I remember the call vividly. I was a little bit nervous, cold calling a respected philanthropist for the first time to persuade him to support our new Chabad Jewish Center. “Sorry, rabbi,” came the unequivocal yet sincere response. “I respect what you do but this year my resources are completely focused on Israel.”
It was the winter of 2000, just after the so-called second intifada had broken out, and everyone’s mind was on Israel. I respected his dedication to support Israel, but I also had a point of my own to make. “I respect your decision, and encourage your generous support of Israel. However, were you to additionally support Chabad it would be like giving several million dollars to Israel.”
Somewhat audaciously, I had piqued his interest, and I explained what I meant. “When you give money to Israel, you definitely express your support and help Israel. But if you support an organization that educates and inspires people to become more conscious of their Jewish identity, including the Jewish attachment to our Holy Land, you multiply the moral support and financial assistance by the number of individuals that are affected by what we do.”
The new response was equally unequivocal: “Rabbi, when do you want to meet?” The gentleman went on to become a close friend and an important supporter of Chabad in the Pascack Valley.
Today, the challenge to motivate communities and galvanize support for Israel and other Jewish causes continues. In fact, it is a challenge our people have faced courageously for millennia, beginning with the first attempt to undermine our national identity in ancient Egypt. As described in this week’s Torah portion, the tyrannical Pharaoh orders that all newborn Israelite boys should be killed, while “Vchol Habas Techayun” – “the girls should live.” As abhorrent as it is, we can understand the motivation behind killing the male babies. But what was the point of decreeing that the girls should live? It turns out that Pharaoh had a final solution for the females as well. “Techayun,” “Make them live” – Make them live a lifestyle untrue to their own. Whereas the baby boys were to be physically murdered, the baby girls were to be spiritually destroyed by immersing them in the perverse culture of ancient Egypt and cutting them off from their roots. They were to be raised and educated as Egyptians, without any Jewish identity, and thereby make the destruction of the emerging Israelite nation a fait accompli.
But, as was often the case throughout our people’s storied history, the Israelites fought back – not only against the genocidal decree to murder the boys, but also to maintain the Israelite identity of the girls and instill honorable Jewish values within them. The self-sacrifice of our ancestors, particularly the women of that generation, staved off the two-pronged Egyptian plan of genocide and assimilation, laid the foundation for the Exodus from Egypt, and provided a blueprint of Jewish resistance for future generations of oppressed Jews.
Today, there are similar dangers threatening the future of our people. There are terrorists and tyrants who target us physically, and there is a culture that seeks to undermine the beauty and morality of Jewish values. The latter, which is perhaps the more threatening of the two, wishes to undermine us as a community, and also negate what we stand for as teachers unto the world, the bearers of the Divine will for humanity.
The time-tested antidote against this type of metaphysical threat, and the apathy and derision it is meant to engender, is Jewish education. Time and time again we have survived threats against our existence by cleaving to the Torah. Today is no different. If we want to have a generation of Jews that is willing and able to support Israel – whether through moral or financial support – we need to invest in Jewish education, including our own familiarity with Torah and Jewish teachings. Individuals, families, and communities that are spiritually strengthened and empowered with the knowledge of Jewish values are passionate about Israel. They visit Israel and send their children to study there. They volunteer for Israeli causes. And they support Israel financially.
The best way to build a passionate community is through experience: stop in for a class once a week; spend a few minutes a day on one of the many online portals – including our own at valleychabad.org – reading some of the great classics and modern commentators; light Shabbat candles on Friday night; don tefillin in the morning. Invite a group of friends for a text-based discussion. There are myriad ways you can express yourself and grow Jewishly.
To fulfill our role as a light unto the nations, we also have to possess the light ourselves. A community that embodies the wisdom and values of the Torah has the will, the passion, and the fortitude to forge ahead against all obstacles to create a bright future. It also has the confidence and clarity to deal with emerging challenges as they arise, and to optimistically anticipate the day when we will finally “beat our swords into plowshares” and usher in an era of universal peace and prosperity.