By Sharon Wisch-Ray
When BBYO held its annual International Convention in Dallas Feb. 16-20, combating antisemitism and the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel were top topics on the agenda for the more than 3,000 teens from around the world who attended.
The teens heard from several dignitaries including Douglas Emhoff, second gentleman of the United States; former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; and United States Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt.
At the opening ceremony Thursday evening, Feb. 16, Bennett and Emhoff were among the slate of speakers. Lipstadt spoke at the Friday morning plenary.
Doug Emhoff: Stand up and be proud
Douglas Emhoff shared some of his background growing up Jewish in New Jersey and how he has heard from many Jewish young people from around the country and around the world that it is hard sometimes to be young and Jewish. He reassured the teens gathered that the Biden administration has their backs.
“Our administration is working on a national plan to combat this horrible rise in antisemitism, but we need your help — each and every one of you — because you are the next generation of leaders. We need you in this fight,” he said.
Emhoff encouraged the teens to not stand by, but to stand up.
“Stay engaged, share your ideas. Use your voices. They’re loud. Speak out. Speak up. Be at that table. You belong at that table. Make sure you bring others to that table.
“I know it’s hard right now. But also know that we all take such pride in our Jewish identity. And we can’t let anyone stop us from celebrating who we are as Jews,” he said.
Emhoff shared that the first time he ever saw his own father cry was when his father was on hand to witness the affixing of a mezuzah on the vice president’s residence. He said his great-grandparents fled what is now Poland in the early 1900s. He believed they never would have imagined that their great-grandson would be working in the White House as the first Jewish spouse of an American president or vice president. “But, that is the story of our people. That is the story of America. And that is a story that you are all now continuing,” Emhoff told the gathering.
He concluded with a stirring message:
“If there’s one thing to take away from all this: Always live openly. Always live proudly. And always live loudly as Jews. Do not be afraid to be who you are. Live without fear.”
Naftali Bennett: We are here
Later in the opening program, Israel’s 13th prime minister, addressed the convention. The theme of Bennett’s speech: Hineni.
“It’s one word that encapsulates ‘I am here and I will act’ and the word is Hineni.”
Bennett said that Jews have invoked the spirit of Hineni throughout time, whether it was the Exodus, surviving the Holocaust or founding the state of Israel.
“Whenever someone is in distress across the world, we say Hineni,” the former prime minister said.
Like Emhoff earlier in the evening, he advised the group to always be proud of their Judaism.
“Sometimes it’s gonna be tough. Sometimes, some folks out there in college are going to attack you for loving Israel. What do you do if you see somebody like that? You stand up and you say, Hineni. I am here and I will act. It’s not enough to feel; it’s not enough to think. Feelings are nice, but it’s not enough. The Jewish way, the Israeli way, is to act. So I want to tell you, if ever anyone attacks you for loving Israel, or for being Jewish, you never apologize for being Jewish. We are always proud to be Jewish. We are proud to love the State of Israel and we will never apologize for that.”
Deborah Lipstadt: Stay on the offensive
On Friday morning, Deborah Lipstadt, special envoy to combat antisemitism, addressed the teens. She said it was important to learn the lessons from generations that came before them when it comes to combating antisemitism.
“All is not well,” Lipstadt said as she opened her remarks. She explained that Jewish institutions in the United States are now like the ones in Europe, heavily guarded.
“Whether it’s a synagogue, whether it’s a JCC, whether it’s a Jewish school, that’s the story here in the United States today,” she said.
Lipstadt said it is not uncommon in the United States today for people to feel less at home, less safe when wearing a Star of David or kippah.
“When we see leading entertainers on leading shows, or singers with millions of followers far more than there are Jews in the world, making cracks about Jews, it seeps down. It is normalized. It spreads,” she said.
Lipstadt echoed the sentiments of Emhoff and Bennett.
“Speak up. Speak up. Speak out,” she said. “… Let your voice be heard. The only way we will stop it is to make it unacceptable.”
Lipstadt also pointed out that jokes aren’t funny regardless of whom they are pointed toward.
“Jokes hurt. There’s no such thing as just the joke when it has to do with hatred and prejudice,” she said.
Lipstadt concluded by saying, “Even as you speak out, even as you fight the scourge of antisemitism, rejoice in who you are as Jews. You are the bearers of one of the oldest continuous traditions and faith cultures in the world…. Speak out against hate. Rejoice in who you are as Jews. And together in the words of the psalm, we will go from the strength of 3,200 to even greater strength in the future.”