By Randy Tritell
Half a year after leaving my job as Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of International Affairs and embarking on a new phase of life misleadingly called “retirement,” I find my Jewish identity playing a central role in providing direction and meaning in a way I never would or could have anticipated.
Despite having two Jewish parents, my early connection to Judaism consisted mostly of holidays at homes of relatives and a perfunctory bar mitzvah to please grandparents. Having fled Germany in 1938 and losing half of his family in the Holocaust, my father spurned religion as a source of grief and division. My mother, an intellectually and culturally curious young woman, had fled an Orthodox upbringing that she found suffocating. As the lone Jew in my school on Long Island, I checked the “None” box on religious identification.
Contact with the Jewish world in college and beyond led me to explore and discover my Jewish heritage, from intellectual and ethical to musical and gastronomical. In parallel, I learned of the miracle of the rebirth of Israel as the eternal Jewish homeland, its critical role as a refuge, its vibrancy, and its existential fragility. My first trip as a kibbutz volunteer and tourist in 1974 sealed my attachment to the land and my heritage. My commitment to a Jewish life was cemented by meeting my wife, Harriet, and, upon returning to the Washington area, joining Temple Micah.
A friend’s suggestion led me to check out the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee in 2010, elevating my involvement with the Jewish community and culminating in my becoming president of the DC region. AJC’s agenda of fighting antisemitism and all bigotry at home and abroad, standing up against delegitimization and demonization of Israel while criticizing government policies when appropriate—and supporting democratic values and pluralism closely matched my own priorities. I was particularly attracted to AJC’s international focus, on bridge-building with faith and ethnic partners, and nonpartisanship. In the course of my work with AJC, I have met with numerous members of Congress to advocate, for example, supporting the Abraham Accords, enacting the NOHATE Act (improving reporting of hate crimes to the FBI), supporting humane immigration policy (harkening to AJC’s founding in 1906 to save refugees) and protecting voting rights (building on AJC’s work in the civil rights movement).
AJC also provides a platform for meetings with ambassadors to advocate, for example, designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and combating antisemitism. AJC works against discriminatory boycotts and double standards applied to Israel while advocating for equal treatment of all forms of Jewish worship and practice through the Jewish Religious Equality Coalition.
Locally, it has been rewarding to participate in building and strengthening partnerships through AJC’s Latino-Jewish Leadership Council, Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, and interfaith Community of Conscience, as well as with the Black community through the Greater Washington Urban League. And while it is hard not to be depressed by evidence of declining Jewish involvement and even identity among younger Jews as well as the often toxic climate on campus and social media, my spirits are lifted by seeing how AJC’s Leaders For Tomorrow (LFT) program empowers high school students to meet these challenges.
Not long ago, fighting antisemitism focused on Europe and elsewhere outside the United States. But sadly, AJC has had to combat a surge of antisemitic incidents and hate crimes including in the DC region. AJC works nationally with social media companies to fight online hate, and with DEI officers to recognize and oppose antisemitism.
Locally, our antisemitism task force has conducted training on identifying and combating antisemitism for the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, city and county governments, and religious and media organizations.
Most recently, we worked closely with mainstream Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council on a Montgomery County Council resolution against antisemitism that incorporates the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition, which has been embraced by dozens of governments (including the U.S.) and private sector entities. The resolution raised some sensitive and controversial issues, but we worked with council members and groups with disparate views to address concerns, leading to the council’s unanimous adoption of the resolution in December 2022.
I feel fortunate that the seeds of my Jewish heritage, left fallow for many years, have been nourished by my involvement in Jewish life. My engagement with AJC, locally and nationally, now constitutes a major part of my retirement, providing a crucial sense of purpose. Looking forward, I worry about the future of American Jewry, the security of Israel, and the health of American democracy. But, now decades into my Jewish journey, I derive deep satisfaction from having two sons dedicated to living proud Jewish lives, and I look forward to enriching the next phase of my life through deepening my Jewish learning, advocacy to advance the well-being of the Jewish people, and involvement in the Temple Micah community.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of the Vine.