Last Friday morning, the administration of the largest Washington-area Orthodox day school emailed grim news to parents and alumni: a former student was one of the teenagers who was seriously wounded in the previous day’s Palestinian terrorist attack at Alon Shvut.
Especially given the local connection, one would assume that the injured boy, Aryeh Bina, would be on the minds, and in the Shabbat sermons, of at least some of the area’s rabbis. Perhaps there would be not only prayers for Aryeh’s recovery, but also some discussion of steps that members of the community might take in response. For example, could pressure be put on the Palestinian Authority to curb the incitement that often precedes such attacks? Could the White House or members of Congress be urged to speak out about the latest terror victims?
In our region’s most heavily-Jewish neighborhood, there are five Orthodox synagogues within a one-mile radius. Several of them have multiple minyanim on Shabbat morning. By carefully arranging my schedule, I was able to hear five different sermons this past Shabbat; I also later contacted friends who attended two others.
Seven sermons, seven different topics. But they all had one thing in common. None of them mentioned Aryeh Bina.
There happened to be several alumni of the school, as well as several parents of current or former students, at each of the services. I wonder if they were surprised that not a word was spoken about their former classmate and neighbor.
One of the rabbis spoke about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. Another explained the spiritual significance of lending money without interest. One sermon was given by a local attorney, who presented an entertaining comparison between Jewish religious laws and the rules of baseball. But for some reason, the local boy lying in a hospital emergency room in Jerusalem was not on these speakers’ minds.
Not that the national Jewish organizations seem terribly interested, either. As of this writing—four days after the attack—there is no mention of Aryeh Bina on the websites of the major defense groups or the various Zionist organizations, rightwing as well as leftwing, religious as well as secular. Hopefully one of them will belatedly post something. But why isn’t their first response to spring into action when something like this happens?
Scholars who have studied American Jewry’s response to news of the Holocaust have remarked upon the lack of urgency among many Jewish leaders. Professor, David S. Wyman, in his book The Abandonment of the Jews, noted “the inability of American Jewish leaders to break out of a business-as-usual pattern.”
Three rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1943 rebelled against that apathy. They managed to convince the Synagogue Council of America to call upon its member-synagogues to take practical steps to keep the plight of Europe’s Jews uppermost in everyone’s minds: Limit “occasions of amusement,” observe partial fast days on Mondays and Thursdays, drape a black cloth over the ark that holds each synagogue’s Torah scrolls, and add references to Europe’s Jews to the Grace After Meals, such as: “How can we enjoy our food while we know that our brothers perish by famine and sword?”
The activists of the Soviet Jewry movement likewise realized that to get American Jews to take part in protests, they had to first make the plight of Russia’s Jews part of daily life here. The empty chair at the Passover seder, the bracelets with the names of Soviet Jewish prisoners, and the twinning of bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls with refuseniks’ children helped keep Soviet Jewry in American Jewry’s hearts and minds—and thus on Jewry’s political agenda as well.
American victims of Palestinian terrorism have not yet reached that place on U.S. Jewry’s agenda. Although more than 100 Americans have been murdered in Arab terrorist attacks since the
1960s—and many more injured—they are not a top priority in the Jewish community today.
Members of the Washington-area Jewish community have always played a prominent role in advocacy, both for Soviet Jewry and Israel. As reported in this paper, more than 1,000 attended the memorial service last summer for the three kidnapped Israeli teens. But to sustain that kind of involvement and duplicate it nationwide, leaders of Jewish organizations and rabbis around the country—not to mention the rabbis in the victims’ own home communities—need to use their platforms to talk about why the issue is important—and what individuals can do to help in a practical and ongoing way.
The writer is the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which teaches the history and lessons of America’s response to the Holocaust, through scholarly research, public events, publications and educational programs.