PHOTO: Juju Chang addresses the crowd at Impact, hosted by The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland's Women''s Philanthropy Thursday, Nov. 16 at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. (Andie Petkus Photography for The Jewish Review)
By ROCKNE ROLL
The Jewish Review
While Thursday, Nov. 16’s Impact event, hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Women’s Philanthropy, was an evening of celebration and fun, there were certainly also serious topics to address.
The evening’s keynote speaker, ABC journalist Juju Chang, immediately pointed out the enormous spike in antisemitism that has been observed in recent years.
Part of the answer, she explained to the more than 220 people gathered at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, is, to build up Jewish communities.
“It’s what the Jewish Federation does, day in and day out,” she said.
It was a sentiment echoed by Federation Board Chair Mindy Zeitzer earlier in the evening.
“A strong local Jewish community helps us, support us and holds us together,” she said. “Together, we help those in need. We help those in need here, and those around the world.”
Attendees responded to that sentiment, with the event raising more than $166,000. Federation Chief Development Officer Wendy Kahn explained that donors from previous Impact events increased their contributions an average of 12 percent this year from previous events.
Some of those from around the world chimed in with their thanks. One was Carmi Tint of Dror Israel, an educational charity that is supporting children evacuated from the Gaza envelope. The Federation has contributed to Dror Israel’s work each year and has sent an additional $100,000 to support the organization’s wartime efforts.
“I just wanted to say thank you to the Portland community for helping us not only with our emergency time, but over more than 10 years,” Tint said.
Some of that work overseas can be seen much closer to home. Daria Levit is an Ukrainian refugee that the Federation brought to Portland and has supported as she and her family – including three cats - resettled in the area.
“We would like to say a huge thank you to Marc Blattner with the Jewish Federation, because he spent a huge amount of time trying to find the best way to fly with three cats,” Levit said. “Frankly speaking, we just could not believe that all the people from our Welcome Circle, the Jewish Federation and [Jewish Family & Child Service] would do such a great job.”
Roma Peyser of Transition Projects also spoke to how important the work of Women’s Philanthropy’s Dignity Grows project, which helps supply feminine hygiene products to those who can’t afford them. It has been an enormous help to Transition Project’s efforts to help those experiencing homelessness move to permanent housing.
“As an outreach worker, and a woman I relate to the importance of these packs,” she said.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Well, what is going on? What’s in the water? What’s in the air?’” Chang said of rising antisemitism. “And yet my rabbi keeps reminding me that the big picture is that we still live in a time and a place where Jews have never before enjoyed as much as freedom from discrimination throughout our history.”
Chang structured her talk like a Passover seder, centering on four questions: “One, why is my career in journalism perhaps different than other journalists? Two, how has my path to Judaism been different? Three, how is antisemitism perhaps different than other types of hate? And four, how can we make a difference?”
Chang discussed how her journalism was influenced by her experiences as a Korean immigrant, being bullied in school and watching her family suffer through discrimination.
“For the next 35 years, I have been drawn to stories about people who were voiceless, about people who were powerless.”
As for her journey to Judaism, she explained that she had told husband Neil Shapiro that she would not be converting, joking that she was not prepared for a headline in The New York Times reading “Juju Marries Jew.” But after 12 years together, Chang recalls turning to her husband one day and declaring her intention to become part of the Jewish people.
“I don’t want to do it for you. And I don’t want to do it for kids,” she recalled saying. “I really want to do it for me.”
Chang’s three sons are, as she likes to say, “50 percent Asian and 100 percent Jewish.” She observed the recent spike in antisemitism along with the hate speech and violence directed at Asian communities during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, to answer her third question.
“The short answer is, it’s not,” Chang said to how antisemitism is different from other forms of hate. “It’s exactly the same. It is based on ‘the other,’ it is based on ‘us versus them.’ It’s based on dehumanizing stereotypes that are just below the surface. When you activate that in times of crisis, people can turn to violence.”
Chang turned to address the Oct. 7 attacks head on, declaring the horror of Hamas’ attacks and the need for Israel’s military campaign to remove the threat of further terrorism while also addressing the need to remember the innocents caught up in the crossfire.
“As generals and historians have told us for millennia, war is brutal. War is tough,” Chang said. “And as it takes its toll on civilians, we all need to see the humanity of all innocent civilians, period, full stop, which is why it was so deeply offensive to so many in the Jewish community that after the terrorist attacks of October 7, some in the US were quick to dehumanize the Jewish victims, to victim blame a child who was killed kidnapped.”
Chang compared the common protest chant, “from the river to the sea,” to the Confederate flag as being facially a symbol of something innocuous enough but carrying a more insidious meaning that is unspoken but well understood.
What can be done? In addition to community building, Chang said it starts with education, noting the two-thirds of those in Generation Z that are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in The Holocaust.
“Ultimately, we’re not just fighting hate, we’re fighting ignorance,” she said.