by David Cohen, DIrector of Jewish Community Relations
Published in the October edition of "The Reflector"
The year ahead holds many challenges for Jewish community relations work. The rise in Antisemitism has us all legitimately concerned - as does the way Israel is now integrated into so much of what used to be called “traditional” hatred against Jews.
However, along with the work we do every day to stand up and speak out against these on-line and physical attacks, our outreach continues to discover friends, allies, and partners. When times seem so bad – it is often difficult to focus on the blessings we have all around us in the shape of friends and allies from the non-Jewish world.
In that spirit – and in the timeliness of a new year ahead - it seems appropriate to present a bit about what exactly the JCRC does to strengthen and enhance these relationships alongside what we do bring attention to the threats we face daily.
On the JCRC web page (www.jewishrichmond.org/JCRC) you will see the arenas in which we do this outreach and relationship building.
- We work in the space of Legislation and Government Affairs.
- We serve as a liaison between the Jewish community and our Public Schools and Universities.
- We also build bridges with representatives in other faith and cultural communities.
The issues we take up include the following:
- Eradicating Antisemitism and all forms of racism
- Supporting a strong, democratic, and peaceful Israel, as the homeland and nation-state of the Jewish people
- Spreading awareness of the lessons of the Holocaust
- Promoting religious freedom and the separation of church and state
- Ensuring the safety and security of Jewish agencies, organizations, and individuals in greater Richmond
- Protecting the most vulnerable among us
Over the past two years we have engaged in major legislative initiatives around Holocaust Education in our schools and a Virginia based non-profit security grant program.
We held major community wide programs dealing with Antisemitism.
In our program on Charlottesville, Taking White Supremacy to Court, we explored neo-Nazi Antisemitism and the universal racism of that day.
In our programs this summer, we asked our community to Stand Against Antisemitism and the Demonization of Israel.
Each one of these programs engaged non-Jewish legislators, officials, and community leaders who stood by our side.
Our work to help secure a more inclusive calendar for our public schools – which took place over the course of many years - resulted in many districts providing student holidays for Yom Kippur. We continue to work with all of our districts regularly on accommodations for the numerous other important Jewish holidays as well. And we are vigilant about the calls we get from parents about times when Jewish students and parents may not have felt something was handled with the religious sensitivity it deserved. And even in years like 2021 when Rosh Hashanah fell on the opening day of school for many districts – we advocated for an accommodation or student holiday there as well.
By working with our school leaders in advance – we can often solve what could have been a major problem or come up with accommodations that make sense. And as each school district continues to develop new curriculum to meet changing times – or undergoes regular evaluation of their Standards of Learning (SOL) – these same ongoing relationships are key and have garnered great understanding of our perspectives and concerns.
In sheer numbers, our programming over the past year has engaged over 1500 participants and has covered topics ranging from the Israeli elections to Medicare expenses for our elderly. We hosted our Governor, Speaker of the House, and Attorney General for our Advocacy Day programming. We hosted ten of our Central Virginia Senators and Delegates virtually for our annual Legislative Reception, and had many of those same legislators join Senator Tim Kaine, Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, and Congressman Bob Good for our summer program on Antisemitism.
We were joined by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer for one of his last community events before leaving his post. We had wonderful conversations with Haviv Rettig Gur from the Times of Israel, Minister Tehila Friedman, and author Yossi Klein Halevi on different aspects of Zionism and Israeli current affairs.
Each one of these programs and connections revolve around the challenges facing our community – but each also serves as an opportunity to share who we are with the community. Each relationship with a non-Jewish partner is one more circle of connection with someone who has committed to getting to know us and who has blessed us with the opportunity to get to know them. Through this work, we broaden our understanding of their needs and deepen their understanding of ours. And the multiple other connections we maintain – both old and new – even though they may not make their way into a full blown program or event - are of vital importance as well.
This is why every year should be an occasion to celebrate – just as it is also a time to be vigilant and hyper aware of very real threats. Every year is another opportunity to broaden our impact, to connect to more people, and to share more about who the Jewish community is and what we are all about. Every year is chance to make another ally who will see us in a new light – one different than they may have seen in the media or heard of from a friend. Every year is a chance for an ally to be an emissary for us in their own community – so others can hear from a known and trusted source the good work we do and the good people we are.