Nothing compares to a trip to Israel to help provide perspective on where you want to be now. So when I returned from a recent visit, I realized that the time was right for retirement. People’s inevitable response when I tell them this is, “so you’re moving there?”
No, I answer. I can do so much more for Israel and the Jewish people from here.
In Israel, middle- and high school-age children are not likely to tell you that their classmates draw swastikas on the bathrooms walls and make jokes such as “why don’t Jews like dolphins? Because they are scared when you say ‘a-dolph.’ ” (These are actual incidents that occurred in our region). Antisemitism is part of the Diaspora. It is spread by virulent groups on the left and the right, together with misinformation and demonization of Israel and Zionism.
In the three-and-a-half years that I have served as the executive director of StandWithUs Mid-Atlantic, I’m most surprised at the depth of this hatred. Especially as it appears in educational institutions. Middle-school, high school and college students are faced with having to battle anti-Israel/anti-Jewish agendas only to sometimes encounter resistance from teachers and administrators to take action.
How did this phenomenon happen? I never experienced this; neither did my children. But it has turbo-charged us into action, including the formation of StandWithUs in 2001.
I was lucky to join this organization that has so many mechanisms and tools already in place.
My phone rang almost nonstop with people who needed help. Many, despite their educational levels, had never experienced this kind of hatred and were lost on how to respond. Utilizing SWU resources, we gave real solutions to real people with real problems.
Their relief was palpable. I was especially gratified when callers were able to use the information and guidance we gave them to courageously tackle the problem on their own.
Sometimes, unfortunately, there are less satisfactory outcomes, and that was the most dismaying. For example, at Johns Hopkins University, a Teaching Assistant (TA) in the chemistry department tweeted a poll asking whether she should give Zionists lower grades. The StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department and Center for Combating Antisemitism wrote multiple letters to the administration, worked with partner groups and community members, and generated ample publicity. While the administration said it opened an investigation, it did not publicly condemn the TA’s actions.
But there is hope because of the dedication and creativity of our students and activists.
SWU has a college Emerson Fellowship and Kenneth Leventhal High School Internship. Both programs select and train student leaders from hundreds of schools on how to fight antisemitism and educate about Israel in their schools and communities. They work closely with our campus and high school regional managers.
Drexel University’s Emerson Fellow devised, “Spread Cheese, Not Hate.” If a student signed up to help fight antisemitism, they got a bagel and cream cheese. More than 300 students said YES!
In Baltimore, the Park School was implementing a series of reforms, including to its “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” initiatives due to pressure from a group that denounced Jews as “parasites,” “wealth-hoarding” and “Zionists.” Working with the Mid-Atlantic regional high school manager, the Leventhal Intern got the administration to agree to a school-wide assembly with SWU educator Hussein Aboubakr, who spoke about the real-world consequences of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. I’m so proud of this intern and the courage it took for a 16-year-old to stand up to this.
A supporter saw SWU’s meme about the Australian government rescinding its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was so outraged at the Australian government that he called me to take action. Together with activists on the ground in Australia, we took an ad in The Australian, the nation’s highest circulation newspaper. It reminded readers that “Jerusalem was the capital of Israel when Australia’s only inhabitants were the indigenous people of the land.”
SWU’s new Holocaust Education Center made a presentation to 200 eighth-graders at a predominately African-American charter school in Philadelphia. The lesson began in Namibia, where Germany carried out the 20th century’s first genocide, and also explained that Hitler targeted and murdered Black people even as he planned and executed the ethnic cleansing of the Jews in Europe.
Sitting at home, people toured Israel through SWU’s “Discover Israel” live and interactive tours. The Baltimore Zionist District partnered with us on five such trips, including a strategic tour of the border. Many synagogues in the Greater Philadelphia area also enjoyed being in Israel remotely.
I am proud of the SWU Mid-Atlantic gala this year, “Athletes Against Antisemitism.” In conversations with college coaches, I realized the reach and impact of collegiate athletes as “influencers” not only is influential at their schools, but continues when they leave to become professional athletes, business and/or community leaders. Getting them to realize the truth and beauty of Israel and pass that message to others is very powerful in battling antisemitism.
One person who really understands this is the gala’s keynote speaker, Bruce Pearl, head coach of the Auburn University men’s basketball program. He took the team to Israel not just to play ball but to learn about the country. I was thrilled that he made our event his first stop upon returning.
The gala was well-attended and memorable. The event’s panel discussion was moderated by former Philadelphia 76’ers play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff. Temple University’s Sasha Westrick explained that she quit the crew team and eventually left her university because, among other assaults, her teammate took a photo of her and posted it on Snapchat with the caption “I Hate Jews.” Her coach’s reaction to this antisemitic post was to disregard it and called it a “lie.”
How many more “lies” do we tolerate? It is incumbent upon us to know the issues and gain knowledge of how to best respond to them. I’ve learned that its important that each of us is actively engaged in finding solutions. Get to know your local school board members and elected officials. Utilize the resources of organizations including StandWithUs, sign their petitions and join their campaigns. Bring speakers to your communities and help educate.
Even in retirement, I won’t stop working on behalf of Israel and the Jewish community. Oh, and in my spare time, I am learning Hebrew.
Paula Joffe served as the StandWithUs Mid-Atlantic executive director until her retirement in 2022.