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The Opportunity and Difficulty of Unity: On the Israel March

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Eric Fingerhut—president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America—and Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, a scholar and professor at Yeshiva University, about the need for Jewish unity and the barriers to achieving it.

In recent weeks, the Jewish community has been confronted with questions of collective Jewish existence in a way we haven’t experienced in decades. In response, the Jewish world has had to join together with an achdus we previously weren’t even sure was possible. In this episode we discuss:

  • What went into planning the historic and enormous March for Israel?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges for Jewish unity in times of crisis?
  • What can the current movement for Jewish solidarity learn from past moments from American and Jewish history? 

Tune in to hear a conversation about mobilizing a people known for its proclivity for disagreement. 

Interview with Eric Fingerhut begins at 7:26.

Interview with Rabbi Rakeffet begins at 56:31.

Eric Fingerhut is the President and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America. Prior to his appointment at JFNA, Fingerhut served as the President and CEO of Hillel International from 2013-19. He was an Ohio state senator from 1997 to 2006, and he represented Ohio’s 19th congressional district in the U.S. Congress from 1993 to 1994. 

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is a renowned scholar, historian, author, and teacher, and he is currently professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Rakeffet has written many entries for Encyclopedia Judaica, including the one on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Rakeffet served in the Israel Defense Forces until the maximum allowable age, and served in Lebanon during the 1982 Lebanon War. In 1980, he was recruited by Aryeh Kroll to join Mossad’s clandestine Nativ operation to teach Torah in the Soviet Union.

References:

The Glue, with Eric Fingerhut

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis 

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi

Rabbinic Authority and Leadership On the Contemporary Scene” by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff

Taanit 20a

Crisis Management” by David Bashevkin

Rafael Halperin

David Bashevkin: 
Hi, friends, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re continuing to explore the war in Israel. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails.

There is a beautiful story I once heard from my dear friend, Rav Moshe Tzvi Weinberg about the Rebbe, the Hasidic Rebbe of Chernobyl. It was a Yontif time when all of his Hasidim were coming to visit him. And normally on an Erev Yontif or Erev Shabbos, the day before Shabbos, the day before Yontif, he would always try to be careful and have time to go to the mikveh to prepare the ritual bath, where he would prepare for Shabbos and Yontif. And it was this particular time when he was surrounded by so many of his followers, so many of his Hasidim, that he did not really have time, because he wanted to be able to spend time with all the people who made the trip out.

So instead, what he did was within this crowd of people who came to visit him, came to spend time with him, he moved out within the huge crowd, and he started bending his knees as if he was dipping within the crowd. And he said, “Mikveh Yisroel Hashem,” that the Jewish people can function like a mikvah. The Jewish people, being surrounded by Jews, being surrounded by Amcha Yisroel, being in a crowd of Jews can function like a mikveh of sorts. And in many senses, I felt that just a few weeks ago at the rally where we had nearly 300,000 people gather together, Jews, non-Jews alike, gathering together to support the State of Israel, to push back on the growing antisemitism and to ensure that every single last hostage is freed.

And standing in that crowd, as I’m sure many of our listeners were, it felt in many ways like we were in a mikveh of Jewish people. We were surrounded by the holiness of the Jewish people. And I shared right after the rally, I shared on social media some of my parting thoughts from the rally was this overwhelming sense that standing together with Jews to help preserve Jewish life in our Jewish home is a holy experience. It felt holy where I looked around and I saw a generation gathering together and insisting that we will not be the generation to lose the Jewish State of Israel.

We will not be deterred. While for the first time, at least in my lifetime, there are people openly calling for the end of the Jewish state of Israel. That is not going to happen on this generation’s watch. We know what is at stake. There was this overwhelming sense of Am Yisroel Chai, we are a vibrant nation and we are ready to sacrifice. We are ready to defend and we surely are ready to gather and remind the world of Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker, the eternity of the Jewish people and the holiness of gathering together hundreds of thousands of Jews together is an overwhelming feeling.

And for over there, it was so nice that in some ways there was a very specific political purpose that we will talk about today. But in another sense, it was like a very large camp, family reunion, seeing people you didn’t see. How did you get here? Where did you come from? It was an overwhelming experience and it was really beautiful to see a generation kind of respond to the invitation from history and say, we are not going to be the generation that is going to lose the Jewish state of Israel.

We are going to scream, we’re going to cry, we’re going to daven, we’re going to rally, and we are going to make sure that this does not happen on our watch. And that is what happened that day. But in some sense, when I am standing there, I am also a Jewish professional. Sometimes it’s the identity that I feel almost least comfortable with. I work in Jewish organizations. I know what it’s like. And I was sitting around there and a part of me heard this bit, this old bit from Jackie Mason where Jackie Mason was one time playing this large crowd.

He was making fun of the Jews. Tried to find the clip. I couldn’t find it. If anybody knows where it is or what show it was, I loved it that the Jews who were coming to his comedy shows, he says the Jews, you could always tell the Jews because they’re looking around in the crowd and they’re running the numbers of their head. Well, how many seats are in the stadium? How many seats are in the theater? Then they’re doing the numbers. Well, it’s $50 a seat, 100 people. How much money is Jackie Mason making tonight? And there was this kind of very cute conversation taking place.

Look around, is this really, do we have the numbers? Is this a lot of people? How many people are here? How many people showed up? We love talking about the numbers of how many people actually came out. It felt very Jackie Mason-esque, but it did not deter from the collective spirit of the Jewish people, which right now thank God is undefeated. But as I was standing there as a Jewish professional, one of the things that I was thinking about was how do you get a rally like this together? How do you coordinate hundreds of communities, hundreds of thousands of people, all to come together?

I’ve been involved in a lot of conferences. I hate the word that I’m just not good at it is logistics. I stink at planning logistics. I stink at planning logistics for my family. I stunk at planning logistics when I was dating. I stink at planning logistics when I’m in charge of conferences, hotels, catering numbers. I am not good at this. In fact, it just makes me very stressed and very nervous. There are some people who it’s in their bones, they know how to coordinate these large events.

And one of the things that I wanted to know and really understand is how do you put a rally like this together? This was a historic event, one that I hope stays in the hearts and minds of all its participants. And I was looking to really understand and dig under the hood to figure out how does an event, a historic event like this come together. And there were really two major organizations that brought it together. One is of course the Jewish Federations of North America, JFNA, run by our guest today, Eric Fingerhut, and the other is the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which always had an awkward sounding name to it.

I don’t know why. It sounded like a comic book like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I don’t know. But I love the name, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which is run by William Daroff. And they came together and they plan this. And what I wanted to ask our guest today is how does a rally like this come together? Which is why it is my absolute pleasure to reflect on not just the logistics, but what was the goal, what do we need to be doing right now? And the enduring charge of everything that rally represent.

I think you’re really going to enjoy the conversation with Eric Fingerhut. And I just wanted to mention he has a fantastic podcast called The Glue, and it’s about the things that hold communities together at a time when forces are pulling us apart and kind of looks at those issues from a Jewish lens and a sociological lens. So if you want to hear more, I would invite all of you to check out Eric Fingerhut’s podcast, The Glue, and you can find that wherever podcasts are sold.

It is my absolute privilege and pleasure to introduce our guest, the President and CFO of JFNA, the Jewish Federations of North America. It is our privilege to introduce our guest, Eric Fingerhut. It really is, especially in this moment, a privilege to have you here. And what I want to talk about, you do so much work on behalf of the Jewish people. There was so much to be done, particularly in this moment, but I want to focus almost a lens of the challenges and opportunities of unity through kind of the back door of how do you get a rally that brings almost 300,000 Jews together on Washington, the goals of that rally.
I want to explore all of that with you. And maybe we could begin by where does the idea? There’s so much happening in Israel, there’s so many ways to help in Israel, where does the idea begin of what we should do, we should do a march on Washington, we should bring all the Jews together to really do a show of force and bring American Jewry out to make it clear that we stand with Israel and the importance of Israel? Tell me where such an idea even begins.

Eric Fingerhut: 
So there’s a part of it that I think we knew from the beginning of the war, and of course the terrible attacks on Simchat Torah. And then there was a part that we had to just weigh and decide. The part we knew was that there was going to be two campaigns incumbent on the North American Jewish community in the wake of the terrible attack in the war. The first would be to support our brothers and sisters in Israel philanthropically with volunteer help, with just standing with them personally and hugging them tightly, and we’ve been doing that.

Our Jewish federation system alone, there’s extraordinary numbers of campaigns. Our Jewish federation system alone has raised over $650 million for-

David Bashevkin: 
Wow.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… Emergency needs. So that was one. But the second is we knew from the beginning that there would be a need to mobilize our communities to provide the political and civic support that would enable Israel to fight this war as it needs to fight it, as long as it will need to take to be successful. And we knew from experience from the past that whatever positive feelings was coming towards Israel in the immediate aftermath of the brutal, horrific attacks that that would dissipate.

David Bashevkin: 
You knew this was not going to last forever, the goodwill, the empathy.

Eric Fingerhut: 
You could predict the headline for two weeks or three. You didn’t know how long it would be exactly, but you could predict the headline. The rising concern about humanitarian needs of this group opposing, this group opposing.

David Bashevkin: 
Calls for ceasefire. Were you surprised by the up swelling in America of just like how openly people are kind of pushing back on Israel and almost like sympathizing en masse?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Well, tragically I wasn’t surprised, but I think we should … Let’s parse this a little bit because-

David Bashevkin: 
Please.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… Going to come back to the goal of the rally because yes, the voices are loud calling for ceasefire, criticizing Israel’s conduct of the war, mischaracterizing things like the hospital-

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… And all this. But unfortunately, it is a loud voice in the media. It is in certain segments of society, like notably on college campuses, unfortunately also in the political world, but it is not the voice of the majority of the American public. Every poll, including one that we took in conjunction with the march, shows overwhelming support by the American people for Israel’s actions, understanding that Israel’s actions are a response to the unprovoked attack, horrific attack by Hamas and supporting the American government’s response.

Now, to be sure there is a differential based on age. There’s no question that older adults surveyed are more supportive than younger adults, but even that still represents a majority, David, still represents a majority.

David Bashevkin: 
What do you attribute that differential to? There is a big differential. The younger you get, 18, people in their 20s.

Eric Fingerhut: 
I attribute it to the pervasiveness of anti-Israel messaging on the social media.

David Bashevkin: 
That’s the answer I was hoping you wouldn’t give.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Which is obviously a major change in the way our democracy operates and one that we’ve not yet fully come to grips with.

David Bashevkin: 
Meaning it’s here to stay, meaning this is not momentary.

Eric Fingerhut: 
One senior professional in a major platform company told me that just simply the volume disparity of anti-Israel versus pro-Israel messaging, the gap is just massive-

David Bashevkin: 
Massive.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… And even before you get to the integrity or the aggressiveness of the comments. I want to come back. You asked me about how the idea originates.

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah. Where does that idea begin?

Eric Fingerhut: 
We knew that we were going to have to mobilize our communities and that Israel would need this support. In the first week or two of the war, the mobilization occurred locally. There were over 120 local rallies-

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… And vigils and-

David Bashevkin: 
On the communal level all throughout the country.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Right. And these included, we reached out to the Jewish communities, reached out to many organized by the federations and their community, reached out to the mayor and the governor and the local congressmen and the local legislators and other religious leaders and civic and business leaders. And these were very effective. In fact, we have an excellent reel that shows these things happening all over the country. They were very, very effective. And so for the first few weeks, that’s where the focus of mobilization was.

But then as you pointed out, we started to see all over the country, both the rise of these very violent and aggressive, I refuse to call them pro-Palestinian, even though that’s what the media calls them, because they’re not by any stretch of the imagination pro-Palestinian, they’re pro-Hamas demonstrations. Shutting down the Grand Central Station and marching through Wall Street and in the rotunda of the Capitol, and then of course in every community, many, many communities. Also, you’re starting to see the rise of antisemitism, what we were seeing on campus.

And so the idea began to form that if our public officials, especially in Washington and the Capitol, were not seeing the majority represented in these protests, they were seeing the minority that we needed to show them visibly that the majority did support them and does support Israel. And that what they were hearing and seeing was not the representation of the majority, but rather just allowed minority. And David, there’s no place more symbolically representative of the right of Americans to exercise their democratic freedoms than the National Mall.

It’s called the nation’s front yard for a reason. And we also chose a Tuesday because Congress comes back into town and we wanted the members of Congress and the staff of the Congress to look out their windows and to see the sea of people supporting Israel and supporting the work that Congress is working on and the President. We also want to say as Americans, by the way, you know this wasn’t just Jews-

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… Many, many allies came, that Americans support Israel and Americans believe that America does not tolerate this rise in antisemitism. And so where else do you demonstrate that? And we wanted to show we’re not intimidated. The rise of antisemitism and these rallies are meant to intimidate in our communities and our campuses. Where do you go? We want to be in the most visible public place you could possibly be to say, we’re not intimidated. We’re going to stand up. This is our country and this is what we want our political leaders to do.

And that’s why we chose the date and the time and the location that we were in.

David Bashevkin: 
It really does clarify because first and foremost, if I understand you correctly, the audience of the rally was Congress. You wanted political figures in Washington to understand the upswell in the surge of support that Israel should rightfully have, and they were the target audience. Now, I think this is fascinating stuff. I want to really get into it, which is how you plan a rally for what was nearly 300,000 people. When you want to figure out a night in your local community calendar for when you should plan a bowling night in your synagogue, there are going to be 30,000 conflicts and it takes so long to get it together.

I want you to bring me into the room where this idea. I get the goal. We want to be on the political radar. We need to show the world. It wasn’t for us first and foremost, that we had a slot of stuff on the local level to inspire. This was for the world to see. But take me into the room. I appreciate that you did on a Tuesday, Congress is now back. What are the first calls? Who’s in the room when you’re like, okay, I want to bring together hundreds of … Did you know at the time that we could mobilize? Was there a concern? Are we going to have enough signups?

When you have a shul dinner, I mean, we’re like, are people going to come out? Is this going to work? I want you to bring me into the room to hear, and this is before we even get into the program, which I’d love to talk about, but just those initial points. What are the first calls that you do to make sure that this date that you picked to have this rally? How do you make sure that it’s going to accomplish the goals that you have in mind?

Eric Fingerhut: 
I have to tell you that it’s not the kind of complicated answer that you might think. The two organizations that came together to have this discussion were my own, the organization that I’m privileged to represent, the Jewish Federations of North America, because we knew that you can’t do this unless the federations mobilize. Because in every community just chartering the buses and chartering the planes just takes a logistical capacity that truly is the hallmark of our federation system.

And so if I could have a little plug, I could say that every time somebody says, oh, why they’re calling me again every year or every year, every year. It’s because exactly this infrastructure of Jewish communal life-

David Bashevkin: 
For these moments.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… We’re so needed. And then the other organization that is essential to this is the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. And because they represent the umbrella of-

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… All the other important and valuable Jewish organizations, all of whom have members and can also mobilize their membership. And honestly, in terms of deciding to do it, I mean each of us took some soundings within our colleagues. But at the end of the day, my dear friend and colleague, William Daroff, my counterpart at the Conference of Presidents, and myself, we had to trust obviously each working with our board chairs. His is Harry Schleifer, mine is Julie Platt of Los Angeles. We just had to trust our instincts that this was the moment and people were ready.

And with respect to your very funny introduction about the Schul calendar, the truth is we had to be willing to say, of course, we were going to be stepping on people’s events. And we had to be willing to say, you know what, this is one day in the life of the North American Jewish community that everybody needs to reschedule whatever it is that they’ve got because the place we have to be is on the National Mall in Washington, DC and the capital of Israel’s most important ally in the world, indispensable ally in the world.

And that’s where we have to be and this is the day we have to be there. And there wouldn’t be any day that we could pick that would be easier or harder than any other day.

David Bashevkin: 
Exactly.

Eric Fingerhut: 
So we picked the day as I explained why already because of Congress. And then we just said to people, this is the day you have to be there. And you know what, David, we got almost zero pushback on the day. People just said, okay, we know.

David Bashevkin: 
Hineini.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Hineini, we’re going to be there. I mean, honestly, the biggest challenge was logistics. There’s only a certain number of buses to charter in the eastern half of the United States. There’s only a certain number of planes that can land at the airports in and around DC. I mean, truly, if we could have opened another airport, we could have filled another airport. Let me give you one little statistic. We overflowed the parking, the chartered buses overflowed the parking lot of RFK Stadium, of FedEx Stadium, of two or three other, D.C. United.

And then every metro that had stopped that had a parking lot that could accommodate buses was full. I mean, it was just incredible. They could not land another plane. There was not a plane ticket on a non-chartered flight anywhere to D.C. from anywhere in the country and you couldn’t land another plane at Dulles because the charters had it full up.

David Bashevkin: 
It was an incredible moment. I came up with Yeshiva University where I teach, and the one thing we were not anticipating. We were nervous about getting lost at the actual rally. There was a bigger, we got lost in the parking lot. There were more coach buses than we had anticipated. They were labeled, but you’re walking up and down just rows and rows of coach buses. It was very remarkable. And I remember when I saw Rabbi Ari Berman, who’s the president of Yeshiva University, canceled classes where I teach every single day.

And it was a very moving moment to have that come out three weeks prior.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Can I just interrupt one second?

David Bashevkin: 
Sure. Please.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Because I want him to get credit on this. I want you to know that that was the moment when I knew it was going to be a success. Because the real answer to your question was we didn’t know. We had this feeling. We knew our organizations. We hoped we’re in touch with the Jewish community’s zeitgeist, but you don’t know. And when even before the public announcement went out, when Rabbi Berman canceled classes at Yeshiva University and said, we’re all coming to Washington, it gave me the greatest sense of, and I know William felt the same way.

It gave us the strength and the heart to know that we were on the right track, so I just give him so much credit.

David Bashevkin: 
It was a moving moment the moment I saw that notice. But as it got closer, there was this sense that this is very big. This is bigger than anything we have participated in. I’m just curious, in terms of the phone calls, you have this idea, you circle it on the calendar. I’m assuming you are not the person who is individually calling up charter bus companies. You have somebody else to do that. But you are probably calling up people like Rabbi Berman, who deserves a great deal of credit from Yeshiva University, who sent out maybe the most of any just single organization, buses and buses and buses.

So what do you do once you circle the date on the calendar? What needs to be done once that date is circled until the actual day of the rally?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Well, two big buckets of things. The first was both William and I, both the conference and JFNA, communicating with our prospective constituents immediately said, this is the date. Get start organizing. You’re going to get more information, but you got to organize even before you have all the details. Because chartering and the buses, it was my colleagues in every federation that chartered the buses and the planes and then worked with each school to make sure the school was on the right bus. And we didn’t do it.

I mean, that was all because we have this infrastructure of Jewish communal life that was able to organize that. And similarly with the conference, I mean, I should also credit Rabbi Howard, the OU, they were just-

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… Instantly all in as were the other movements, the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructionists, all were all in immediately started notifying their synagogues.

David Bashevkin: 
Are you making those phone calls? The details fascinate me.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Yeah. Well, both the phone calls and emails. I mean, we shot out emails right away. And yes, at that level, yes, William and I are sure making the phone calls ourselves to organizational heads and leads for sure, answering questions. But I have to, again, the response was immediate.

David Bashevkin: 
We rose to the occasion. You felt it in the air.

Eric Fingerhut: 
It was in their hearts to do it. They didn’t argue and maybe wouldn’t say, why Tuesday? Why not this? And then it was over. Then they’re fine. Then we’re there. The second though, there’s enormous logistics that go into this. And so I actually remember, what was the night? Wednesday night or Thursday night, it turned out to be the last game of the World Series.

David Bashevkin: 
I forgot about the World Series because everything that was going on.

Eric Fingerhut: 
That was the night that we decided to do this, and we picked the date. The logistics company that actually organized the Mall for us is a company called Scott Circle. It’s a wonderful company, an event planning company. And the CEO is a fellow named Jeff Shulman, who’s a lovely guy and a committed member of our community. So I literally texted Jeff and I said, what are you doing? He said, I’m watching the World Series. I’ve watched the World Series. We don’t know for sure it was yet the last game. I said, what do you think about planning a rally on the mall?

He said sure! So I said, okay. I gave him the date and the time. The game ends. Thank God the World Series ended because I don’t know what he would’ve done if he had to watch another game of the World Series. And by the next morning, which was either Thursday or Friday morning of that week before, he had applied for the permits because you have to get permits to do what we did-

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah. I was going to ask you that-

Eric Fingerhut: 
That’s the law.

David Bashevkin: 
… Meaning you’re not allowed to just bring 100,000 people to Washington.

Eric Fingerhut: 
You don’t just show up on the National Mall.

David Bashevkin: 
You can’t just show up.

Eric Fingerhut: 
I mean, you could show up with a picnic for your family, but you don’t put a start building a stage and-

David Bashevkin: 
Correct.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… Loudspeakers. No. So Jeff pulled the permit and then immediately started working with the National Park Service, which controls the Mall as to what we had in mind. Also, obviously starting to work with law enforcement of various areas, the various law enforcement entities. And then that same day, maybe it was Friday, Thursday or Friday, we engaged with another firm led by wonderful members of our community on the communications and PR, SKDK it’s called-

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… On building that-

Eric Fingerhut: 
In PR. SKDK, it’s called.

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Bill Knapp. His firm started immediately developing the logos and the materials that became ready on the following Monday. So, we targeted Monday as the announcement. I think we started either Thursday or Friday. I mean, this was really done very quickly.

David Bashevkin: 
Very.

Eric Fingerhut: 
And Monday was sheloshim for the victims, and New York planned that beautiful sheloshim vigil in Central Park West. And so, our plan was to be ready to announce this rally the minute that the sheloshim event ended. But we had already let organizations know, federations and organizations, so that, like Rabbi Berman did, they were able to start even planning over the weekend.

From that point on, other than Shabbos, we were on daily … And even that I’m sure … because Shabbos was over early because we had Daylight Savings Time, so we were able to convene … Motza’ei Shabbos. We convened every day with different configurations, the logistics group, the security group, the PR and communications group, and then the program group that was putting together the program, which I imagine we’ll get to at some point. And we just had these constant … Everybody was working and updating and would leave with assignments and come back together. Look, I actually think that part of the success was that we didn’t give it a lot of time. You didn’t have time to sit around and have committees formed to make this decision or make that decision.

David Bashevkin: 
Lorne Michaels often says, when it comes to Saturday Night Live, the fact that it’s so pressing and it is live … He says, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.”

Eric Fingerhut: 
Because it’s time. Right. Right. Exactly. I think a lot of that dynamic was at work. So, that’s how it was planned. I do want to say one thing about security because, probably, the biggest concern we got when I made those initial calls and when my colleague William made those initial calls to people, “Would they mobilize their organizations, their federations, their communities?” was security. Because, in fact, that week before, it was the death threat at Cornell University.

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Even the plane in Russia, which was being tweeted live on-

David Bashevkin: 
Correct. Jews are on edge. We’re anxious. We have all the headlines to make us more anxious.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Right? So, security was the number one concern. And obviously, we were reassuring people as much as we could, and we were convincing people we were taking security seriously. But we were nervous. And the federal government has different designation levels of events for security purposes.

The highest designation is the designation used for inaugurations on the mall or a Super Bowl, where it could be a target of a mass event. But usually, those things are planned. They know when the inaugural is going to be for four years. We decided that we really needed to seek that designation. Because, on our own, the ability to secure the site with just private security or the regular retinue of local police didn’t feel adequate to us.

So, we did. We went directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Mayorkas. We went directly to the Attorney General, Attorney General Garland. And think about how quick this happened. The designation actually finally came through on Sunday before the Tuesday event.

David Bashevkin: 
Wow.

Eric Fingerhut: 
But, as soon as that happened, the federal government then designates a single coordinator who coordinates the FBI and Homeland Security and National Park Police and D.C. Police and Metro Police and all of that. And you saw it yourself. The extraordinary level of security that was provided-

David Bashevkin: 
But it didn’t overwhelm the event. That’s what I like.

Eric Fingerhut: 
It didn’t. It was done so professionally, but we could not have done that level of security ourselves. I was very clear, and so was William. When we spoke to the government, that … It’s the government’s response. If citizens want to come to their National Mall and exercise their democratic rights, it’s up to the government to make sure we can do that safely. And they ultimately agreed. They agreed, and they made it the highest priority and they performed brilliantly.

But I also want to say in this section of this discussion that … I mean, we all are watching these rallies. The one that was in front of the Democratic National Committee the other day, and the one that was at the Union Station and on campus in the-

David Bashevkin: 
The ceasefire rallies, sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
They’re violent, and they destroy property. And there’s arrests. There was not a single act of vandalism. Wasn’t a single act of violence.

David Bashevkin: 
300,000 people.

Eric Fingerhut: 
300,000 people. I’ll tell you two little things that are my favorite stories. One, there’s an article that was published. They said, apparently … Right next to the mall is the nation’s horticultural gardens. And there was some new plant that was just planted. It was right on the edge of the mall with fresh bulbs, and there was a little fence around it. Not a single bulb was stepped on. The crowd was … Not even by mistake, did they walk over it. They were so careful. And the second is that a police officer tweeted out that … He said, “I got more thank-yous today than I did in my entire career.”

David Bashevkin: 
I saw that. It was beautiful.

Eric Fingerhut: 
So, the beauty of it was … We were treated with the greatest of care by our government. We returned it with the greatest of love and care for our country. And I think that summarizes the kinds of community we are.

David Bashevkin: 
It was absolutely remarkable. I do want to get into the question that you already alluded to. When a synagogue plans a dinner or there is a communal event catered to Jews, you know there are going to be gripes. We are a very astute people, and we are a very tough-to-please people. I have been in the Jewish communal world for many years, and I know when, the moment you release a schedule and a program, there’re going to be people, “Well, you should’ve asked him. You should’ve asked her. Why isn’t this person involved?” I want to talk about the program because, there were in different corners … Sometimes, it’s not always the most sophisticated people who don’t really appreciate what the goal of the program is. That’s why we began.

What is the goal of this? Take me through the negotiations. There must have been negotiations going back and forth. How do you bring a program like this together? I am curious about so many … I want to get into some of the details, but tell me a little bit. Do you vote by committee? Everybody’s giving their name? Who should speak, who shouldn’t speak?

Eric Fingerhut: 
I’ll tell you how we did it. And then, you can ask me about specific aspects. We had a small group who … We haven’t even named names, but we’re diverse—

David Bashevkin: 
They’re the witness protection program.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Right. That advised us. But ultimately, the heads of the two organizations made the final decisions, which, I was one and William the other. We didn’t want anybody else to take the blame. And there were two important, I guess, the flip sides of the coin. Maybe one important decision, but it had two sides. One is to say that this could not be about organizations. If it was about organizations, then it would just not be a successful event. And so, we had to ask all the organizations and their dynamic, wonderful, committed leaders to take a backseat and to not be the ones at the microphone. And if we did it for one, we had to do it for all.

David Bashevkin: 
Did they appreciate that, by and large?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Every one of them understood the storyline had to not be about them. And the flip side of that was, then, what was the storyline about? And I actually, maybe, should have mentioned this a little earlier, but … Once we made the decision to rally. And we sat down to say, “What is it about?” There were very much three different themes that kept coming up.

One was support Israel and allow Israel to defend itself. The second was free the hostages. And of course, the families of the hostages, as you know, have been coming to America. They’ve been unbelievably forthcoming in their pain and suffering. And then, the third was this rise in antisemitism. And so, an important decision was to say, “You know what? It’s about all three.” And if you remember thinking about the picture, the logo, it said, “Americans March.”

By the way, it was very important that it was Americans, not just Jewish community. It was Americans. A, we are Americans. And B, this was not just Jews. Americans March for Israel to free the hostages and against antisemitism. We decided to embrace all three. We thought people could understand all three. They can hold three ideas in their heads. And so, then, the program became, “How do we advance each of those three?” So, the Stand for Israel was about … Certainly, that’s why we invited the bipartisan leaders of Congress.

David Bashevkin: 
Did you try to get the President?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Yeah, the President we knew pretty quickly … See, we didn’t clear the President’s calendar. The shul calendar-

David Bashevkin: 
That we could work with. Yeah.

Eric Fingerhut: 
But the President actually has a pretty tough calendar. And as it turns out, he was on his way to San Francisco for the Asian Pacific Summit and his meeting with the premier of China. So, we knew pretty quickly that wasn’t going to work. But he’s been so forthcoming.

David Bashevkin: 
Incredible.

Eric Fingerhut: 
I mean, his trip to Israel was … I happened to be there when he was there. It was so beautiful. And Ambassador Lipstadt was a wonderful representative of the administration. But the picture … The thing that I think really helped advance the stand for Israel cause that we spoke of earlier and why we were in front of Congress … I don’t know if you’ve seen that we ended up with a picture of the four bipartisan leaders of Congress holding arm together.

David Bashevkin: 
Incredible. In this moment, to see that.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Speaker Johnson, Minority Leader Jeffries, Majority Leader Schumer, and Senator Ernst representing the Senate Republicans. We did not know we were going to get that picture. They have different schedules. They were juggling schedules. We didn’t know we were going to get them all at the same time. We didn’t know they were going to all come out on the stage at the same time. And I’m telling you. That hasn’t happened in this country in years and years and years on any other issue. That picture is going to do more to shore up political support for Israel as things get rougher and rougher in Congress. So, that was one section. And we also want to talk about America in the most positive way. So, that was one big section.

Then, of course, when it comes to the hostages … We wanted to feature the hostage families and enable them to tell their stories. And then, when it came to antisemitism, we knew we needed to feature some students’ voices from campus. We wanted to show religious leadership support from across the spectrum. So, a Muslim leader and a Christian faith leader. We also felt it really important that Americans see us in our diversity in the immigrant experience. And so, I don’t know if you remember hearing Dr. Mijal Bitton, for example, who was an immigrant-

David Bashevkin: 
Mijal is a close friend.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… speaking so passionately about her family coming from Argentina where they were the victims of the AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires said, “Coming to America to be free of antisemitism and now experiencing this.” And the beautiful woman from Los Angeles who spoke about Persians, Iranians coming to America to be free of antisemitism. So, we knew thematically what we wanted to do. And then, of course, it came down to finding the right speakers. And the program, of course, went longer than we thought. And also music. The other issue here, David, was … You may ask me about Jewish religious leaders, but we wanted tefillah and Torah and tzedakah to be part of this, but we didn’t want to be picking amongst religious leaders.

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
So, when Ishay Ribo offered, and Omer Adam offered to come.

David Bashevkin: 
Did they offer you?

Eric Fingerhut: 
They reached … They called and said, “We want to come.”

David Bashevkin: 
They called you. Wow. I didn’t know that.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Obviously, we helped pay the expenses of their bands and their travel, but they didn’t charge.

David Bashevkin: 
Wow.

Eric Fingerhut: 
This was all out of their heart. So, to have Ishay Ribo chant Shir Ha’Maalot and do the “call and response” with the community-

David Bashevkin: 
Shema, and it was beautiful.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Was so … And then, to sing his version of Shir Ha’Maalot … I mean, it was so moving to me.

David Bashevkin: 
Did you know what he was going to play before he got on stage?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Yeah. Yes. We worked together. Actually, it was interesting. I’ll tell you a funny backstage story was … Maybe you’re more familiar with in which parts of our community, the tradition of the “call and response” for Tehillim … I guess it’s more of an Ashkenazi tradition than a Sephardi tradition. Ishay Ribo, of course, is Sephardi. And so, we asked him, respectfully, would he … We thought it would be meaningful to the large section of the audience … Because one of our other goals we haven’t talked about yet that it was … We wanted to have the broadest diversity of the Jewish world.

David Bashevkin: 
We’re going to get there. Yes.

Eric Fingerhut: 
And we’ll get there. So, we knew that, for a large percentage, my shul this is how we say Tehillim. I mean, we sang Tehillim every morning in every minyan since the war. So, we’re explaining it to him. And he says, “But I’m singing. I’m going to sing the song. It’s got the words.” We said, “No, no. You need to do both.” He said, “Why do you want to do both?” I said, “Trust me.

David Bashevkin: 
Trust me.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Trust us. Trust us.” And we’re having this explanation. My colleague, Shira Hutt, is our executive vice president. Her mother’s Israeli. Her Israeli Hebrew’s much better than mine. We’re having this conversation. We both walked out and said we had no idea what was exactly going to happen. And of course, in the event, he did it so magnificently, so movingly. So, that was … We wanted music. The Maccabeats sang so beautifully. And we wanted the Mi Shebeirach for the Chayalim. I mean, we knew the elements and then we had to figure out how to put it all together.

David Bashevkin: 
So, let’s plug in some of the details. You alluded to one. There was, I don’t know how to, criticism, pushback. There was concern that you have non-Jewish religious leaders. You have a Christian pastor. You have a Muslim imam. And you do not have any rabbis. Now, I’m sure most people know there’s somewhat an easy answer to this question. Was that a deliberate conversation?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Just … I want to be clear. We did not have, actually, a Muslim imam. We had a Muslim woman-

David Bashevkin: 
A Muslim woman. I’m sorry. Yes.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… who spoke beautifully and passionately and was actually identified for us by a dear friend of mine, Sheila Katz, who’s the head of National Council of Jewish Women, who’s very much more identified on the progressive side of the ledger. And she helped us identify this beautiful speaker who did such an amazing job. Beautiful in her words and her morality and ethics. But we knew that … We did have Pastor Hagee.

David Bashevkin: 
Do you want to talk for a moment about Pastor Hagee? There was a little bit of pushback and some …

Eric Fingerhut: 
Yeah. We anticipated it.

David Bashevkin: 
You knew that.

Eric Fingerhut: 
I’d say two things about it. One is the comments that people object to from Pastor Hagee are older, and he has disavowed these comments and they have not recurred. And I think we all believe that people can grow and learn and evolve. And secondly, that … Remember, the first point was Americans standing for Israel. And there’s no question that Pastor Hagee leads one of the largest pro-Israel organizations in America. And our view was it would be shame on us if we did not have that voice supporting Israel showing the full breadth of support for Israel in America. And at this moment, we cannot afford to put to the side any source of support for Israel and American society.

So, that, we anticipated. The fact that no rabbis spoke was really based on our goal of unity. We wanted every part of our diverse religious community to participate. And while you would think that the answer to that is include everyone … That, actually, in some ways, that’s not possible. That doesn’t contribute to unity. Because when you start including everyone-

David Bashevkin: 
It’s for no one, sometimes.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Right. We don’t have a pope, as you know. Right?

David Bashevkin: 
Yeah.

Eric Fingerhut: 
So, there’s no one spokesperson. And there’s no one spokesperson for the Jewish right or for the Jewish left or for the Jewish center. And so, we just concluded that we should express our faith and our belief in God through music and through prayer and through seeing the beautiful young adults speaking from the college campus, from their heart, and seeing Natan Sharansky, one of the greatest symbols of freedom of our people. And hearing people like Mijal Bitton, who … I mean, she had us roaring like lions!

David Bashevkin: 
She’s amazing.

Eric Fingerhut: 
So, that was the decision. And again, I know that our rabbonim understood. I hope that our community understood, too.

David Bashevkin: 
I am curious about the backstory. There’s obviously a contentious moment, especially in the celebrity world, of who’s going to speak out, who’s willing to speak out. They don’t want to alienate any of their potential audiences. You landed on Debra Messing, who I remember from Will & Grace. I don’t know how much you could share and how much you can reveal. And I love Debra Messing. I’ve got no issues with her, but I am curious how you landed on her as the flagship celebrity at this rally.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Also, we opened with Tovah Feldshuh who played Golda on Broadway. And if you remember Tovah Feldshuh … I’m old enough to remember the Holocaust miniseries. You’re not old enough. You were-

David Bashevkin: 
No.

Eric Fingerhut: 
… probably in diapers. But she was also in that. So, her career span-

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Eric Fingerhut: 
And she’s a very traditional Jewish woman.

David Bashevkin: 
Let me rephrase it. Did you put out a call to all your celebrity contacts and see who’s going to bite on this?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Well, no. It’s a little bit different than that, but … Not that much different, but a little different. I mean, there was a feeling that some celebrity pizzazz was important. And then, we really were looking for people who’ve been outspoken already in support of Israel and in support of the cause. And both Tovah Feldshuh and Debra Messing fit that category. As did Van Jones, by the way, from CNN. He’d been very, very outspoken.

And so, we looked for people who were clearly on the record and being outspoken, and then who would add some pizazz. And of course, in the case of both Deborah Messing and Tovah Feldshuh, they also are amazing Jewish role models in their own lives. So, that’s how we ended up where we did.

And by the way, I’m not one to be consulted about celebrities. The fact that these are two that I know shows you there’s probably a lot. But we’re very lucky that my board chair, Julie Platt … Her family’s in the entertainment industry. So, she was very, very helpful in this.

David Bashevkin: 
You bring together. It is a wild success of 300,000 people. In some corners of the Jewish world, it was less successful. Less people came out. I’m curious, almost on a personal level. How do you deal, when you are trying to unify Jews together … And there are always going to be areas of disappointment. There are always going to be areas where you wish you could have done better or been more successful. How do you, on a personal level, stay centered and stay grounded in your own personal life when you’re dealing with so much frustration, so much urgency at the very highest level? What did you do to stay grounded? What did you do the night of the rally to …

You just pulled this off, and you’re probably getting the ratio of … I don’t know. You get emails that are critical. You get emails that are frustrated. “It should have been this.” “It should have been that.” “You should have done it differently.” Were there any things that you feel like, “Oh, I wish I would’ve done that. I wish I would’ve gotten that email or that idea earlier”? And how did you recenter yourself, that the inspiration and that moment is able to really reside with you?

Eric Fingerhut: 
The answer is yes, of course, there are things that, looking back on it, I got wrong or I wish I’d done differently. Is definitely one of my faults that I obsess about those things. So, the hardest thing for me is to move from obsessing about, “I wish I’d done this. I wish I’d done that” to taking a step back and looking at the big picture. I do need to say … You ask me in the days leading up, and also that day … Obviously, it starts with my family. I mean, my wife Amy just has been a rock for me. And I have two sons both in college. And actually, my older one actually spoke at the community rallies in his community. He’s at Ohio State. So, it was at Columbus. So, that family support … They just made sure I was … They couldn’t make sure I slept, but they were the rock that kept it together.

And my own rabbis and dear friends kept checking in on me. And I’m sure William would say the same thing because he was my full co-partner in every respect in this. And then, the night … I’ll tell you. That night after it was over, our Jewish Federations had a advocacy day the next day. So, dozens of people from our women’s philanthropy, from our young leadership cabinet, from our advocacy corps gathered at George Washington Hillel to be trained and prepare for the next day.

So, I stopped by there. And also … So, not only did I feel the strength of those people and continuing the work because the rally had to give, not just immediate impact, but had to give … It’s like putting the gas in the tank, right? For this long fight we have ahead of us to maintain support. It can’t just be one day. It was filling the tank with gas.

And so, I saw that that was going on. And also, got to see the wonderful hillel director there who’s had such a hard time, who’s Adena Kirstein, who’s doing such an amazing job with students. And I asked her. I said, “I read about the incidents, so I know about the incidents that have happened on campus.” I said, “What’s it just like for students right now?” She said, “We’re full every day.” She said, “It’s not that there’s more people coming to Friday Night Services. But they’re coming here to have a safe place to be together.” And so, that was very meaningful.

And then, I went home, in addition to seeing my wife and sons, two of our dearest, closest friends in the world had come to the rally from Cleveland on the buses from Cleveland, and they stayed over that night. So, I got to be with good friends who had come all the way to be in the rally and who care about me and care about Israel and Jewish people. And so …

David Bashevkin: 
The rally did put a lot of tank in the gas of American Jewry, of, hopefully, Americans in general. Right now, Jews who are in America are looking. Where can we be helpful in this ongoing war that is unfolding in Israel? Where do you think we should be giving more of our attention? Where are the underappreciated areas, whether it’s antisemitism in America or, obviously, our brothers and sisters in Israel? Where do you think people need to be spending more of their focus?

Eric Fingerhut: 
Look. I don’t think it’s that we’re not focusing on the right things. I think, both in Israel and here, we’re focusing on the right things. I just think that the magnitude of it is the issue and the length … I mean, the reason I spoke about the rally in terms of it’s putting gas in the tank. We need to drive this for a long time. This is going to be a long war. The political repercussions of it in America are long, as we’ve seen what’s been unleashed in terms of antisemitism. Has a long tail to it.

I think that the biggest issue is … We have to make sure that we are … And this is, again, why I’m so proud to be part of the Jewish Federations system, which is organized for exactly this purpose, that we are able to sustain this effort for a long time. We’re going to get tired. I think this is what I’m going to be working on the rest of my career. I mean, I think that’s how long this crisis is going to need our attention. So, that’s my biggest concern, not … I think people are focusing on the right things. But I think, at a level of … For example, we spoke earlier about social media. We know and we’re working on it, but we’re nowhere near the magnitude of the response that is needed and the duration that that’s going to be needed for.

David Bashevkin: 
I cannot thank you enough. And really, just your leadership is astounding. And we are also grateful. I’m curious. We’re always looking for book recommendations. Is there a book that has informed your love, your appreciation, your leadership specifically related to Israel that informs a lot of your decision-making or even your personal connection to Israel? Is there a particular book that jumps out at you as a recommendation?

Eric Fingerhut: 
I’m a history buff, and my Hebrew’s not good enough to read them all in Hebrew. So, the best of the histories of Israel … Daniel Gordis’s work is brilliant and helpful. Michael Oren’s work is brilliant and helpful. Yossi Klein Halevi’s beautiful book, Like Dreamers, I think it’s called. So, those are the things that I root myself in. And also, look, I fell a couple days behind, but I’m keeping up on the Daf Yomi. And-

David Bashevkin: 
Daf Yomi always helps.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Obviously, the weekly parsha. I mean, could we have been in a better place of the weekly parashiyot? You could not possibly have a better way to understand the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people than to be in from Lech Lecha to Chayei Sarah to Toldos.

David Bashevkin: 
A thousand percent. We are on that biblical journey as we speak. You see Israel and the situation unfolding in all of our Torah learning.

Eric Fingerhut: 
I will tell you. I have to say one personal thing. I know we’re in a rapid fire, but, really, my inspiration in life was my mother who gave me my Yiddishkeit, my Jewish values. She passed away almost two years ago at age 97.

David Bashevkin: 
Wow.

Eric Fingerhut: 
And I pictured her every minute of this planning. I pictured my mother, and her Hebrew name was Chayei Sarah. So, the fact that we had Parshat Chayei Sarah right in the middle of the planning of this … And my rabbi knew that and made sure I have an aliyah so that … I announced her name. And that was the ultimate-

David Bashevkin: 
That is absolutely beautiful. You’ve had many different careers. You’ve been the head of Hillel. You’ve been a congressman. You’ve worked in politics. And now, you are the head of the Jewish Federations system. If somebody gave you a great deal of money that allowed you to take a sabbatical, no responsibilities whatsoever, to go back to school and study whatever you wanted to get a PhD, write something, a new field of research, what do you think the subject’s entitled of that dissertation would be?

Eric Fingerhut: 
I actually have thought about this because, someday, I’m going to do it.

David Bashevkin: 
You’ve earned it.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Whether somebody gives me money or not. I’ve had the privilege, three times now, of being the CEO of a large, decentralized organization. I was Chancellor of the public university system in Ohio. 16 public universities, 23 community colleges. There’s nothing more decentralized than a single university with every professor being its own and every school … let alone a system. And then, Hillels. 600 Hillels. And now, a federation system with 146 federations. So, I consider myself sort of an expert on this tiny little niche of management science, if you will-

Eric Fingerhut: 
… an expert on this tiny little niche of management science, if you will, and management expertise. The “science” is probably too fancy a word. And what I’ve learned is, there’s great similarities between these organizations, these types of organizations, and that you have to learn that you can’t order anybody to do anything. You have to find the incentives and the motivations to help people want to follow, to see that something collective, doing something together, is more successful than doing something individual, which is obviously the ultimate principle of the federation system. We believe the collective action ultimately is more powerful than the individual. And I’ll tell you, if you’ll let me, the epigraph is from Rabbi Sacks, of blessed memory, who taught… He said, “There’s a difference between kings and prophets, right? Kings have power. They can tax you, they can put you in prison, they can banish you from the kingdom. Prophets speak truth to power, right?” He said, “Look, Jews, we have kings, and we have prophets. Who do we study? Well, we have King David, Psalms a little bit. Mostly our kings aren’t so successful, right? But we study the prophets every Shabbat.” From which Rabbi Sacks concludes the following lesson. He says, “Jews are very skeptical of power, but we’re very serious about influence.”

So the question that I would want to think about is, how do you exert the kind of influence that enables, that encourages people to follow, so that we can act collectively and achieve great things together?

David Bashevkin: 
Absolutely. Beautiful. My final question, the easiest one for some, always curious about people’s sleep schedules. What time do you go to sleep at night, and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Eric Fingerhut: 
I fall asleep early because I’m always up super early, especially because I like to call my colleagues in Israel early. So whenever I’m tired, but usually I’m in bed very early, and I’m up super early, middle of the night.

David Bashevkin: 
I cannot thank you enough, Mr. Eric Fingerhut, for all of your leadership and all of your work. On behalf of the Jewish people in Israel, thank you so much for joining us today.

Eric Fingerhut: 
Thank you for having me.

David Bashevkin: 
Planning a rally with thousands is going to be difficult. Planning a rally with thousands and thousands of people for the Jewish people is not easy. We all know the famous phrase, “Two Jews, three opinions,” and you can imagine that in trying to plan a rally with broad appeal across denominations, across the spectrum for the Jewish people, is not a simple matter. I was very moved by the conversation with Eric Fingerhut. Right before we got on, his Director of Communications told me, “If you really want to get him going, talk about Daf Yomi, talk about Torah learning. This is what really is the fire in his Jewish belly.” And I saw it in speaking to him. This is a lover of the Jewish people and somebody who really understands not just the opportunities of unity, but the challenges of unity. And I think without question, we are seeing now some of the challenges of unity.

Unity was never supposed to be easy. It was never a slogan. “Achdus, we’re all together. Just, now we can finish up and move forward.” Bringing Jews together when we have very real ideological differences, when we have very real differences in leadership, in the way that we approach leadership, is not a simple thing. And many of our listeners likely already know that many communities decided not to participate in the rally. Many communities felt, “This is not our approach to speaking out for Jewish causes.”

And in fact, this is not a new debate. Part of this debate is a very old debate, at least a hundred years old, and it is a question of how the Jewish community should mobilize in times of crisis. Should we mobilize with outward rallies against the government, to speak out and say, “You are not doing enough, you are not doing the right thing”? Or should we always emphasize something called shtadlanut, diplomacy, backroom dealing, and more quiet… Not to draw attention to the Jewish people, not to kind of evoke the ire of the nations of the world at, “What are the Jews up to now? What are the Jews doing now?” So to emphasize specifically more backroom dealings. And this is a very old debate.

Now, it is important to emphasize, I believe a lot of people get this debate wrong, and I confirmed this with a dear mentor, dare I say a rebbe of mine, Moish Bein. I was talking to Moshe Bain about the rally and the fact that some communities did not participate, and he had mentioned to me that this longstanding debate about whether or not to participate in outspoken rallies or backroom diplomacy, the way that he understood it, at least from his rebbe, and he learned in Ner Yisroel, as did I, by Rav Yaakov Weinberg. I was after Rav Yaakov Weinberg passed away. But the way he understood that debate is that the problem with public rallies, for those who did take issue with it, and there were very serious rabbis who did, but that issue was specifically when you are rallying against the current government in which Jews are found, they’re rallying against the American government or rallying to push a policy that the American government has not yet adopted. This rally was quite different. This rally was rallying to support the resolve and the support of the American government for the State of Israel. So he didn’t really feel that this debate was all that relevant to the moment that we had in front of us.

But to understand a lot of this, I turned to somebody who has just written an extensive article about the role of rallies in Jewish history, somebody who this moment actually represents far more than just the State of Israel, somebody who has really participated politically in jaw-dropping ways on behalf of the Jewish people. And that is Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Rabbi Rakeffet as he is affectionately known. He gives classes that are widely listened to on YU Torah. He is an extraordinarily colorful personality with an extraordinarily colorful background.

He was a teacher and rebbe in Yeshiva University, but as you’ll hear more about, worked tirelessly with the Mossad, with the kind of intelligence of the Israeli government on behalf of Soviet Jewry, something he only revealed many, many years later. And he just published an article in the latest issue of Hakirah that you can actually find for free online. This is a very cathartic, very personal article, and it is entitled “Rabbinic Authority and Leadership on the Contemporary Scene.” It came out before the rally, but I think in many ways it is even more relevant following the rally and some of the communal fissures that have come to the fore on the correct approach for the way the Jewish community advocates for itself.
And the article is really an overview of some of the major issues where this question of, “How should we be advocating? Publicly or privately, rallies or diplomacy?” Beginning during the time of the Holocaust, going through some of the controversy that took place then, in the article… Again, it’s a long article, nearly 60 pages. It is worth reading. Again, it’s called “Rabbinic Authority and Leadership on the Contemporary Scene.” Then he talks about the March on Washington, which we discuss, when a group of hundreds of rabbis came to the White House just moments before Yom Kippur, days before Yom Kippur, three days before Yom Kippur, really in a chilling way. Was on October 6th that they gathered together. And then finally he talks about his efforts for Soviet Jewry.

And what really made an impression on him is his rebbe, what he calls Mori VeRabi, his rebbe, Rabbi Soloveitchik, who did March on Washington for the rest of his life, felt a sense of guilt and responsibility that they did not do more during the time of the Holocaust, that the American Jewish community did not mobilize even stronger to save Jewish life.

And that stuck with Rabbi Soloveitchik for his entire life, where he in fact confessed once to Rabbi Rakeffet, where Rabbi Soloveitchik said that he did not want to be held guilty for the identical sin twice in one lifetime. What sin was that referring to? It was the sin of “Do not stand idly while one’s brethren, one’s family, are suffering.” Do not stand idly when the blood of your family is being spilled.” And Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that the American Jewish community did far too little on behalf of our suffering brethren under Nazi occupation, and the Rav felt that he could repent in some small way by taking a more activist approach to the plight of Soviet Jewry.

We discuss all that and more. Again, Rabbi Rakeffet’s colorful personality. He’s a phenomenal historian. You want to check out his biography on Rabbi Silver, which goes even more in depth. Look at his article in Hakirah. Again, the latest issue. It is a long article but worth reading. It’s peppered with all this biographical information. Again, it’s called “Rabbinic Authority and Leadership on the Contemporary Scene.” You can get it for free on the Hakirah website and so much more.

It is my absolute privilege to introduce our conversation about the Jewish history of rallying on behalf of the Jewish people with Rabbi Rakeffet.

I wanted to begin by talking about the March on Washington, which took place in a haunting date on October 6th. We’ve been talking a lot, and October 7th has been on our minds, but this occurred three days before Yom Kippur on October 6th. I was wondering if you could give us a little bit of background of who organized this and who ended up showing up to the March on Washington on October 6th, I believe 1943.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
This March plays a major role in Mori VeRabi, Rav Soloveitchik’s life. I’ll explain myself afterwards. Let me give you the background.

Beginning with the late 1930s, when people started to realize that Hitler is serious and it’s going to be very bad for the Jews, so the American Jewish community became more active. There were demonstrations, Madison Square Garden. I remember my parents, zichronam livracha, telling me how they went to the demonstration at Madison Square Garden. It was filled beyond capacity. The Agudath Israel of America, which then was a new organization, they were opposed to public demonstrations. Their attitude was the old concept of hishtadlut, and better to keep things quiet and work behind the scenes. If you are familiar with my second volume… I have nine volumes in print, and I basically have a 10th one almost finished. I have enough to publish a 10th, but I want to finish one part of it in dignity.

If you’re familiar with “The Silver Era,” I describe the controversy between the leaders of Agudath and the regular organizations. All right, this is a legitimate debate. I remember a good vort from Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, that at times one has to act like Shimon and Levi and be activists, and at times we have to be quieter and work behind the scenes as Yaakov Avinu may have wished.

By the early ’40s, it became obvious that the hishtadlut was not working. Jews were being killed by the tens of thousands daily. And this idea, you have to give the credit… The basic credit goes to Peter Bergson.

David Bashevkin: 
A fascinating figure. Tell me a little bit about Peter Bergson.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
He was related to Rav Kook.

David Bashevkin: 
He was a nephew?

Aaron Rakeffet: 
A nephew, they say. His real name was “Kook.” And he was an activist. He was a revisionist. Today, I imagine they’d put him in Ben-Gvir’s party. And this individual worked around the clock. He got Ben Hecht involved. Ben Hecht was the most famous screenwriter in Hollywood, and Ben Hecht would say that Peter Bergson brought him back to the Lower East Side where he was raised, turned him into a Jew again. And the Reb Eliezer Silver, the Agudas HaRabonim, the Vaad Hatzalah, Mori VeRabi participated. But again, you have to understand, at that time he was not famous. He was not well-known. He was not yet the Rav.

David Bashevkin: 
Correct, fairly young.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Right.

David Bashevkin: 
Was he 40 yet?

Aaron Rakeffet: 
He was born in 1903, so he was just turned-

David Bashevkin: 
Just 40?

Aaron Rakeffet: 
And he had his problems in Boston. He was not yet established in the classroom in New York, and he participated. Many, many, many Rabbonim, about 200 Rabbonim, their children-

David Bashevkin: 
Who would you say was the acknowledged rabbinic leader of that group?

Aaron Rakeffet: 
They give all the credit to Reb Eliezer Silver, Reb Israel Rosenberg, and Rabbi Bernard Levinthal of Philadelphia. They were the three leading rabbinic figures. Playing a role also was Ze’ev Gold, was involved with the March. Rabbi Gold, who spoke perfect English. And the Reb described it as one of the most frustrating moments in his life.

David Bashevkin: 
Why was it frustrating?

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Because they had no influence. FDR refused to see them. The Jewish advisors of FDR, like many of the Jews today, intermarried, totally assimilated, told FDR that these are people from an ancient civilization that’ll have no influence in America, forget about them. The Reb described how it was two days before Yom Kippur, and it was a bitter Yom Kippur.

Now, some good. My recent article, I believe I blamed there that some good did come out of it, because President Roosevelt later under great pressure had to establish a war refugee committee that played a role in saving… Estimates go from 10,000 to 20,000 Hungarian and some Romanian Jews afterwards. And research has been done of that, that Efraim Zuroff… Some books have been published. So some minor good came out of it.

This incident in my opinion, and you hear it in the Rav’s voice, you hear it when he speaks. You can read the memoir of the Bostoner Rebbetzin Rivka Twersky. She makes the same point. This pushed the Reb from Agudath Israel to Mizrachi b’lev v’nefesh. I’ve made this point, I think you know about 20 years ago, I recorded nine hours for the OU on the Rav and Religious Zionism, and I was told it was the bestseller of any tape they ever made available to the public.

David Bashevkin: 
Everything you put out there is a bestseller.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Baruch Hashem. Today, it all goes to tzedakah, thank God. It pushed the Rav into becoming an activist. He saw that hishtadlut does not work, and in contemporary times, we must be activists … A number of years later, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein spoke on the same topic and made exactly the same point, that the March and all that went on and the 6 million pushed the Rav into the Mizrachi mold. And we have to be activists, not just depend upon backdoor diplomacy.

David Bashevkin: 
Just going back to the March, there was one rav that you noted that did not participate-

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Rav Aaron Kotler did not participate. That is documented in a book that was put out by Ktav … about Rabbi Nathan, a Torah Vodaas graduate, who was a big activist and helpful post World War II. And in that book, the author documents, and it’s well known that Reb Aaron did not participate.

When you look back now, my personal feeling is my heart breaks. All the big Rabbonim were there, and we have a concept, acharei rabim l’hatot. I tie it in with two Gemaros in the article I wrote. I’ll be honest with you, it was mental health for me.

David Bashevkin: 
I could tell there was a cathartic component to the article. What do you mean by that, the mental health?

Aaron Rakeffet: 
You’re right on. People who know me, my talmidim, you know that since the kollel opened in ’78, I don’t repeat a shiur. Every shiur I give is self-constructed. I have a very brilliant talmidim who have studied with me on to 40 years, even more. It’s on to 45 years now. And in my classes in Shas, poskim, and responsa to literature and then in Torah history, Sunday, Monday, I’ve covered endless topics. So I have to tell you … it’s no secret two books have been written. One that I wrote and one that the Mossad put out. We worked for the branch of the Mossad that dealt with Russian Jewry. This was called “Pathway” in English. It had various different names. The truth was, it was a subterfuge that if any of our emissaries got caught in communist Russia, they wouldn’t be working for the Mossad, they were working for a branch of the foreign ministry. It was a subterfuge.

Second to the Rav, the person I respect the most that I ever met in my life was Aryeh Kroll, zekher tzadik livrakha. He was one of the founders of Kibbutz Sa’ad, which is in the news now. He was my handler, would be the word in English, in the Mossad … I worked for him. I never met a man like that. His whole life, 7/24, was devoted to Am Yisroel, Torat Yisroel, Eretz Yisroel. And if they said, “You can demonstrate,” you don’t know what went on. I was in the inner offices. It took three security checks to get in. I was there once a week, once every 10 days. There were teletypes working around the clock. Anything in the world that had to do with Russian Jewry was coming, and they would process it, and they reached decisions. For instance, they told the Mendelevitch group in 1970, “Do not hijack the plane.”

David Bashevkin: 
That’s a wild story.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Yeah. Well, I’m sure you’re familiar with it, but it’s not for now. I’ve often spoken about it. But they were very balanced and very worried about the Jews in Russia, all over the world. So in ’87 approximately, I’d give the date from the article and the essay, I would call it, the research paper. Aryeh Kroll says to me, “Rav Rakeffet, you are going to be our liaison. Rafael Halperin has gotten in touch with us, and he’s going to organize a big demonstration in Bnei Brak for the Jews in Russia.”

David Bashevkin: 
If you could just pause for a moment, because a lot of our listeners do not know who Rafael Halperin is, and he might be one of the most colorful figures in all of Jewish history.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
It’s like someone telling you, “I want you to meet with Donald Trump and arrange the demonstration.” Rafael Halperin, his father wasthe Chazon Ish’s right hand. His father was the founder of Bnei Brak, basically a very wealthy family. They relate back to the Dorot Rishonim from Minsk. And Rafael Halperin was a wrestling champion. I remember as a kid in America, when he came to America, a shomer Shabbos world wrestling champion. He was a big talmid chakham.

David Bashevkin: 
You remember him as a wrestler?

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Of course, as a kid … absolutely. Madison Square Garden. It’s unbelievable, his life story. So I meet with him, he takes me out to one of his restaurants, and believe me, I couldn’t afford to go to restaurants in the ’80s. It was not easy, our first 25, 30 years in Israel. Now we’re here 54 years, kein ayin hara.

David Bashevkin: 
Wow.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
And he takes me out. And this man was bigger than life, and I worked out everything with him. I had to give him instructions, what he can say, what he can’t say again. Again, I don’t want to go into it now with taking an hour to explain.

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
And I’m the happiest person in the world, because I’m convinced that they’re going to be a lot more frum Russian Jews. You have to understand the Russian mentality and seeing a demonstration. Well, if we were to put together tens and tens of thousands of people in black, and the Russians, when they become ba’alei teshuvah, they go for that. You understand? That’s the mentality.

David Bashevkin: 
Sure.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Ba’alei teshuvah, they look at Rakeffet, no beard, no peyos, no black clothes, a baseball fan. It’s not a good Jew. All right-

David Bashevkin: 
Wrestling fan.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Well, a wrestling fan I never was, but a DiMaggio fan, I plead guilty. Well, when they hear my shiur, then, all right. I’m in a little higher esteem … My right hand today, is my first student of Moscow, January, 1981. Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, he should live and be well, go dream. What happens when you teach Torah. So Rafael Halperin starts to act. Rabbi Shach finds out, and they bring Rabbi Teitz from America, and chas v’chalila, not public demonstrations. And this is after the biggest experts in the world said the demonstrations are helping now. And I show that in my article. I speak about what happened afterwards with Reagan and at the Capitol. And my heart broke.

David Bashevkin: 
That Reagan told Gorbachev, let me just say that Reagan told Gorbachev.

Aaron Rakeffet: 
Yeah, Reagan told Gorbachev. I quoted in my article, you hear those voices out there, “Till you let the Jews go, I can’t do anything for you.” It’s unbelievable. Anyway, I suffered with this. First of all, it was embarrassing in the Mossad. I met people. These are not politicians. You have to understand. The Israeli senior politicians … I don’t want to say anything negative. It’s Friday morning Erev Shabbos, let me be filled with kedusha. But these were people who worked around the clock for Am Yisrael. You have no idea the quality of what I’m talking about.

I later met up again on a different level, which I can’t go into too many details because I’m under a security clause, with the three boys missing … And I came up with a revolutionary idea… Anyway, the important people who had to approve it, approved it, the Chief of Staff, the Minister of Defense. And I was back in the army on special assignment, and there, too, I met up with Intelligence. And these people… And then you come back and tell them, Rabbi Shach and Rabbi Teitz canceled the demonstration. Rafael Halperin, being Hareidi, follows so-called Daas Torah, and that was the end.

I suffered with that until I could get this article out, this research paper, and tell the story. And baruch HaShem, we haven’t seen it yet in Israel. There’s no mail. I don’t have to tell you what’s going on here, but I’ve gotten so many emails and compliments from important people in the United States …

David Bashevkin: 
The question of whether or not to rally for Soviet Jewry, the question that he mentions, that this incredibly colorful personality, Rabbi Rafael Halperin, which if you want to do yourself a favor, if you feel overwhelmed by what’s going on and you need a distraction but you don’t want to just veg out and watch Netflix, but you want a productive distraction, do yourself a favor. I’ve given this advice to many people. Go on Wikipedia and Google, “Rabbi Rafael Halperin.” This is probably in the top 10 most interesting Wikipedia pages that are out there. The family, the personality behind this. This is somebody who served in the inner circle of the Chazon Ish, who was one of the leaders of the Hareidi community in Israel in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. And it’s just a remarkable page. This person was an actual wrestler. I mean that in the most literal sense. He was a wrestler. And it’s just a wild personality, very colorful.
And that debate between Rabbi Rafael Halperin on one side and Rav Shach and Rabbi Teitz on the other side who advocated for more diplomacy is something that is again surfacing now. I believe the way that it is surfacing now, however, has been a little harder on many Jews. I remember as we were going to the rally, some of the letters that circulated about whether or not to participate in the rally began to travel on different WhatsApp groups. There were retractions, people retracting support. “Maybe you shouldn’t go, you shouldn’t participate. This is not our approach.” There were retractions to the retractions. And for many, people felt very upside-down, because there was this instinctive feeling that this is what we should be doing, this is what the Jewish people have to be doing right now.

There was a time, not so long ago, before October 7th, where some of the debates about the different shades of support for the Jewish State of Israel could countenance a lot more ideological disagreement. I’m sure many people have been privy to conversations about whether or not to say a Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut , or how do you commemorate, how do you express your feelings of Zionism? And to me at least, it feels that since October 7th, we are being posed with a very different question. It is not a question about how do we commemorate the existence of a Jewish State of Israel, but almost the inverse, the thought experiment that I actually surfaced. It is a scary thought experiment, but one that I surfaced during our previous series on Zionism, and it’s not about the founding of the State of Israel, but it is about, God forbid, the-

David Bashevkin: 
The founding of the state of Israel, but it is about, God forbid, the end, the cessation of a state of Israel. And I’ve always been asking myself what would happen if, God forbid, the UN and the United States, they withdrew their support for the state of Israel and it didn’t come at a great loss of Jewish life, but it was just a declaration that, “Look, it was a good run, it was 75 years, and now we are calling it quits to a Jewish state of Israel.” People who are living there can continue to live there, but obviously the right of return and other factors are no longer in play. And the government that runs Israel is just your average, non-religious, non-affiliated government and they are governing the state of Israel. Would that day be equivalent to a Tisha B’Av or would that day be a day of mourning? What would that mean for worldwide Jewery? How would we think about that?

No one is questioning the pain and the suffering of Jewish loss of life, but what if we lost the Jewish state of Israel without a major loss of life? Would that be, “Okay, it was better when we had one, but now that’s too bad. We lost it. It was, maybe, more pragmatic or more practical. We could be more confident that it would protect Jewish life.” Or is this a stunning break in what we thought was the trajectory of our history? Would this be a lapse of the magnitude of losing Yerushalyim and the Beis HaMikdash 2000 years ago? What would this mean for Jerusalem if we lost it? And I feel like that is a question that the world is grappling with right now. We have people in serious positions of power who do not believe in a Jewish State of Israel.

We are being posed this question and where you stand on this question is far more significant than how you commemorate Yom Ha’atzmaut, how you commemorate the founding of Israel, because how you respond and how you react when the very existence of the state of Israel, when the possibility of the state of Israel not existing, even if theologically we think that is an impossibility, but politically it is quite possible whether or not it is on our watch or the next generation. If you look at the polls, young people do not support the State of Israel the way that the current generation, people who are older right now and what have lived through and seen the horrors of what Israel is up against, terrorist attacks beginning since it’s founding wars, terrorist attacks. But let’s say you didn’t live through that and you’re just like, why do we need this?

What is the point of this? Let’s say we lost it. Let’s say we quieted our voices and for a moment just said, “Okay, it was a good run, it was a good run.” What would that mean for worldwide Jewish history? What would it mean for history? And I think a lot of people are looking at this question in the right way and they see the stakes of the moment that we are in now, which is why I think for a lot of people, the fact that some rabbis came out saying not to participate in the rally, was particularly difficult. It felt for some like a betrayal of sorts, like I thought that we were aligned on this issue, and now we are seeing fissures in different cracks and crevices of our community where your everyday people affiliated with, maybe yeshiva communities or whatever it is, don’t feel aligned as they once did with their leadership.

Somebody texted me on the bus ride back from the rally, one of my oldest and closest friends. He used a beautiful phrase that I’ve been thinking about a lot since then where he calls himself has hashkafically homeless, hashkafa meaning that is the word, that is colloquially used to describe your religious outlook. And he felt hashkafically homeless. What did he mean by that? He meant that in many ways he identifies with the yeshiva world, the yeshiva community and the leadership of the yeshiva community, but in this moment, in the way that there is an urgency, specifically for support of the Jewish state of Israel, there feels like a misalignment in some of his affiliations and some of the personalities where he’s been getting direction until now and he feels in a way, and I think it’s a beautiful phrase in some ways, hashkafically homeless, that not everything is aligning right now.

Maybe the communities that foster the Talmud Torah and the Shabbos that he’s most familiar with and he believes is the ideal, as do I within the communities that he’s affiliated with no longer align in the way that they are thinking about public support for the Jewish state of Israel. There is an undercurrent, a feeling among some, though not all that’s been quietly bubbling, certainly even more so since October 7th, about a reevaluation of some of our religious outlooks, particularly as it relates to the state of Israel. People who honestly like myself, never self-identified as Zionists. I just did a series on 1840 about Zionism and I was pretty honest. I did not grow up in what I would describe as a Zionist home. That term is not ever a way that I described myself just sociologically, I never fully connected especially to the American Zionist, the Mizrachi community.

That’s never where I found my home and something feels different since October 7th. It feels like we need to grapple with larger issues, particularly about what exactly does the Jewish state in Israel really mean to us? What is our responsibility to it? Not just reacting to the conceptual Eretz Yisrael or the pain that we express over the Jewish loss of life and the hostages. I would say it goes without saying, unfortunately it doesn’t, but that is something that most of us really feel aligned with. I think the question that people are really grappling with is now that we are really confronting the responsibility of what it means that the Jewish people have a state of our own that requires defending, that requires support, the state requires support, the state requires defending. Is it time for us to reevaluate what our relationship, and when I say our, I mean people who grew up in homes that certainly were not anti-Zionists, but certainly couldn’t be described as typically Zionists either.

Is it time for us to reevaluate what our relationship is to Zionism and the state of Israel? Maybe it’s time for both to meet in the middle. Zionism needs to evolve and our relationship and outlook and affiliation with the state of Israel. I got called out for it the last time we did the series in 1840. I kept on using euphemism like Eretz Yisrael. It’s easy to talk about Eretz Yisrael, the biblical Land of Israel. That’s not what I’m talking about now. I’m talking about the State of Israel and figuring out how the next generation is going to live up to that responsibility that if in fact nobody wants to be the generation to lose the Jewish state in Israel, and I assume that is true. So what is now our responsibility to this state? What does it mean? What does it mean to be a Jew in America, Jew in the diaspora?

What is the responsibility, particularly those who grew up in yeshiva community that maybe were not overtly Zionist in the colloquial sense, did not celebrate yeoman. I’m not calling for everybody to celebrate yeoman in a very particular way. This is actually a much bigger question. And the question is, has the time come to reevaluate what our relationship and responsibility is to the state of Israel? And I think some of the pain that people felt seeing leaders who they do admire for all the right reasons because of their accomplishments in Torah, because of their shining examples of keeping Halakha and following and fostering Halakhik values and Halakha commitment and passion for Yiddishkeit for all the right reasons. But then on this very big issue, this is a very, very big issue about what our responsibility is to the state of Israel. They feel deeply misaligned and not only do they feel misaligned, but in some ways when you read these letters, they feel that they’re being, I don’t know called out, that you are not a part of the ideology from within our community in many ways.

It reminds me of a passage in Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit on page 20a. My absolute favorite stories in the Gemara, I repeated over and over for a thousand different reasons. I wrote about it in my Tablet essay entitled “Crisis Management” when we completed Ta’anit in a more personal way, but there’s this Gemara in Ta’anit where a rabbi is returning from yeshiva and sees an unlearned Jew and the Rabbi calls this unlearned Jew, he calls them ugly. He says, “Wow, you’re so ugly. Do all the people from where you’re from, are they also this ugly?” It’s a jarring Gemara. It’s a jarring passage of Talmud. But what the passage of Talmud is telling us is that this Rabbi has a very rigid conception of beauty. What does it mean to be beautiful in my eyes means something very specific. It means commitment to Talmud Torah, to the study of Torah, and you are not a part of that conception of beauty.

The ugly Jew, as the passage continues, is deeply offended. He refuses to forgive the rabbi. He too, in a way becomes rigid and stubborn. They’re both playing off of each other and they both end up at this standstill where this “ugly Jew” says, “You’re rigid in your conception of beauty, I’m going to be rigid. I am not going to forgive you. Keep on begging me to forgive you. I’m not going to do it.” Finally, as this rabbi is begging for forgiveness there begin to approach the rabbi’s hometown where all of the members of his yeshiva come out to greet him. And this unlearned man who was just called ugly, sees the throngs of students of the Rabbi who offended him. They came out to greet their Rabbi and he says, “Don’t ever call somebody ugly again like that, and I’m going to forgive you, but on their behalf,” pointing to all of his students.

And the passage in Talmud concludes very movingly calling for a need for flexibility. The Gemara says that this is why we specifically write our Sifrei Torah. We write a Sefer Torah with a reed. A reed is a very flexible plant and not like a cedar. We have to be able to have movement in what we do, that sometimes we need flexibility, not because there wasn’t a mistake made, but because holding onto our rigidity will cynically affect so many others who really, for the most part, have exactly the right values. They’re looking up to these leaders for all of the right reasons. And that’s why the passage of Talmud concludes, we write our holy books, the Sefer Torah, tefillin, mezuzah with a pen that comes from reed rather than cedar. A reed is flexible and sometimes even our conceptions of holiness, our hashkafa needs flexibility as well.

And maybe in this moment there is a time for flexibility for reconsideration. I think above all else, we need to really double down on making sure we do not descend into cynicism. That is the part that worries me most is that when we get these conflicting, misaligned or differently aligned views from very senior Rabbis, it is very easy to just dismiss, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” And in a sense, I don’t know, maybe that’s true, maybe they have very different conceptions of political advocacy. But what I do know is that cynicism can metastasize and before you know it, you are just a cynic and there is no characteristic that makes me more nervous and more hesitant than letting even a little bit of cynicism in. I would much rather grab a hold of sincerity and honesty and say, “Look, we have a very serious disagreement on this issue and it is not a small disagreement, it’s a big one.”

We do not see eye to eye on this, but I am not going to allow cynicism to color the way that I relate to all Torah leaders or to entire parts of our community. I will not allow it because I think the ultimate danger that bubbles up, the ultimate prosecutor of the Jewish people’s merits, the ultimate liability we have is when we become a cynical nation, when we start speaking negatively about everyone and everything about large communities, about rabbis, and we’re not careful in the way that we speak because then the foundation of our unity, which was never easy and never supposed to be simple, but that foundation can erode just as easily as it was formed and that is something that worries me, which is why one of the people who I really look to who wrote a very beautiful letter following the rally that actually addresses much of this. His rabbi, Moshe Hauer, who’s the executive director of the Orthodox Union, and he wrote this beautiful letter that you could find online.

This is Erev Shabbos message that he sends out every Friday, but this was extra special where he addressed some of these feelings about the rally. He wrote, “we have each other and we must treasure each other.” And he wrote as follows. I’m sure many people have already read it, but I found it to be quite beautiful. He talks about not just the rally on Tuesday, but on Monday was Yom Kippur Katan where many communities, particularly the Yeshiva community, they had special davening and a fast day and he writes, both rallies were powerful, the rally that took place on Tuesday that everybody knows about, and the rallies took place in many Yeshiva communities on Monday where people were saying extra Tehillim from Brooklyn and Lakewood and many were fasting. And he writes, both rallies were powerful, both rallies demonstrated with intensity and feeling that every corner of our varied community has a powerful love of Israel and Judaism and a deep concern for the soldiers and hostages.

They showed how the Jewish people today, after its most fractious year in memory, have pulled together to focus on what is most important to all of us, and he cautions, that is what we must focus on. I’m continuing to read from Rabbi Hauer’s letter, not the controversy surrounding the statements or decisions of specific Rabbi and or organizations. We must learn from the bitter experience of the past year that when we focus on fighting with each other, we lower our guard and become dangerously vulnerable to the threats of our real enemies. The discussions of Klal Yisrael need to go back to where they were two weeks ago, exchanging ideas about the latest creative idea to strengthen Klal Yisrael spiritually or materially to revive some of the chesed, the chizuk and spiritual efforts that have lapsed after the initial energetic rush. We need to stop the internal politicking, the analysis and critique of this or that rabbinic or organizational position and speak instead of the wall to wall unity of purpose if not of method that we are experiencing.

Every part of Klal Yisrael is precious and dedicated to the future of the Jewish people, both those who would not attend Yom Kippur Katan and those who would not attend the DC rally. Instead of maligning areas of our community and the communal treasure of those organizations and its leadership, let’s focus on becoming a true agudah achas, one bound unit … to do the will of God with a full heart. It is a very beautiful letter, though I do know some still continue to struggle with those residual feelings of being hashkafically homeless and I don’t think being hashkafically homeless like feeling that you don’t have a place that perfectly aligns with your attitudes for Torah, for Shabbats and the State of Israel, all perfectly aligning, all coming from one place of leadership. I don’t think it’s the end of the world. It’s certainly not.

I’ve spent most of my life feeling myself as being hashkafically homeless. For me, the way that I was able to continue, even when I feel that distance from, maybe, my own Yeshivas and the own places where I myself nurtured and grew up, is that there are still so many Jewish leaders who I think have risen to this moment. And even with the extraordinarily deep ideological differences about method that relate to how we advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, there is always a home and some of us need multiple homes. Some of us need to kind of rent Airbnbs, particularly now, and some of us need to reassess and reevaluate and, maybe, find other neighborhoods and other communities where we can feel the full confidence that the views and the hashkafas of our leadership align with what we need in this moment and in the long-term going forward.

I think there are many solutions to the issue, the enduring issue of the hashkafically homeless, but most importantly is not allowing real but enduring and residual feelings of negativity to overshadow or cloud, the very beautiful positivity that is so desperately needed in this very moment.

So wherever you are on this spectrum, if none of this was an issue, then God bless you. I hope you have a path forward. And if this does resonate and you do feel maybe a little bit homeless in this moment or torn or confused in this moment, know number one, that you are not alone. Know number two, that you don’t need to descend into cynicism. There’s a way to hold on to positivity, and know number three, that it is possible to even find a home after many years of not finding a community that perfectly aligns with you. Maybe it does exist, maybe it doesn’t. Some live without it, some live with it. Some change communities, some find new neighborhoods, some rent a short-term rentals. But whatever it is, there is a way forward for all of us because this moment is so much bigger than any individual.

This is a very real moment in invitation from Jewish history and is incumbent upon all of us to take that invitation from Jewish history. Don’t just stick it to your fridge like we do with so many of our wedding invitations, but answer it in a full-bodied way and let’s rise to this moment and ensure we, each of us, in our own lives and our own communities and our own families are doing everything that we need to do on behalf of the Jewish people.

So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our dearest friend Denah Emerson. She has been so incredible since this war broke out editing from Israel, editing during breaks and vacations. We cannot thank you enough, Denah. If you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it.

You can also donate at 18forty.org/donate. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You can also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play in a future episode, and that episode is rapidly approaching. That number is (516) 519 3308. Once again, that number is (516) 519 3308. And once again, a reminder to check out Eric Fingerhut’s podcast, The Glue, about things that hold communities together at a time when forces are pulling us apart and it looks at all these issues from a Jewish and sociological lens. If you enjoyed our conversation with Eric Fingerhut, I have no doubt you will want to check out his podcast again. It’s called The Glue. Check it out wherever podcasts are sold. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number one eight, followed by the word 40 F-O-R-T-Y, 18forty.org, where you could also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails.

Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.