In the autumn of 1973, a ten-year-old Jewish boy entered the Israel Emergency Fund headquarters at 1511 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. “I’d like to go to Israel to help,” said the child to a volunteer tasked with collecting war relief funds after the Yom Kippur War, “but my mommy won’t let me go.” Instead, the boy brought his savings to donate to the emergency campaign, the amount dutifully sanctioned by his parents. A few days later, a retired synagogue school educator visited the Israel Emergency Fund offices and submitted a check, equal to a week’s pension. “The people of Israel are my responsibility,” said the teacher. Then she drew a message of compassion from the biblical story of Ruth: “I suffer with them, and I share with them, their fate is my fate, their survival is my survival.”
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. It’s occasioned by a new blockbuster film about Golda Meir, renewed questions about the political fate of the State of Israel, and disappointing decisions about anti-Israel speech on college campuses.
Perhaps lost in these important conversations is the impact of American Jews’ response to the surprise attack on Israel led by Egypt and Syria. It was not altogether intuitive that Jews in the United States would vigorously rally on behalf of Israel.
The Six-Day War had done much to cultivate Zionists, but it also alienated many who had interpreted Israel’s actions as somehow aligned, in sentiment, with America’s decision to enter the Vietnam War. However, communities united after the Yom Kippur War. Political and cultural fissures were cast aside for the sake of Jewish peoplehood and deep compassion for the vulnerable. The crisis and casualties wrought by the Yom Kippur War closed those divides, at least temporarily.
Emergencies and urgencies have a knack for animating people to respond with good. As a leader in the fields of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Antisemitism, and Education, Gratz College can observe an uptick in enrollment and overall interest based on the calamities reported in recent news cycles. Our students come to us inspired to make change.
The present political climate is not bereft of urgencies; but they do not, of course, rise to the level of the Yom Kippur War. While untethered from the same dire impulses, I look forward to this High Holy Day as a chance to be a self-starter and very intentional about my thoughts about compassion and peoplehood. It shouldn’t take a crisis to think about how we might accomplish a lot of good.
With best wishes for a meaningful new year,