The greatest threat facing the Jewish community is getting the least attention.
Communal concern regarding antisemitism and the threat of physical violence against Jewish institutions and individuals has grown dramatically, and for good reason. The horrific attacks of 9/11, the killings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, the spiking numbers of antisemitic attacks—verbal and physical—associated with street protests of virtually any kind, the events of January 6, and the overall discord, polarization and hate that have become part of our political and social culture, have come together to create a climate of fear that is significantly impacting America’s Jewish community.
The fear is underscored by a normalization of antisemitism dangerously close to the mainstream of political discourse, usually in the guise of legitimate criticism of the State of Israel. Censure of any government’s policies is fair game, but the obsessive focus on Israel and the attacks on the Jews as a community based on the Middle Eastern conflict belie a lurking antisemitism. And the guise is readily removed when one enters the world of the university campus, obsessed as it is with providing “safe spaces” for everyone but its Jewish students.
There is much cause for concern both for the present and for the future, and our security requires leaders in the realms of government, law enforcement and academia to consistently make clear in word and deed that there is no place for antisemitism in this great country. And it necessitates funds, programs, personnel and attention dedicated to securing our institutions and communities.
But none of this impacts the greatest threat facing the Jewish community.
The Jewish community is at the core a faith community. As the 10th-century Babylonian scholar Saadia Gaon wrote, the Jewish people are a nation defined by our Torah. Our community loses more Jews to the voluntary shedding of their Jewish identity in a single hour than we have lost to physical attack in the past two decades. The struggle for substantive Jewish continuity is our most basic challenge, and it is the issue that demands the lion’s share of our focus and resources. There is no sense in securing empty synagogues.
Chanukah provides us an opportunity to refocus our attention.
The festival of Chanukah is a celebration of the triumph of religious freedom. The primary threat in the clash of the Jewish and Greek civilizations was not physical but spiritual, as the Jews—under the pressure and influence of the Greeks—were widely choosing to abandon their own faith and culture. Spiritual heroes arose, drawing the Jewish people back to their faith and reinstating the centrality and integrity of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their victory was to be commemorated for the generations by the lighting of the Menorah outside every Jewish home, declaring proudly in the public sphere our commitment to our faith.
But things changed. Already in Talmudic times, issues of religious persecution rendered it unsafe to light the festive candles outside, and so the celebration moved indoors, with the Menorah lit inside the house. Ironically, the Jewish festival of religious freedom fell victim to religious persecution.
This shift provides us with focus. The battle for religious freedom is waged within our own ranks more than with an external enemy. In the days of Chanukah and in our own time, more of us choose on our own to abandon our faith than are forced away from it by others. And so, the true arena of challenge will not be outside in the street but inside the home.
The Shema prayer—that most fundamental expression of Jewish commitment—guides us to share with our children Torah as an encompassing way of life: “Teach these [words of Torah] to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand and as an emblem between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)
Religion cannot be effectively perpetuated as a tangential pursuit, but rather as a pervasive presence that informs every aspect of our lives. The more completely it fills our lives, the more it serves as the essence of the legacy that we share with our children. This bodes well for those whose home and family life truly revolve around their Judaism and whose educational and life choices reflect that focus.
The Jewish community has many menorahs burning brightly outside. We have organizations and institutions, synagogues, schools and federations, where thousands rally for Jewish continuity. But that is not where the battle for the Jewish future will ultimately be decided.
Our future will be made or broken by the Judaism we live as families, by the consistent and immersive Jewish lives we create for ourselves, and by the menorah burning bright in our homes.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (“Orthodox Union”).