A week is a long time in the Jewish world, despite 4,000 years of history, and last week felt longer than usual. Just a few miles from my office and home, an unspeakable tragedy occurred in a small kosher minimarket and local cemetery in Jersey City. Assailants, fueled by an age-old hate, murdered a police officer along with three innocent civilians. Two of the victims were Jewish.
It is believed that their ultimate target was the yeshivah next-door which is home to 50 young children. In watching the tragedy unfold in Jersey City, I couldn’t help but recall the memory of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, a passionate supporter of Jewish National Fund, who was tragically gunned down earlier this year by a long gunman and avowed white supremacist during synagogue services at Chabad of Poway near San Diego.
Our people’s history is a story of stark contrast. At the same time I saw the news about the tragedy in Jersey City, I received an alert about a new breakthrough in pancreatic-cancer treatment made by Israeli scientists. Take a moment to reflect on that. While bigoted gunmen whose incomprehensible hatred for Jews led them to snuff out the lives of innocent human beings, the Jewish people were working on a breakthrough treatment to save the lives of millions. Even in these dark times, let us remember that the sanctity of human life is a fundamental pillar of our people’s law and is central to our Jewish values.
Yes, a week is a longtime in the Jewish world.
Last week, I was in Philadelphia at our Jewish National Fund Tree of Life dinner honoring communal activist and refusenik Marina Furman. Her story is the very definition of choosing life over darkness and activism over complacency. Marina’s zest for life is infectious, and her passion for the land and people of Israel is boundless. Yet this unassuming 5-foot-4 woman stood up to the tyrants of the Soviet Union and put her life—and that of her family’s—on the line to enable her and her fellow Jews escape to Israel and freedom. She is one of the strongest women I know and a powerful reminder of our people’s unyielding desire to live.
In the face of adversity, we have shown that we are resilient, and there are few places where this is more evident than in the communities living in the Gaza Envelope. Despite the constant threat of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, Israelis in these border communities continue to live, survive and thrive. Families aren’t leaving these communities; they are moving into them. When I met with residents living in the Gaza Envelope on a recent Jewish National Fund mission, they described life there as 99 percent heaven and 1 percent hell.
Despite the challenges, they have the most positive outlook on life. In partnering with these people, we have built and are building trauma centers, schools, indoor playgrounds, parks, sports centers, medical facilities and housing sites because they are our family, and we, like them, aren’t going anywhere.
Even when the news seems bleak, I am reminded that our people’s best days are ahead of us, which is no more evident than in the smiles and enthusiasm of the teenagers at Jewish National Fund’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel. At Muss, teenagers from America and around the world are learning about our people’s captivating history. They learn about leadership, Jewish and human values, social justice and Israel, all while preparing themselves to get into the college of their choice. While Jewish National Fund’s philanthropic investments are changing lives, it will be up to our children to continue our legacy in support of the land and people of Israel, and our Jewish communities everywhere.
They say the Jewish people are like a hardboiled egg—the longer you boil it, the tougher it gets. Let us use the blessed memories of those who perished at the hands of evil to rededicate our efforts as emissaries of life and living, so we may continue to make this world a better a place for all of humankind.
Because that is the Jewish way.
For those celebrating Hanukkah, when you light the candles this year, look at the flame, remember those we lost, and then see Marina the refusenik, see the Israeli medical researchers curing cancer and see the teenagers at Muss looking up at the stars while learning about 4,000 years of Jewish history in a land called Israel, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.
Russell F. Robinson is CEO of the Jewish National Fund-USA.