They called the annual American Jewish Committee (AJC) Murray Friedman Memorial Lecture April 24 “Speaking out for the Voiceless.”
And listening to keynote speaker Trudy Rubin, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, tell horrific tales of women in Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries who’ve been repeatedly raped, beaten and turned into sex slaves, it’s easy to get discouraged.
But the folks at AJC want everyone to know there’s an alternative.
“The message is that every individual can make a difference doing something now,” said AJC Philadelphia/ Southern New Jersey Regional Director Marcia Bronstein. “So whether it’s discussion at the dinner table or urging your pastor or rabbi to speak about it from the pulpit, getting everybody talking about this issue can make a difference in moving it further along.
“We don’t have to wait for anybody else. We can do it today.”
Bronstein wasn’t the only one who thought the diverse turnout at the event, which included not only Jews, but representatives of the Catholic and Ukrainian churches, is an indication that much of the world wants change.
“I really admire AJC gathering different parts of the community to speak up for those who are voiceless,” Ukrainian Archbishop Stefan Soroka said. “We need to draw more attention to those who are persecuted. It’s important for all of us to stand together and share that voice.”
It’s a voice made possible by Friedman, the longtime AJC director who died in 2005. An endowment was established in his honor for the lecture series.
“Murray was all about inclusiveness,” AJC Chairman Fred Strober said. “Getting groups together to find common ground and initiatives and have them work together over a long period.
“Murray was critical in creating dialogue between the Jewish and Catholic community and helping create the [Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations] at Saint Joseph’s University.”
Not only that, but it was Friedman who catalogued a staggering example of discrimination.
“In the 1960s, he did a survey of Jewish participation in business life in Philadelphia and remarkably found of the top 530 executive-level positions only three were filled by Jews,” revealed Strober. “And in 1966, this law firm had no Jewish lawyers.
“Today there’s almost half.”
While Friedman would’ve taken pleasure seeing such a broad scope of the Philadelphia community join forces for the event, it undoubtedly would’ve pained him to hear about the atrocities still going on throughout large parts of the world.
Part of the problem is that many of these stories have yet to be told.
“Our government has not made a major issue of it,” said AJC past President Leon Malmud. “Congress is concerned with many other issues, regardless of the administration, than people being murdered, raped, tortured, imprisoned and enslaved.
“We have enormous political and economic clout which can be used for the betterment of the world to reduce this mass murder. We have a moral clout which has not been exercised the last eight years.
“When there is a groundswell of opinion from the bottom up our elected officials will respond.”
Those who sat in disbelief listening to Rubin’s heartbreaking stories quickly came to realize that religious and gender persecution remains a powerful force in the world today.
“Today, we’re focusing on women, who seem to bear the brunt of lot of the problems going on and are treated pretty terribly,” said Len Grossman, chair of the Hillel at Temple University board of overseers. “We have brought together a diverse group of organizations who probably don’t agree on many of social issues, but they agree on this issue and are willing to come together and talk.”
After noting how Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have persecuted religious groups and systematically eliminated any form of dissent in the Ukraine, Soroka explained the value of the discussion.
“Today brings out very much the human story, the human suffering,” he said. “There are personal stories, and that kind of emphasis on the personal suffering that is occurring and gives them voice for that allows for public outcry.”
And for a Jewish organization like AJC to lead the way seems only right to Malmud.
“Why are we as Jews leading this discussion?” he asked. “First, on a very personal level, both my father and mother’s families lost members in the Holocaust, and I would not wish that experience on anyone else. Second, as a Jew, I believe we owe a debt of gratitude to those righteous gentiles who helped some Jews survive during the Holocaust, the majority of whom were Christian. They did so at the risk of their own lives.
“Third, as Jews we’re concerned about tikkun olam. Therefore, we’re concerned about this issue.”
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