Schoke Jewish Family Service (JFS) in Stamford, Connecticut, is proud to announce its eighth Annual Saul Cohen-Schoke JFS Lecture on Thursday, November 17, at 7:30 p.m. at the Ferguson Library in Stamford. Barry Shrage, professor, Horenstein Program for Jewish Communal Leadership and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, will be the featured speaker. He will be speaking on the topic, “What Drives Us Apart and What Holds Us Together? Jewish Identity, Jewish Community and the Jewish People.”
In addition to being a faculty member at Brandeis University, Shrage served as president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) for 31 years. He is a passionate supporter of Jewish education and other programs to strengthen Jewish identity. Working with synagogues and day schools, he assisted in the creation of many initiatives, including Me’ah, an intensive Jewish adult education curriculum; a large-scale program to improve day school quality; and incentive grant programs to support Jewish overnight camp opportunities and boost day school enrollment.
Shrage’s community involvement included expansion and innovation in human services for the most vulnerable, including people with disabilities, the elderly, immigrants and refugees in the Boston area. CJP developed a large-scale program serving Jews who were living in poverty.
For Shrage, our direct relationship with Israel is key to the development of Jewish identity for the next generation. Accordingly, he helped to create the Boston-Haifa Connection, he embraced the power of Taglit-Birthright Israel, helped spearhead CJP’s Birthright Israel Campus Initiative and vastly expanded young adult programs aimed at helping them to understand and engage with Israel and become more committed and educated Jews.
Professor Shrage provided a preview of his lecture and discussed the challenges faced by American Jews in retaining their Jewish identity and how this connects with our relationship to Israel. He maintained that the Jewish identity of our children and grandchildren is deeply dependent on our sense of connection and love for the Jewish people and our relationship to Israel. Some question the connection of today’s young people to the Jewish state, but their participation in Birthright trips quickly dispels that concern.
Shrage explained, “Since its inception, Birthright has sent 700,000-plus young Jews to Israel and is by all measures, along with dozens of other immersive encounter programs, at the heart of our best strategies for bringing our two communities closer together.”
The empathy toward fellow Jews that will further cement feelings of Jewish identity within young people also depends on the connection to community and people-to-people partnership programs. For most Jews to connect “as Jews” to learning, religion, spirituality, culture or philosophy, there must exist a love for the Jewish people. In addition to an immersive experience in Israel, young Jews must connect to community needs, whether as professionals within the social services field or by volunteering in community centers or Federation programs, and within institutions created to assist those Jews in need of special services.
Shrage stated, “We can’t live and flourish without each other.” We need each other. The bonds that tie us together must be reinforced with thoughtful initiatives. Shrage added, “For my part, after 50 years serving the Jewish community, I remain an optimist with unshakable faith in the Jewish future. All that’s needed is a leap of empathy.”
The eighth Annual Saul Cohen-Schoke JFS Lecture is offered to the community by Mimi Cohen in honor of her husband, Saul Cohen, z”l, who passed away in March of 2019.
By Yvette Finkelstein