A Year Like No Other

While this week has often been a time to read ‘Best of 2023’ lists, and discuss Time’s person of the year, it has been a different kind of accounting we’ve done, and an unspoken apprehension of what 2024 will bring.

There are few Jews alive who have experienced anything like this. This is our moment, for it is our generations who are called upon to shape how our children and theirs will remember, learn from, and find new ways to deal with what we have discovered.

The year started off with a challenge - on one hand, many were excited about Israel’s upcoming 75th anniversary. In Rockland, we were deep in preparations for our Israel @75 celebration along with our partners. In Israel, on the other hand, growing rallies every week brought tens and then hundreds of thousands out to protest the new government’s Judicial Reform and other proposed law and policy changes.

2023 also saw the continuing tragedy in Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion in early 2022 had prompted an unprecedented and wide ranging response from Jewish Federations around the country. We too in Rockland raised close to $100,000 to meet the needs of Jewish refugees and others affected by the war.

The year continued a worrying surge in antisemitic activity - on the ground, in schools, on social media and across the country. With gratitude to our partners at LiveSecure and with the support of UJA Federation of New York, our Federation and our community had launched a security initiative in mid 2022 to raise the level of security at every Jewish institution that would work with us - a number climbing towards 150 in rockland as I write this - thereby safeguarding Jewish lives.

All of these additional needs, projects and responsibilities came at a time when we were implementing a strategic planning process that organized and measured how we at Federation deliver support and funding to our beneficiary agencies here and in Israel, how we advocate for the community in local, state and federal environments, how we deliver educational programming to adults and kids, and how we bring a (could be more cohesive) community together.

We had a great community celebration of Israel at the end of April; we established our security initiative as the go-to resource across the county; we brought speakers to explain the upheaval in Israel, and we learned that Rockland’s Jewish community came through in a crisis.

All of these experiences provided us with priceless lessons when Jews around the world woke up to the horrors of October 7th.

Our security infrastructure flexed and went into even higher gear, with more training, surge placement of security personnel, additional coordination with law enforcement, and response to hundreds of requests from every institution we’ve been working with and more.

With the lessons of our Ukraine Emergency Campaign, and the invaluable capacity building we have participated in through Jewish Federations of North America, we’ve been able to raise well over $700,000 so far through our Israel Emergency Appeal. We will continue to raise funds to support our brothers and sisters in Israel as they face challenges no Israeli has encountered before.

With the incredible community coalition that began to emerge as we planned our Israel @75 event, we have been able to mobilize the community not only for fundraising, but also to bring out 2,000 community members to a quickly planned and wonderfully executed solidarity rally on October 10, as well as bringing over 700 Rocklanders on 13 buses to the 300,000 strong Rally in Washington DC on November 14. We did this with great community partners.

As Shakespeare wrote in the Tempest, ‘What’s past is prologue.’ Everything we do builds upon what we have done, and every responsibility met is an opportunity to learn how to meet them even more effectively.

What we hoped to see, and what has been highly motivating for all of us on the Board and staff of the Federation, has been the number of community members who have stepped up, taken on responsibilities, and reached out to us to see how they could help, in any way. What has inspired us is the unity and solidarity we are experiencing across divides that have existed in Rockland’s Jewish community for decades. This moment demands that we stand together, and so many of you are meeting that challenge.

In 2023, we were called upon to stand up, to pray, to act. We’ve advocated to every level of government, and we’ve been heard. We’ve asked for, received, and thanked our President, our Congressman, our Senators and our Governor for their incredible solidarity with Israel and our community at home. You did this. You have made it so.

In 2024, we’ll need to take heed of what we have learned and continue to pursue our community’s goals and our people’s goals. Israel will face more challenges, as it strives to complete its campaign to eradicate the butchers and rapists of Hamas, return the hostages to Israel, and ensure that 200,000 Israelis can return to their homes in the south and the north no longer under the fire of Hamas or threatened by Hezbollah. I hope that I am right in considering that the internal divisions that threatened to pull Israel apart in 2023 have gone some way towards healing, and that positive changes in how Israelis care for each other will be reflected in how Israel governs itself.

We’ll need to increase our collective vigilance as antisemitism continues to threaten our institutions and our personal safety as Jews in Rockland and across the country. And we must recognize that the antisemitism we face does not only reside among the nazis, white nationalists and the denizens of social media groups or pages reflecting ignorance, hate, and a mob mentality. No. It has also risen up and menaced us from quarters we never anticipated, from people and institutions we expected to fight bias, stereotypes, or denial of identity, who instead have manifested the very language and antipathy they’ve committed to confront.

We’ll need to open our hearts to each other and our wallets to those in need, as so many of you have done.

We will need to make 2024 a year like no other, one where everything we’ve learned about our world, our people, and ourselves informs how we act as Jews, always responsible for and connected to one another. No distance of geography or distinction of denomination can get in our way. We must, must, must strive to celebrate and sustain that which brings us together rather than what sets us apart. In doing so we build ourselves into a stronger, more resilient people, and we will be better able to strengthen our family in Israel.

None of this is easy now, and it won’t become easier in the days to come. To paraphrase President Kennedy, we don’t do what is right because it is easy. We do what is hard because it is right.

Let’s continue to do what is right.