Susanna Lachs Adler
Board Chair, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia
Delivered at the Main Event, November 14, 2019
I hope you know how truly grateful I am to all of you for being part of our caring collective. Every year I look forward to the Main Event; this celebration of our unity, connectedness, and strength; this wonderful gathering of our Greater Philadelphia Jewish communities.
Trees have always been a powerful Jewish symbol — from the Garden of Eden and throughout our history. Trees grow tall and deep, both above ground and below, reaching upward with their branches toward the sky, and also deep down under the ground with their roots, they represent that which links heaven and earth. In Jewish tradition, trees are symbolic of the Tree of Life.
And what does our Tree of Life symbolize? The Talmud teaches us that the deeper and wider our roots grow through knowledge, the more firmly our Tree of Life is rooted into the earth, sustaining us, and the more branches it will grow. Those branches are our good deeds. And in that way, the Tree of Life sustains us all. The more roots, the more wisdom, the more branches, the more good deeds, and thus more life.
It’s a beautiful metaphor. Unfortunately, in the past year, the words “Tree of Life” have taken on another, darker meaning.
One year ago, a terrible tragedy had taken place in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Shabbat. The shooting at Tree of Life took 11 lives, and with it, shattered our collective community’s sense of safety. Since then we have been shaken by a sharp rise in anti-Semitism worldwide, a surge in white nationalism, and by still another shooting in an American synagogue, this one taking a life in Poway, California, and of course elsewhere around the world, most recently in Germany on Yom Kippur.
Right now, as I’m sure you are aware, there has been a dramatic increase in violence this week in our homeland of Israel, especially in our partnership region of Netivot and Sdot Negev. Hundreds of rockets were fired, our brothers and sisters remain vigilant and never far from a shelter. Our partner agencies on the ground including the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Trauma Coalition immediately mobilized and assisted those in need. And just this week, our own Jewish Federation allocated additional emergency funds for use in public bomb shelters in our partnership region. We are able to do this work so swiftly because of your support and for that we are grateful.
I am here today to say that these acts of violence will not become our new normal. We at the Jewish Federation have been working to keep our communities safe, so that every Jew and every family in our community, here in Philadelphia and in Israel, should feel free of worry as they live, learn, worship, eat, play and celebrate all of the good things in life as well as to share in the sorrows.
We are working every day to fight hate on many fronts through increased education on the Holocaust and preparing our college-bound teens with the knowledge and confidence they need to talk about Israel on campus, in the face of anti-Zionist activities, as part of a program called Prerequisite Israel. Together with our partners within the Jewish community, as well as our area’s interfaith communities, we work with government officials on more robust hate crimes legislation. We are spending more and more time and resources toward keeping all of our Jewish places safe by conducting security training, helping with building assessments and regularly connecting with national and local law enforcement.
Our Jewish Federation Director of Community Security has been working all year advising community agencies, day schools, day care and day camps, overnight camps and synagogues. And we continue to work with the national Jewish Federation’s Secure Communities Network as a means of fast, reliable and proactive information sharing.
Our philosophy is if we’re going to be ready for the community’s most urgent needs, we need to be ready the day before those needs arise. That’s what we do, in everything we do, bringing our A+ game all the time, and with such responsiveness and flexibility that we can pivot resources to wherever the need arises.
This is the most important truth that I want to share with you all tonight: We should not let being victims define us as a people. We need to not just survive, but to thrive. As the Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt says, we need to focus on the joys of being Jewish and not just the oys. Let’s put the joy back into the oy!
That philosophy applies not just toward safety but all our priority areas — serving vulnerable populations, inspiring community engagement and supporting Jewish life and learning – so that Jewish communities here, in Israel and around the world will continue to flourish. Our goal is for every Jew feel cared for and celebrated, for none to be in need, and for everyone to have the opportunity to connect to the rich culture and fulfillment that springs from our centuries of Jewish learning, values, wisdom, and traditions, represented by these Trees of Life.
We have done an amazing job of engaging the next generation of philanthropists in this effort and I want to give a special shout out to all of our NextGen members, our members of Young Leadership Cabinet, our Young Leadership Award winners, our first cohort of Legacy Philanthropy participants and our young members of JFRE. You guys rock and we are so lucky to have you as the future of our community. Thank you so much for making our future much brighter.
We will continue to learn more about what it takes to get through this moment in time, through a combination of security, speaking out, and our legendary resilience. I thank each of you again for being a part of this important conversation.