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Everyday Heroes: Drew Dudley 

June 29, 2020

By Hayley Nagelberg

Our Jewish world is influenced by the collective experiences of our ancestors. Understanding the history of anti-Semitism helps us to strive for a better future. And yet, this rear-facing lens of negativity has left many Jews in a state of near-panic. The data that show that anti-Semitism is at a height not seen in decades is justified. But our reaction to this information is not.

My perspective on anti-Semitism is not the result of my looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. In college, I was an extremely active member of the Jewish community at the University of Illinois (“UIUC”). While there, swastikas were spraypainted on campus buildings, the words “I hate Jews” were carved on a campus door, and the words “No room for Zionists at UIUC” were posted online – among other acts of anti-Semitism. And, as I prepare to draft into the Israeli Defense Forces as a Lone Soldier, I am acutely aware of the threats facing Israel and the Jewish community. Nevertheless, my life at college was not defined by anti-Semitism; it was defined by the outpouring of positive Jewish and pro-Israel activism. Likewise, my service in the IDF is motivated by my genuine love for Israel.

At college, I frequently gave tours of the Hillel building to prospective students and their families. I would describe in detail the robust pro-Israel programming, Hebrew speaking opportunities, Torah text study, Jewish cooking lessons, travel to Jewish communities across the globe and so much more. Inevitably, one of the parents would follow up with the question, “But is it safe here – to be a Jew?” I understood the reason for this question. However, my answer to this question, like my response in the context of this broader anti-Semitism discussion, is that if we are hyper-focused on negative moments, we will miss the extraordinary displays of Jewish and Zionist leadership that are truly the hallmark of our lived experience.

Leadership is often characterized by strong individuals who overcome tremendous odds. People who live up to this ideal include former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, civil rights leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Eli Cohen, the spy who infiltrated all levels of Syrian society and transmitted information back to Israel. The values of wisdom, courage and integrity embodied by these leaders certainly educate and inspire others. Their stories are important to learn and teach, but their monumental actions are not replicable by all. And for many, these exceptional achievements may seem too far beyond their reach to even consider taking a first step.

In 2010, Drew Dudley presented at TEDxToronto a speech he titled, “Leading with Lollipops.” Dudley’s speech explored the idea that we have turned the very notion of leadership into something far more enormous and elusive than it merits. He stated, “… I worry sometimes that we spend so much time celebrating amazing things that hardly anybody can do that we’ve convinced ourselves those are the only things worth celebrating, and we start to devalue the things that we can do every day…”

Leadership does not necessarily require taking enormous risk or overcoming insurmountable odds. To be a Jewish leader, and to develop future Jewish leaders, we must recognize that visible and vocal pride in Jewish identity is one of the most fundamental elements that inspires others. In order to lay a foundation for the future, we should focus now on everyday heroes. Their contributions, grounded in Jewish pride and Jewish values, counter the anti-Semitism that is so prevalent in the news.

Some contributions may seem small but their impact is outsized. As a Hebrew and religious school teacher while in college, I witnessed young students earnestly preparing and packaging meals for the homeless. Not only were these students learning the Jewish values of treating others with kindness, and helping to repair the world, but they were learning these lessons surrounded by Jewish friends, teachers and mentors who were instilling in them an unmatched pride in their Jewish identity.

Some projects may be motivated by turning pain into purpose. At the University of Pittsburgh, Hillel students marked the passing of a full year since the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue with an event called “11 Days of Chesed” focused on bettering their local community through service and good deeds. These students learned and applied Jewish values of human dignity, social justice, and compassion.

Other heroic and outstanding acts capitalize on skills and resources we can share. Throughout southern Israel, bomb shelters are painted by graffiti artists to bring light and positivity into a dark reality. Other people ensure that toys and books are gifted to the children living in these same hard-hit communities. These modern applications of Hiddur Mitzvah and kavanah are done with kindness and sincerity.

Instead of releasing reports such as “Heartbreaking Quotes from #Jewish Students in 2018,” we should list reports of heartwarming stories around the globe of coexistence projects and environmental justice days spearheaded by members of the Jewish community. These are Jewish values in action. They are everywhere to be found, they can be replicated and they can change the conversation. Instead of publicizing the “40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students,” we should publicize the students who stand up against hate on their campuses, or the individual workers of IsraAID and Save A Child’s Heart repairing communities around the world after natural disasters and giving a fresh start at life to children in need.

The Jewish community must heed the lesson of Drew Dudley’s TED Talk promptly. While we are inspired by larger-than-life leaders, we must also turn our attention to the everyday heroes around us. We must focus on the acts of light that shine from members of Jewish communities around the world, and spend less energy repeating negative stories that only add power and press to our detractors. In so doing, we can draw strength from each other and encourage far more voices to join in so that we may truly educate and inspire people to stand up to anti-Semitism.

Hayley Nagelberg is graduate of the University of Illinois, where she was an Israel activist. Her piece, “Everyday Heroes”, was selected as a winner of the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement’s Natan Sharansky Advocacy Award.