Washington Hebrew Congregation, Temple Sinai Hold Panel on American Jews’ Future

From left to right: Franklin Foer, Yolanda Savage-Narva, Pamela Nadell and David Gregory. Photo courtesy of Washington Hebrew Congregation

Antisemitism, Israel, Zionism and the future of American Jews were the hot topics on May 29 at Washington Hebrew Congregation as a panel of local Jewish figures, including Franklin Foer of The Atlantic, discussed those pressing issues.

Foer, who highlighted those topics in his March 4 cover story, “The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending,” was joined by David Gregory, a CNN political analyst and the former moderator of NBC News’ “Meet the Press”; Pamela Nadell, an award-winning historian; and Yolanda Savage-Narva, the vice president of racial equity, diversity, inclusion and communities of belonging at the Union for Reform Judaism, for an almost two-hour program that was facilitated by WHC, Temple Sinai and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Foer’s article served as the inspiration behind the event, according to WHC Senior Rabbi Susan Shankman, as it discussed the rise of antisemitism from the left and right on the political spectrum and the timely concerns felt by the broader
Jewish community.

“We thought that it would be a way to really bring people together to explore all of the related issues as a sort of first step to engaging in deeper conversations throughout the community,” Shankman said.

Shankman added that Foer’s article was published as the encampments began on college campuses. WHC’s antisemitism committee partnered with Temple Sinai’s to use this program to bring the larger community together and view the issues through
different lenses.

The panel began with each member defining antisemitism.

Foer said that the antisemitism he and others have experienced has taken unprecedented forms, but that it circles back to the classic tropes of overstating Jewish influence and power.

Nadell focused on the surge from both sides of the political spectrum but said that what we’re seeing today is part of a larger historical pattern.

“It’s always been a part of American history. We think that we are living through a moment of discontinuity and rupture, but the reality is that this is just part of what it means to be a Jew in America. It’s just very loud right now,” Nadell said.

The panel also dove into the perceptions of identity and power in American society and how that framework is being applied to American Jews and Israel during the conflict.

Savage-Narva said some of the tropes circulating through public discourse are tied to perceived Jewish proximity to whiteness and, therefore, Jewish proximity to power, which contributes to the situation.

The panel keyed on the generational divide that some Jewish communities are seeing over Israel and disconnection by younger Jews.

Savage-Navara and Gregory said that some younger Jews have indicated that they felt they were not given all the information about Israel growing up, and that has caused somewhat of a rift in the relationship.

Gregory put some onus on the Israeli government to engage in those complicated discussions and foster a positive relationship with the younger generations.
“The Israeli government at all levels has got to engage in this conversation. The Birthright program is amazing in terms of selling the Jewish dream but, at the same time, where are they? Coming into synagogues, members of the IDF, they just take everything for granted that American Jews are reflexively down with the cause,” Gregory said.

The panel concluded by taking audience questions for around 20 minutes and giving some parting suggestions about how to work through the current situation, including ideas about getting more allies in the fight against antisemitism and how the Jewish community needed to looking inward to find its role.

“That was important, just to make it a little bit more interactive,” Shankman said.

Shankman said dozens of questions were submitted by the estimated 840 audience members and around 1,500 people overall, which included livestream viewers.

She added that the event sparked a wave of conversations from community members, and there will be follow-up discussions to come trying to answer some of these questions.

“People have been engaging, not just in feedback. One of the things that was very telling was on a Wednesday night at the end of the program, it ran out of time, but we finished at 9 p.m. and it was a weeknight, and people lingered for a while, just talking and sharing thoughts and creating a sense of community,” Shankman said.

Shankman said that the event was a place where people came together and united. Similar events may be held in the future.

“It really benefits all of us. It adds a depth to the conversation and strengthens us as a community. And it also provides more access, and when we share our resources it enables us to bring in really talented, amazing experts from whom we can learn and then think about how we use what we’ve learned,” Shankman said.

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