Ideas Matter: How Tikvah is Aiming to Educate the Next Generation of Jewish Leaders
Eric Cohen, Tikvah Fund’s executive director, opened this year’s Jewish Leadership Conference on June 12 by saying, “Something strange happened on the way to the Museum of Jewish Heritage.”
He didn’t have to elaborate. Tikvah’s guests at Chelsea Piers knew he was referring to the fact that the museum, which had hosted numerous Tikvah events over the years, decided at the last minute to cancel the conference when the directors realized that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would be one of the 20 speakers. DeSantis, who is overseeing a Jewish renaissance in Florida, didn’t “align with the museum’s values and its message of inclusivity.”
Tikvah’s main mission is teaching young Jews about Jewish history. But the irony of the situation was completely lost on the directors of the museum, which had held numerous events for even anti-Israel politicians. As Cohen and Tikvah Chairman Elliott Abrams wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “[W]e know things are bad when a Jewish institution — in this case, a museum whose purpose is to keep Jewish heritage alive by remembering the Holocaust — turns on its own and tries to make a virtue of its own intolerance.”
Professor Ruth Wisse
(Photo by Sean Smith)
Not to be deterred, Tikvah moved the 5th annual conference to Chelsea Piers. Amidst heavy security, including a NYPD boat that circled the area, and several dozen protestors, more than 700 guests — two times the capacity of the museum’s auditorium — got to hear not only DeSantis, but Ruth Wisse, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and many other eminent speakers.
The protestors, holding signs like “DeSantis is a Tyrant,” shouted obscenities at people entering and leaving the conference. I asked a few of them if they knew what the law that DeSantis signed and has been intentionally misinterpreted to mean “Don’t say gay,” actually proscribed. They did not know. All they knew is that it had become trendy to call the governor homophobic so that’s what they were doing. As Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer pointed out later in the day: “Why don’t woke protestors ever focus on the fact that Iran hangs gay people from cranes?”
“We believe in the power of ideas to persuade and to have an effect in the world.” —Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver
The entire incident turned out to be a microcosm of today’s political world in general and the Jewish world in particular — and only strengthened the need for Tikvah and the conference. The protestors and slanted media coverage made it an all-day “safe space” for reason, bravery, and pride in Judaism. “We believe in the power of ideas to persuade and to have an effect in the world,” said Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver in his welcoming remarks.
He had been preceded by the singing of the American and Israeli national anthems, which had the effect of cleansing our minds from the toxic scene outside. And offering instead the sustenance of dignity and hope — tikvah.
Another path forward
“We will never step aside in silence when an institution entrusted with the sacred mission of Holocaust memory becomes a petty agent of cancel culture,” said Eric Cohen in his opening remarks. “We will not retreat in silence when a Jewish museum confuses the latest progressive pieties for real Jewish values.”
Eric Cohen told us about the idea of the 614th Jewish commandment, coined by Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim: “the obligation to sustain Jewish life into the future, lest we ever give Hitler a posthumous victory.”
Cohen told us about the idea of the 614th Jewish commandment, coined by Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim: “the obligation to sustain Jewish life into the future, lest we ever give Hitler a posthumous victory. His point was that we remember the tragedies of the Jewish past by building Jewish schools, advancing Jewish culture, creating Jewish neighborhoods, and defending the Jewish nation.”
Cohen elaborated on the four principles that guide Tikvah:
• The idea of “Jewish exceptionalism”: “The Jewish people best serve the larger cause of humanity when we defend, deepen, and perpetrate the Jewish way of life.”
• Conservative ideas are good for the Jewish people: “Judaism should never be reduced to a modern political platform because the core ideas and practices of Judaism run much deeper than politics alone. The Jew stands with eternity, not merely before the electorate. Yet certain ways of thinking about political life run with rather than against the grain of Jewish teaching and strengthen rather than undermine real Jewish interests.” These include religious freedom, school choice, tradition, and a strong, independent Jewish state.
• Jewish ideas are good for America: “Look around, and it is clear that America could use some Hebraic medicine for our postmodern disorders: the crisis of the family, the search for meaning, the loss of toughness — these are just the kinds of human problems that Abraham and Ruth, David and Esther, Joshua and Devorah address with divine wisdom. The icon of American freedom — the Liberty Bell — is inscribed with words from the Hebrew Bible. And the words themselves — ‘Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land’—come from the book of Leviticus: A reminder that liberty only endures when rooted in a moral foundation. The alternative to virtuous freedom is ‘wokism’: a pseudo-morality that destroys liberty in the name of liberation — and oppresses anyone who dares to dissent. The Torah is a better path to true freedom, and America needs to learn this lesson once again.”
• “Israel has emerged as the moral, political, and military lighthouse of the West.”
“That is why Tikvah’s core mission is education: Immersing talented students in the foundational ideas of Jewish, Zionist, and American civilization; challenging young Jews to see their incredible gifts as a great responsibility; connecting young Jews to opportunities as they advance from middle school to high school to college and beyond. Tikvah believes that the Jewish future will be won classroom by classroom, seminar by seminar, student by student.”
Nearly 100 student leaders and young professionals attended the conference, listening intently and taking notes.
A people, one people
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik was tasked with the eternal question: what leads to Jewish greatness? “At the core of greatness are two questions: Who am I and where am I going?” he told us. “At the core of Jewish greatness: Who are we and where are we going?” To answer the former, Rabbi Soloveichik used the words of Theodore Herzl: “We are a people, one people.”
“It is connection with the Jewish people that above all drives Jewish greatness,” said the rabbi. “Greatness and leadership begin with a feeling of oneness with fellow Jews.”
Second: “The constant crisis of our history was the crucible in which Jewish greatness was forged.” The rabbi quotes Abigail Adams’s famous letter to her son in 1780: “Great necessities call out great virtues.”
Finally, we must learn from the Jewish leaders that have come before us: “Exemplars of Jewish greatness show a path forward — where we are going and how we get there. History is a journey that is impacted by leadership.”
“Jews embody a miraculous tale unlike any other. Our great leaders from the past teach us it’s a privilege and wonder to be part of this people.”
Tikvah and the conference embody what I call rational conservatism — a conservatism based on the same founding principles as classical liberalism but tethered more to tradition.
Tikvah and the conference embody what I call rational conservatism — a conservatism based on the same founding principles as classical liberalism but tethered more to Judaic tradition. There was an implicit understanding that extremism and conspiracy theories are as dangerous for Jews as woke ideology.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik
(Photo by Sean Smith)
Yoram Hazony, author of the new book, “Conservatism: A Rediscovery” (Regnery Gateway), and Matthew Continetti, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, discussed how post-World War II classical liberalism/conservatism had lost its bearings, allowing “woke neo-Marxism,” which is blatantly anti-liberal, to advance so quickly.
“What makes America most distinctive? The founding principles and documents of the founding fathers,” said Continetti. Stripped of religious and family values, “the liberal order has lost its place as the Western way of life,” said Hazony.
The problem, both agreed, is that liberal freedom and equality of the individual expanded until it replaced the founding principles. “But the individual is part of a family, a tribe, a nation—not free of obligations,” said Hazony. “The family is a force of good, descended from Biblical tradition; that’s where ethical problems should be solved.”
“Communal liberty” needs to act as a deterrence for the excesses of individual liberty.
Later in the day, Amiad Cohen, director general of the Tikvah Fund in Israel, and Simcha Rothman, a member of the Knesset for the Religious Zionist Party, discussed the birth of a new Israeli conservatism.
“A new generation of Israeli conservatism — of Israeli leader — is rising. Israel is a conservative nation that never developed a conservative political movement. We can no longer rely on miracles. We need to become active protagonists in our own story,” said Cohen.
Lacking a constitution, said Rothman, Israel’s courts have engaged in counterproductive judicial activism. “We need this to survive the constant threat of annihilation, to maintain a Jewish democracy with Jewish majority, to be the light unto nations.”
Ideal of the Jewish father
Through the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Ruth Wisse tackled the lost notion of the heroism of Jewish fathers. “As long as Jews remained confident that the Torah is a tree of life to those who cling to it, they fashioned models of courage appropriate to their situation,” Wisse said. But as the Enlightenment began to take hold, the “designated leaders of Diaspora Jewry, many of them dedicated students of Torah, had to decide whether to continue judging the surrounding world by their standards or to start judging the Jews by ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’ standards.”
It took “nerve and resolution to remain a dedicated Jew,” Wisse told us. “Terms like ‘courage’ and ‘heroism’ signify more than just being a mensch. Although being a decent human being is hard enough, heroism means overcoming adversity.”
It took “nerve and resolution to remain a dedicated Jew,” she told us. “Terms like ‘courage’ and ‘heroism’ signify more than just being a mensch. Although being a decent human being is hard enough, heroism means overcoming adversity.”
By 1906, the U.S. was absorbing tens of thousands of Jews every year, mostly single young men. “Practiced in the arts of adaptation, Jews were the fastest among immigrant groups to give up their Yiddish language.” Parents just wanted their children to advance. “By the mid-twentieth century, we were in the Age of the American Jewish Son.”
It’s well past time, Wisse asserted, to return to seeing the Jewish father as the American Jewish hero. “Among Jews everything begins with the family.” We must return to honoring “the paternal image as anchor of our families and our people.”
But “very little in today’s America contributes to strengthening fatherhood and much works against it. It is not easy for young Jewish men in uncertain times to enter voluntarily into marriage with strong-willed Jewish women (are there any other kind)? The Jewish father is expected to provide for his family, to supervise the education of his children, and the more responsibly he does this the more he will be called upon to assume responsibility in other areas of life as well. Yet he who used to be compensated for his effort with a seat at the head of the table is now asked to apologize for that ‘privilege.’”
Paternal heroes “fight and inspire others to fight the most important of all wars — the war of ideas that begins for us at Sinai and continues through the American Constitution and beyond.”
Wisse noted that she was singling out the heroism of the American Jewish father “not to detract from other forms of courage, and other models of excellence, but because it has never been under greater assault … Who is the American Jewish hero? He is all around us — he needs only to be acclaimed.”
A second Munich
In separate sessions, Ambassador Dermer and former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo discussed foreign policy: the Abraham Accords, Iran, China.
Both agreed that the Accords would be expanded. “They will be expanded because they make sense,” said Pompeo. “But Muslim countries need confidence in an American leader to make that happen.” Ambassador Dermer said Saudi Arabia would be next. “The Gulf states are much more concerned with the threat of Iran than with the Palestinians. But the current U.S. policy of appeasing Iran and centralizing the Palestinian issue won’t push the Arab states to join the Accords.”
Dermer called the Iran deal signed in 2015 “a disaster—a second Munich,” referring to the Munich Agreement of 1938, which allowed Germany to annex Czechoslovakia. President Biden, said Dermer, needs to move away from “containing” nuclear Iran and back to “preventing” nuclear Iran. “This Iranian regime is ‘dead serious’ about trying to destroy Israel. But Iran does fear U.S. reprisal.”
Dermer also predicted that in the 21st century, Israel will be the most important ally of the U.S., in terms of security and technology. “We matter to America; we matter to American national security. American and Israeli interests completely align.”
Pompeo warned about the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party, which “has been at war with the U.S. for two decades.” The CCP is more difficult and complex than confronting Russia, because it’s already an internal threat—“they’ve already infiltrated our military and universities.”
“The American experiment—it never comes easy,” Pompeo said. “No longer believing in American or Israeli exceptionalism—in being a force for good—that’s also threat,” said Dermer, just as an NYPD security boat with the American flag sailed by.
The 2022 Herzl Prize for Jewish Leadership went to Tikvah Chairman Roger Hertog (previous recipients include Natan Sharansky, Norman Podhoretz, Ruth Wisse). Also announced was the creation of the Roger and Susan Hertog Scholarship Fund, created by a $1 million matching gift by the Hertogs, for one purpose: intensive educational programs for the most talented high school and college students in America and Israel.
“I was told to focus on a few things and do them well,” Herzog said, upon accepting the award. “Jewish education is the cornerstone of the Tikvah Fund, but leaders matter. And we are here to help build the next generation of Jewish and Zionist leaders.”
And then he cited some startling statistics from a Pew study:
• Only 4/10 Jewish American adults consider Judaism important;
• Only one-quarter have an attachment to Israel.
“The data is even more alarming for younger Jews. Our goal here is to reverse, to moderate, this trend. Only by investing in young Jewish men and women can we make this happen.
Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer also predicted that in the 21st century, Israel will be the most important ally of the U.S., in terms of security and technology.
In his luncheon address, Tikvah Chairman Elliott Abrams reiterated Herzog’s message: “Tikvah’s mission is to maintain the continuity of the Jewish people. To reach the best of the new generation, to teach them, and to conserve the greatest of their heritage as Jews and Americans.”
But perhaps it was Ambassador Dermer who crystallized the need to educate and build the next generation of Jewish leaders: “Herzl was a man with a plan. But he died at 44 in 1904. Imagine if he had been able to recreate Israel in the 1920s. The Holocaust would not have happened.”
“I saw that there was a little opposition to me coming here,” said DeSantis, the final speaker. “All I can tell you is this: When the left is having a spasm, that just tells you that in Florida we are winning.”
“We have enacted robust Holocaust education requirements and standards in Florida schools. We enacted a moment of silence required in every school so that students have the opportunity to reflect. We authorized United Hatzalah to be able to provide emergency services and they’re doing a great job in South Florida. In 2019, I led the largest trade mission in the history of the state of Florida, my first one as Governor, and that trade mission was to the state of Israel, and we’ve seen huge benefits from that trip. That’s a pretty good record.”
“Apparently, that’s the type of record that gets you banned from speaking at a Holocaust museum.”
“I’m not going to let some protests deter me from coming to speak in front of a lot of future voters in Florida,” he said, to rousing applause.
DeSantis spoke about the Parental Rights in Education bill, which he signed in March and is at the heart of the controversy. It bans teaching lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation to children in grades K–3.
“Every parent in the state of Florida has a right to send their kid to elementary school without having concepts like woke gender ideology jammed into their curriculum,” DeSantis said.
He also said that children should be able to go to school without teachers “transitioning their kids’ gender to a different gender, giving them a different name, having them wear different clothes without the parents’ knowledge and consent.”
“Parents have a fundamental role” in their kids’ education. There should be “curriculum transparency for parents,” emphasizing that students should focus on basic subjects like math, science, and history.
“We have said that the state of Florida is not going to be overrun by woke ideology. It’s just not going to happen,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s a cancer, I think it will destroy this country if it’s able to get more of a foothold than it already has.”
DeSantis also took issue with Critical Race Theory. “We are not distorting history to advance an ideological agenda. We are not going to teach our kids to hate our country,” he said. “When you stand up for the truth, people understand. Education is not trying to indoctrinate kids.”
DeSantis also singled out the legislation he signed in 2019 to “make sure that institutions like our state universities are treating anti-Semitism the same way they treat racism.”
“Leadership is about standing up for other people before you worry about yourself.”
On the way out, I was again accosted by a bunch of protestors who called me all sorts of names. One guy, who said he was Jewish and gay, realizing that shouting profanities at someone wearing a press badge may not be a good look, tried to calmly explain to me what was wrong with DeSantis. “I was bullied when I was in school,” he told me. I informed him that the law DeSantis signed had nothing to do with gay rights. He then took a different tack, telling me that DeSantis and Florida are antisemitic. I then listed for him all the good that DeSantis has done, and how the Jewish population there had grown exponentially.
But facts were of no interest to him. Without responding, he turned to the next guest and started shouting profanities. Coverage of the conference by left-leaning outlets was, to use a protestor word, “surreal.” If the law DeSantis signed was even mentioned, the words “some age groups” were used in place of kindergarten to third grade. Worse, some pieces made it sound as though speakers throughout the day voiced homophobic remarks.
There were zero homophobic remarks at the conference.
Ultimately, woke activists seem to have a need to make everything about them. Except Jews are never part of “them.” One sign read: “United Against Racism and Fascism.” It probably didn’t even occur to the protestor to add anti-Semitism.
But woke activists weren’t able to destroy this one conference, which was very much about Jewish pride in our own identity. It was a David vs. Goliath moment in the current culture war.
And David won.
Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine.