a photo, snapped by my daughter, of her younger sister lighting Shabbat candles. The photo was once displayed at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.

Standing there, I felt a mixture of sadness and pride. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been a long time since I was in such a large crowd, and it felt a bit surreal.

Antisemitism is also something that we are not used to, which may make it hard to believe that we are facing such a clear and present danger throughout the land. My dad, Martin Pear, was an executive at a series of Jewish Community Centers, first in Worcester, Massachusetts, then in Binghamton, Tampa and finally, Phoenix. I grew up in a number of different Jewish communities at a time when antisemitic attacks and other incidents were relatively rare.

Now, synagogues and Chabad houses right here in Arizona are being vandalized with swastikas and rocks thrown through their windows, and a doctor at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital posted hateful and dangerous remarks directed at Israel and its people on social media. I worry about both our safety and about our freedom to practice Judaism openly and joyfully.

That’s why the JFNA’s Cabinet was so important. It was gratifying to hear from almost a dozen members of Congress, some of whom are Cabinet alumni, including Kathy Manning from North Carolina, Ted Deutch from Florida and Brad Schneider from Illinois. It reassured me that we have Jewish support from the highest levels of our government and that we’re all indeed standing together.

Tova Ricardo, a young female poet from Oakland, recited a lyrical poem, “black palm and honey voice,” that moved me to tears and highlighted the strength of our younger generation. Liz Schrayer, who led Cabinet’s Washington conference over two decades ago, donned a beautiful tallit as she told us that our time is now, that we need to move from being listeners to being leaders.

Of all the amazing speakers, one panel that was especially powerful was comprised of a group of student leaders who are fighting back against antisemitism on campus. These students are not sitting idly by; they are educating themselves and others, celebrating their Judaism and safeguarding the rights of others to practice their Judaism, too.

The conference ended on a rooftop overlooking the U.S. Capitol. We gazed at a panoramic view of the city and sang “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The People of Israel Live”). Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of JFNA, spoke about Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews, a rally in December of 1987, which drew 250,000 people to Washington. While our conference had only 250 attendees, he said our job was to go back to our home communities and recruit others to join the fight against antisemitism.

“Our civil society, the bedrock of our belonging, must be protected and preserved,” Fingerhut declared. “It’s our turn. It’s our watch. We’re on duty. We’re shomrim Yisrael — guardians of the People Israel.”

One of our key calls to action is already being implemented. Melissa Rogers, the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told us at the conference that President Joe Biden would soon nominate the State Department’s Special Envoy to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism. Naming someone to this office had been a major focus of JFNA’s lobbying efforts. Just a week later, the president chose Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, a former Cabinet member, for that crucial position.

But we continue to activate and advocate. Now we are asking that the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, currently $180 million a year, be doubled in the 2022 fiscal year to $360 million, to protect synagogues and other nonprofits from the threat of domestic terrorism.

I couldn’t help thinking back to other “National Young Leadership Cabinet” conferences I had attended: from Tbilisi, Georgia to Berlin, Germany, to Casablanca, Morocco. Those had all included everyone getting up to dance. This one, with COVID in the backdrop and more somber in purpose, did not. I missed being able to join hands in a hora, but I understood that this was perhaps less a moment of celebration than of dedication to a long battle ahead.

We all made a commitment on July 20, to share this message and inspire our communities. As a collective, we will fight against antisemitism and soon we will dance again. JN

Rachel Hoffer is the former co-chair of Jewish Federation of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet and current co-chair of National Young Leadership Strategic Growth and Engagement.