As a proud New Yorker and a proud Jew, I have been horrified to witness the surge in anti-Semitism that has been gripping our nation, specifically in the New York and New Jersey area, where many Jews live. According to various news outlets, anti-Semitic incidents in New York City rose 40 percent from 2014 to 2018. And I am sure that when they tabulate the numbers for 2019, that upward trend will continue.
In New York, we have been seeing youth attacking Chassidic Jews with fists and bricks merely for looking Jewish; unknown individuals spraying swastikas and hate speech on synagogues and Jewish gravestones; and certain elected officials brazenly spreading age-old libels. We saw someone enter a rabbi’s home in Monsey to stab people celebrating Hanukkah. We saw a hateful man shoot and kill four people at the kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J. We see this hatred every day; still, we remain proud of our faith and proud of our nation.
Our pride is the best way to fight back. We have been advised not to dress in a way that shows we are Jewish, but we will not change ourselves to appease hate-filled and violent people. To do so would be yielding to terrorism.
In fact, 25,000 of us gathered in Newark, N.J., on Feb. 9 to show how strong our faith and perseverance is, and to show that we will not be stopped by hatred.
The Dirshu worldwide Torah-study organization held the Siyum HaShas, a celebration of a section of Talmudic study. The organization promotes Jewish scholarship through structured group study and regular tests on the subject matter. The men who study with Dirshu have reported that not only do they learn more about Judaism, but they find their home and family lives improved, too.
Dirshu has celebrated 11 siyums worldwide: in Jerusalem, London, Manchester, Paris, South America and Africa. Thousands upon thousands of Jews have gathered to celebrate Jewish culture and tradition, to reaffirm our commitment to God and our community, and to show that we are not defeated by acts of terrorism.
Despite the recent anti-Semitic violence in the New York tristate region, the Feb. 9 event sold out, leading Dirshu to expand to two additional venues. At the same time as the event at the Prudential Center, Dirshu held concurrent celebrations at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Newark Symphony Hall. There was music, dancing and keynote addresses. The audience (approximately 25,000 people between the three arenas) heard from rabbis of repute and men who have studied with Dirshu. Most importantly, each of the Jews in attendance proudly proclaimed their Jewishness for the world to hear.
After all, a thriving and proud Jewish community is the best weapon against anti-Semitism. It is also the best revenge against Hitler and the Nazis. Hitler strove to eradicate our people from the earth, but he failed. We are a strong community that is still fully committed to our faith. This siyum was a beacon showing that although anti-Semitic hatred may be rising globally—with attacks and desecrations on every populated continent—we as a community remain unbowed and unbroken.
Dirshu’s founder, Rabbi David Hofstedter, is leading this movement. The son of Holocaust survivors, he knows how important resistance through faith is. Rabbi Hofstedter was raised by two devout Jewish parents who both survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Both originally from Hungary, the rabbi’s parents met after the war in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Surrounded by the deprivation, desperation and destruction of the war, they built a new family together, one governed by strong values.
When Hitler rose to power, he burned Jewish books. He tried to erase centuries of scholarship. And he nearly succeeded, but Dirshu has prompted a renaissance in Jewish education. Hitler killed 6 million Jews—family members we never got to meet, children who never grew up, and scholars whose ideas were lost with them. But Hitler was not able to kill our pride in Judaism or our commitment to our religion.
The siyum this past Sunday served as a reminder that we are thriving despite hatred, and that we will never be broken. It served as an opportune moment to transmit a message of strength to the world.
Dr. Joseph Frager is first vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.