By: Dr. Erica Brown and Jon Greenfield  | 

It’s Time to Do More

Over these past ten days, we have seen an outpouring of love and tears, learning and davening, from YU undergraduate students that has been breathtaking. Our students have filled buses and been to rallies. They’ve shown up. They’re singing, saying Tehillim, responding to tzedaka drives, organizing challah bakes and contacting Israeli friends and relatives. Our students are so committed to supporting Israel, that many have reported carrying the strain of this war vicariously in terms of their own mental health. Anxiety is high. Concentration and focus are low. Sleep is difficult. 

At the same time, YU students have a gift that perhaps was not fully appreciated until this war broke out. While students at other college campuses around the world feel themselves under siege for being Jewish or supporting Israel, our students can express their Jewish identities and observance fully and their Zionism freely and openly. Our students have also been giving support to college students who do not enjoy these freedoms on their respective campuses.

Our students need not cower, hide or feel ashamed by the provocations of others. They are not battling isolation or the silence of fellow students, professors or college presidents. They have a president and an administration that supports their deepest convictions. Our leadership has taken a strong public role in combating antisemitic and anti-Zionist sentiments on other campuses and has/is marshaling those who support Israel in higher education to come together in pride and solidarity. All of this is against a background of an American president who flew to Israel in the midst of war to show his commitment to the impermeable U.S.-Israel relationship.

This level of support and privilege should ideally give YU students the confidence and courage to be leaders among other university students in this fight. As President Berman has said repeatedly, we are all called in our own way to serve. And we must. However, as these days of war drag on and the hostage crisis deepens, we have noticed that while our students are deeply committed to religious activism, they are not yet fully committed to political activism. That involves campaigning, lobbying, voting and petitioning for political and social change. 

The inevitable response to this call for political action is “but, what difference can I make?” You will hear it from friends and classmates. You may even think this yourself. And yet, as history has shown, the answer is always “more than you think.” After all, one hundred years ago right here in New York, Jewish immigrant workers in the city’s garment factories — most in their teens and early twenties — took to the streets to successfully campaign for worker protections that would lay the groundwork for New Deal policies nationwide. It was student activists on college campuses that advanced the aims of the Civil Rights Movement and changed the course of the Vietnam War. More recently, it was your predecessors at Yeshiva University that helped lead the grassroots student organizing on behalf of Soviet Jewry.  

You have a unique opportunity to continue this great tradition of organizing. Yeshiva University is located in a city with a long history of community organizing and the greatest and most influential media market in the country, if not the world. What you chose to do here to advance the needs of our friends and family in Israel can and will reverberate around the country. Through coordinated and progressive action, you can indeed make a difference. 

Grassroots organizing is critical. We must bombard members of Congress with letters and call local political leaders to demand that hostages be free. We must make clear Hamas’s complete disregard for Geneva Convention policies against kidnapping civilians and abducting international children. We can’t only talk to ourselves. We must talk to those in positions of authority who can make a difference. Who better to understand the significance of the mitzva of pidyon shevuyim than our students? Have each of us done all we can to redeem the captives of this war?

Religious reactions to crisis often inspire feelings of unity and healing. In contradistinction, political activism focuses on the importance of justice and our outrage at injustice. Religious activism brings comfort. Political activism creates discomfort. Both are critical and necessary.

More than that, political activism is not separate from religious activism; it is an outgrowth of it, as is evident by the calls of Judaism’s first activists: Avraham, Miriam, Moshe and Esther. Our  long, long prophetic tradition of calling out injustice continues to our modern-day heroes who brought us the State of Israel in the first place. These heroes help us understand that true leadership requires personal sacrifice.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein makes this point about our Zionist commitment and leadership unambiguously. He argues that a key to Zionism lies in the status of each human being acting, “as initiator, as active agent, as one who makes historical processes happen and promotes the achievement of social and historical objectives. This, in fact,” he continues, “is the alpha and omega of all forms of Zionism.”  

We in the Diaspora must act and not leave it to anyone else, as Rabbi Lichtenstein continued: “Religious Zionism believes that, even under God’s providence, it is within the ability of man and of the nation to free themselves from the passivity that characterized the life of the individual and the community in the Diaspora.” With resounding simplicity, Rav Lichtenstein asks us to fulfill and protect the dream of our people: “Religious Zionism encourages man to lift his head with ambition, and to act accordingly.”

To the student who thinks that political activism makes no difference, we say loudly and clearly that it is often one of the only things that does. Our outcry must be loud and unceasing. It is what changed the historical landscape of this country and so much of the country we are praying for. We cannot let the families of more than 200 hostages fight this alone because we are their family also. And we will and we must do whatever it takes to bring them home. We must pray, and we must write. We must sing, and we must speak out. We must learn, and we must stand up publicly with conviction at this dark hour.

Dr. Erica Brown is a Vice Provost at YU and the Director of YU’s Sacks-Herenstein Center. Jon Greenfield is YU’s Assistant Vice President for Government Relations.


Photo Caption: Students should get more involved in political advocacy, argues the writers

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University