By Carl Zebrowski
Five days after Hamas attacked Israel was both a terrible time and a perfect time for the top donors of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley to come together for the Major Gifts Dinner to kick off the 2024 Campaign for Jewish Needs.
“This was a sad week,” said veteran political journalist Jonathan Tobin, guest speaker for the event, “maybe the saddest of our lives.”
In one sense, that made it a good time for community members to gather, sit down and talk, and share a meal. As Robby Wax, Federation board president, said, “The pain that we’re suffering is too much to bear individually.”
It also was a good time for the donors to hear an expert speak about Israel and about the critical importance of Jewish Federations leading the response of American Jews to the crisis there.
Tobin, a longtime reporter and founder and editor in chief of the U.S.-based news service the Jewish News Syndicate, told the audience about how talk among American Jews after the attacks focused on whether their younger generations could respond to an embattled Israel as their elders had to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Jewish Federations have been considered “old-fashioned” for some time, Tobin said. Even Wax admitted that in his younger days, he wondered, “What do we need the Federation for?”
Tobin explained that Jewish America isn’t what it used to be. “We are more diverse and we are less religious,” he said. A lot of Jews don’t feel a kinship with Jewish institutions. “Most importantly,” he continued, “they lack a sense of ‘Jewish peoplehood.’”
Yet here were American Jews of all ages and backgrounds wondering how to respond to the current situation. Jews who do not personally remember the Holocaust, who do not personally remember the bygone wars, who do not know what it’s like to live in a world without a Jewish state were suddenly shaken from their ignorance of the past.
“I have to believe that there are a lot of people who just bumped into history,” Tobin said. “The vacation from history is officially over.”
He said that Federations need to lead the way in this crisis, as they have done many times in the past. “If Federations had gone away,” he said, “then tonight we would be meeting to reinvent Federations.”
And it’s not just about fundraising, he said. “It’s about building a community again. We need community more than at any time in our adult lifetimes.”
Some donors asked him what was the goal in Hamas attacking Israel on October 7, and what happens next? His immediate answer was short and simple: “It wants to destroy Israel and it wants to kill Jews.”
He also offered something a little more nuanced, after pointing out that President Joe Biden’s statements have been “pitch perfect” so far. “They believe this is politically good for them among Palestinians,” Tobin said. “They believe that at some point, Biden will tell Benjamin Netanyahu to stop. It’s up to Jewish Democrats to speak up. They have influence in this White House, unlike, say, the past White House.”
The military effort against Hamas must continue until the job is finished, Tobin told the donors. “The only way it ends is for them to be defeated and for them to be seen as defeated,” he said. “My dad was in the 8th Air Force. He bombed German cities to rubble. The only way Germany became a sane nation is because the Nazis were defeated.”
After Tobin finished answering questions, Wax concluded, “Talk about the right speaker at the right time.”
The last part of the evening’s program was major donors standing up to talk about the Federation and their personal reasons for donating to it, about Israel and to offer pledges for their own contributions to the 2024 campaign. A common theme among their pledges was to increase the amount of their 2023 donation, while giving a similar amount to the Federation’s Emergency Fund for Operation Sword of Iron, started to help Israeli families affected by the current crisis. Donors pointed out that while the emergency fund fills new urgent needs, the needs met by the annual campaign remain as essential as ever.
The night’s final words came from Vicki Wax, cochair of the 2024 campaign: “When this is over and Israel wins, and we know they will, we are all going to Israel!”