On May 13, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington held its 81st annual meeting at offices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland.
An 81st time doing anything may sound routine, but this was not just another annual meeting. With the community still reeling from the anti-Semitic terror attack in Poway, California, on April 27 — only six months after the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh — the night’s speakers aimed to deliver messages of hope and inspiration to cut through the sadness and worry.
Mark Levitt, Federation’s vice president for financial resource development, recalled Federation’s collaboration with the JCRC in convening the community interfaith service following the Pittsburgh attack. So many people converged to attend the solidarity gathering at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., that they filled the sanctuary and halls and overflowed beyond the building. “We had a sense that the community felt the need to come together. But we never imagined there would be over 5,000 attendees in person and over 20,000 who participated by live stream,” said Levitt.
Hannah Handelman, a junior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and a participant in the JCRC’s Student to Student program, highlighted the importance of educating the wider community in order to combat intolerance. Student to Student brings together Jewish high school students from different backgrounds and trains them to speak about their lives as Jewish teens in public and private schools. Their goal is to expose non-Jewish teens to education about and interactions with their Jewish peers in an effort to dismantle anti-Semitism.
In its first year, 40 Student to Student participants spoke before approximately 900 non-Jewish peers.
Handelman spoke about anti-Semitic incidents she has personally experienced and shared her view that, “The cause of almost all intolerance is a lack of understanding, and the Student to Student program has helped me let people understand.”
A panel of three individuals involved in combating anti-Semitism talked about their experiences as well. The panel included Marnie Fienberg, the founder of 2 for Seder; Jennifer Mendelson, a Holocaust education activist and member of the founding staff of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Ira Forman, former United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism. JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel served as moderator.
Marnie Fienberg was not an activist until her mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, was murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Money can do a lot of amazing things, said Fienberg, but she felt a need to act in the aftermath of the attack.
While writing an article about Passover for Hadassah Magazine, Fienberg was struck by the fact that this would be the first Passover without her mother-in-law. Thus, 2 for Seder was born: A program that anyone can jump into and do at home, it encourages Jews across the United States and Canada to actively invite at least two people of other faiths to a seder for the first time.
Jennifer Mendelson’s story was also about a personal motivation toward action. Her realization that something needed to be done about anti-Semitism came at the tender age of 10: She recounted how her father often spoke with her about her uncles who perished in the Holocaust.
At the age of 17, she heard about the beginning of construction on a Holocaust museum and knew that she wanted to work there.
“It just isn’t enough to be sad anymore,” she said.
“This is bigger than us,” added Ira Forman. “We ought to be strong, we ought to be fighting, but we ought to be asking for help, too. And frankly, other communities need our help, too.”
Earlier in the evening, JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber presented Reverend Mansfield “Kasey” Kaseman with an award in recognition of the reverend’s role in connecting communities to be proactive rather than reactive allies against hate. Rev. Kaseman has served as interfaith community liaison in the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships for the past seven years.
“What we’re doing here tonight demonstrates how it works,” said Rev. Kaseman. “It’s good for you to be reaching out as you do, embracing and caring very actively for other people. I use your example all of the time, because you — unlike every other faith community in our county, nation, and world — exemplify what it means to let go of our individual differences and come together around a greater mission, a bigger cause.”
The JCRC’s work with security teams and police, publicly condemning acts of anti-Semitism, and working with public school students truly has an impact, said Halber.
“We don’t have the antidote [to anti-Semitism], but we need to have a hand on the faucet to reduce it,” said Halber.
With the hard work of all these inspiring individuals, he said, there is hope.
By Danit Kanal
Danit Kanal is a new contributor to Kol HaBirah. She hails from Pittsburgh originally and is an active member of the Kemp Mill Jewish community in Silver Spring, Maryland.