The difficult tasks of engagement and explanation


Young Americans are being tested by a worldwide pandemic, with its lockdowns, lost education, social isolation and uncertainty. Young Jewish Americans are experiencing the same, of course, with the added fact that they are coming of age in a time of rising antisemitism.

The glory of the Chanukah menorah — of publicizing the holiday miracle to a public that accepts and welcomes American Jews — has been threatened by people with weapons chanting antisemitic slogans and promoting hate. Young Jews today are uncertain how to handle it. Polls report that Jewish college students feel unsafe on campus, with many hiding their Jewish identities, and even more experiencing or being familiar with acts of antisemitism.

Young American Jews have choices. They can choose to live and practice their religion — either in traditional settings or in less conventional ways. And they are free to reject being part of the Tribe. But it’s important that the choice be one that the individual makes for his or her own reasons, rather than one driven by fear.

To that end, The Jewish Education Project, along with its partners, created the Shine a Light project, which will provide daily “opportunities for educators, families and allies to explore how we can shine a light on antisemitism, as well as light up our Jewish joy through learning, social media contests and reflection,” through the end of Chanukah.

We welcome the initiative, which brings a ray of light into our holiday celebration. But at the same time as we educate young Jews with an eye toward making them more comfortable embracing Judaism and less concerned about external threats, it appears that we need to reconsider how our community educates non-Jews about antisemitism and the importance of Israel.

According to a recent study of young Americans by the pro-Israel, Spanish-language media nonprofit Fuente Latina, we aren’t doing so well in that effort. Instead, the study found that Jewish communicators were preaching to the choir about these subjects and missing young people of color entirely.

The Fuente Latina report has an important message. It illustrates the needle that Jewish groups must thread as they seek to communicate with Millennials and Generation Z, whose typical views include: “Jews may be discriminated against, but Blacks have it worse”; “Jews aren’t a minority, because they’re white”; “Jews are people of color but they’re white passing and have high-income jobs.”

Such points of view demonstrate that new language and new approaches are necessary when discussing the Jewish story with young non-Jews of color. This is so even as we already know that we need to adjust our language and our presentations as we seek to address our younger Jewish population.

Both the Shine a Light project and the Fuente Latina survey provide welcome illumination for the careful thinking, planning and steps we need to take in our outreach and engagement efforts within our community and beyond. We have a lot of work to do.

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