The deluge of bomb threats against Jewish community centers across North America in recent weeks has caused some parents to opt for alternative early childhood programs, according to the president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman.
“As a parent, if you hear that your child has been evacuated from the school, obviously there is a fear factor involved and we have heard of some parents who have chosen other early childhood programs as a direct result,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, a day after 15 more bomb threats were made.
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“Yet, we have a strong message of resiliency and a strong message of strength for many of our constituents where they follow the method and protocols of what you do in a certain instance of any type of threat. The institutions and JCCs do it with excellence, and it’s business as usual in many cases,” Silverman, who will speak at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on May 7, stressed.
While some have pointed fingers at US President Donald Trump, alleging that he and his supporters have emboldened antisemites, Silverman refuses to partake in any blame game.
“The [antisemitic] environment, I believe, is something that is years in the making. Things tend to move from Europe, as BDS did, into America and I think the commitment and priority that has been given to our federal and local officials, that this is a very high priority, is what it’s about,” he said. “I think anyone pointing fingers… that’s not taking the right direction.”
Rather, he said, the focus should be on action taken in response to these incidents.
“We feel very good about the support we are getting from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and all the law enforcement departments,” Silverman emphasized.
He also expressed gratitude for voices of support emanating from Israel. In the past several weeks, Israeli leaders have increasingly spoken out against antisemitism in the US after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had faced some criticism for not commenting publicly on the matter.
While some political pundits have declared Israel a partisan issue in the US – with Republicans expressing stronger support for Israel and Democrats showing more sympathy for the Palestinians – Silverman disagrees with assessments of this kind.
“I think there is a strong bipartisan approach across the board still, and I hear it from various parts of the aisle. I think there is strong commitment to our ally in the Middle East,” he maintained.
Silverman is, however, concerned by the growing distance between Israel and US Jews over issues of religious pluralism, the unimplemented deal for an egalitarian section at the Western Wall being a symbol of that friction.
“I think that when you have ministers or varying haredi [ultra-Orthodox] leaders expressing lashon hara [derogatory speech] against Reform Jews or Conservative Jews, when there’s a resolution that’s approved by the government on the Kotel – that because of the haredi parties not wanting any change in the status quo [they] have stopped it – it does create challenges and questions,” he reflected, adding that strongly pro-Israel Reform and Conservative rabbis are struggling with these issues of policy and of politics.
Silverman said that while he does not believe the relationship between Israel and US Jews has been seriously damaged due to these issues, he is “fearful that if this trend continues we could see some erosion.”
He enthusiastically backs Netanyahu’s recent appointment of Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to coordinate efforts for a resolution over the Western Wall issue.
Turning to US Jewry amid talk of assimilation and dilution of Jewish identity, Silverman remains optimistic.
“I am concerned, but I look at the positives,” he said, referring to the 45,000 young adults going on Birthright trips to Israel this year, in addition to the 550,000 who have already participated in the program, the 13,000 participants of long-term MASA programs in Israel and 4,000 students signed up for internships in Israel this summer, as well as some 6,000 high school students participating in Israel-based programs.
Stressing the importance of these initiatives in enhancing Jewish identity, Silverman draws hope from these numbers.
“Yes, I’m concerned about people’s Jewish education and their Jewish identity as it evolves and if we do nothing it could be a problem. But the fact is we’re not doing nothing, we’re doing things that are hitting critical mass and I truly believe will make a difference over the next decade and we will continue to do these things and we will continue to add to them,” he asserted, adding that he does not believe the current climate in the US is hindering those efforts.
Pointing to a host of other Jewish identity programs which are gaining strength across the US, Silverman said he is “cautiously optimistic that the momentum will shift with the data in the next decade.”
For Silverman, engaging the next generation in Jewish life is the most important challenge and responsibility of US Jewish leaders: “To make sure our children and grandchildren have a Jewish understanding and background – however they practice – that they connect to and understand their Jewish identity. Engaging them is the biggest challenge and that’s why we put so much effort and investment in that.”