By Sharon Wisch-Ray
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff listened to concerns from several BBYO teen leaders in a closed-door session Thursday, Feb. 16. The teens shared their experiences with antisemitism and how they have mobilized in their own communities to fight it.
Joshua Danziger, a junior at Emery Weiner, a Jewish day school in Houston, moderated the session and introduced Emhoff to those gathered.
Members of the press were in attendance only during Emhoff’s opening remarks; the TJP spoke with teen participants after the session.
In his opening remarks Emhoff explained that he had been traveling the country meeting with college students and learning about their experiences. In addition, he and Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt recently returned from a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Having an open, safe space to be able to talk but also to be openly Jewish and to be proud of being Jewish … that’s really one of the messages that I have been talking about,” said Emhoff.
He added that the Biden administration is working on a comprehensive plan to combat antisemitism.
Ultimately, he said that antisemitism and hate speech “need to be called out each and every time.”
Danziger, who on Friday was awarded BBYO’s Stand Up Award for his work establishing the Jewish Security Alliance in Houston, shared his story following the session. He said he told the second gentleman that when he learned of the hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel Jan. 15, 2022, in Colleyville, he was sitting in his own synagogue.
“Chills ran down my back for a couple of reasons,” Danziger said. First, he said, was that he knew Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker from spending summers at URJ Greene Family Camp. He also knew some parents who had gone to high school with Rabbi Charlie.
“It became evident to me that moment, the rising rates of antisemitism in the United States have the capacity to affect not only my community, but my friends, myself and my synagogue. It also became evident to me that I had to do what I could to step up and fight antisemitism, like many of my peers who were on the panel,” Danziger said.
Danziger attributed the positive outcome in Colleyville — all the hostages escaping unharmed — to the training Rabbi Charlie and others who were being held received.
“I figured that if it worked there, we needed to bring that training to my peers, my friends, to my direct teen community in Houston.” He formed the Jewish Security Alliance to prepare Jewish teens in active threat response and antisemitism response and preparation.
So far, Danziger and his group, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Houston and its security director, have trained more than 100 teens combined in active shooter training, countering active threat training and Stop the Bleed training.
Danziger said that what struck him most in putting the trainings together was the diversity of the participants.
“We had 100 teens representing eight local public and private schools, six synagogues and many of those teens were on the leadership boards of 13 different Jewish youth organizations.”
Danziger said the goal was for those teens to take what they learned back to their peers.
Danziger explained that one thing he learned from talking to the second gentleman and to Lipstadt on Friday was that solving the symptoms of antisemitism, for example being prepared, was easier than changing its underpinnings.
“Changing the culture is much, much, much harder than solving defensive security. You can train people, you can prepare people, you could add more security guards, but it’s only gonna get worse,” Danziger said.
Danziger, who moderated all the panelists, said that he thought the event was successful in helping the second gentleman understand teens’ perspectives on antisemitism.
“What struck me most was that the second gentleman was going to go home that day, and speak to his wife and talk about the different stories that we shared with him. And I think that he really has the power to make a lot of change in the high chambers of government,” Danziger said.
Plano resident Josh Rajunov, who served as AZA International shaliach for 2022, said that some of the stories that the panelists shared about their experiences with antisemitism shock him every time he hears them. He said Emhoff was empathetic to the pain his peers were sharing. “The second gentleman is an amazing person to have as an ally. It’s so important to have someone with that much power — that much say — to be so strong against antisemitism.”
Later in the evening, Emhoff served as one of the keynote speakers at the convention’s opening ceremony.