by Cindy Saltzman
“When Jews are united, when Jews are able to empower themselves and fill their purpose, we succeed. We are the variable that changes the outcome of our situation.”
RUDY ROCHMAN WANTS TO BRING JEWS all over the world together. To simply call him a pro-Israel activist undermines the heroic work he undertakes. His bold mission to combat global antisemitism, to empower students on college campuses, and his unwavering commitment to tell the true story of the Jewish people, make him a force to be reckoned with. In a time of Israeli separatism, internal political divide, and rampant antisemitism, Rudy Rochman wants to empower every single Jew to own, understand, and affirm their Jewish identity.
Cindy: You are often referred to as an Israeli- Jewish rights activist, is that how you would define yourself?
Rudy: Yes. I see a difference between an activist and an advocate. A lot of people talk about Israeli advocacy. And when I look at advocates and what they do, which are important things, they’re usually more focused on supporting a cause. Like a fan of a sports team rather than a player on the field. An activist is someone who understands the current problems and how they fit into the context of the Jewish people: What are the problems that we face? What is the next chapter of Jewish history? How are we trying to move forward? How are we trying to create coalitions? How are we trying to raise the younger generation? And, how are we trying to find a mission statement that allows us to move forward? That’s more of the mindset of an activist, I think.
Cindy: What problems do you see facing the Jewish people today?
Rudy: I see five major problems facing the Jewish people. The first is antisemitism, the constant movement against the Jewish people that has existed within the extremes of every society, throughout history. The second thing is a lack of identity for a lot of the younger generation of Jews. There is a lack of empowerment, not knowing how to stand up and be ourselves, and learning to practice Judaism rather than to put Judaism into practice. Praying behind closed doors rather than putting into practice the things that we’re praying about. The third is a lack of a mission statement. There’s no conversation or direction for the next generation. Previous generations had a mission to come to Israel, to liberate Jerusalem, and everyone was united behind that goal. What’s the next chapter of that conversation-? We need to figure out where we’re going. If we don’t know where we’re going, we’re not going anywhere. The fourth is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of Jews and Palestinians being completely divided and seeing this reality as a zero-sum game. There’s no reality where Israelis or Palestinians will disappear. If our mission as a Jewish people is to do tikkun olam-to heal the world, and to empower and enlighten other nations, that definitely starts with fixing our own home with our own cousins first. A lot of people look at the issue of the Palestinian conflict as it’s either us or them. But the reality is that today we do have the power and thus the responsibility to change this. If this is our land and our home, we have a responsibility to fix this land and home. In the Palestinian society, they don’t have the power. They don’t have freedom of speech. They don’t have the ability to speak up and, to add to the issue, they’re going through a lot of brainwashing growing up. And lastly, the fifth issue concerns the Tribes of Israel being displaced to the four corners of the earth. There are so many members of our “family” that are disconnected from us and still suffering in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Everyone has heard of the Lost Tribe’s concept from a historical level. We know they exist. On a spiritual level, we talk about them three times a day in the Amidah, that they need to come home. If the situation was reversed, that we were the ones suffering and dispersed, wouldn’t we expect them to come for us? In order to do that, we have to shift the consciousness of the next generation and to understand who we are. It is difficult to do a puzzle with so many pieces missing. Bringing home the Lost Tribes gives us the missing pieces which helps the greater collective that we’re meant to be. And in so doing, we become stronger through that collective identity.
Cindy: Talk to me about your documentary, We Were Never Lost.
Rudy: We Were Never Lost is a tool to bring awareness of the Lost Tribes. Season one takes place in Africa. This past year we were in Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Madagascar. On our way to visit the local Jewish community in Nigeria, the Igbos, we were arrested and imprisoned. The government is very much against the local Jewish community. So by association, they saw us as enemies.
Cindy: I like how you just like skipped over the part when you were in prison. Were you aware of how many thousands of people were behind you, how much activism was going on to try to get all of you out?
Rudy: We had no idea of anything. We didn’t have our phones. We didn’t know if people knew. We had no connection, understanding, or awareness for three weeks. We were completely disconnected. It was really beautiful to come out and to see how much effort was made on our behalf. On the other hand, our mission was to tell their story, not to become the story.
Cindy: What kept you and your colleagues going? Did you ever lose hope that you wouldn’t be freed?
Rudy: We were kidnapped on our third day in Nigeria. We didn’t know when it would end. We had no idea if it would be days, weeks, months, or years. But we definitely knew we would get out of there. We went through a very harsh experience, especially in the last two weeks when we were jailed with Boko Haram terrorists. But what we went through is a small drop compared to what the Igbos have experienced. It was definitely not easy, but at no point did we lose hope. And there were constant miracles happening in front of our eyes that kind of kept us going.
Cindy: Can you give me an example?
Rudy: When we were taken to prison, they took everything away from us except my tefillin. They didn’t even open my tefillin case. It could have been a gun or a knife for all they knew.
One day, we (Noam, Eduard, and Rudy) heard that a protest was being planned and Noam suggested that we should participate wearing our tefillin. On the back of the Shema Yisrael packet we had received from Chabad, it said that it is written in the Talmud, that when you wear tefillin in times of war, it strikes fear in the hearts of your enemy. So, we did just that and we saw how frightened they became. Another miracle occurred when we were taken into interrogation. There was this long hallway of hundreds of rooms where all of these different people were being interrogated. They would always bring us to the same room, room number 18. And for the Jewish people,18 is a very powerful number: Chai-Life. The room right across from us was room number 26, which is also a very powerful number for the Jewish people, which represents Hashem-G-d. But I still wasn’t understanding yet that out of hundreds of rooms, the two room numbers connected to us were the two most important numbers for the Jewish people. I kept wondering what was trying to be communicated here? 26 is Hashem-G-d, and 18 is life. Then one day as I’m walking down the hall and looking at the doorknobs, I saw Hebrew writing on each door. Ironically, an Israeli company, named Magen (which means shield or protect) had sold them the doors. And then it dawned on me: HaShem (26), is protecting (Magen) your Life (18) HaShem is protecting your life. There was a reason why we were there; we had to stay strong and we would be able to overcome. There were constant little miracles like that. That’s also a mindset that I’ve always had my whole life for whatever situation.
Cindy: What do you feel is the largest threat to Jewish life in the United States and in Europe today?
Rudy: If we look at Jewish history, every single genocide, massacre, pogrom, inquisition, Holocaust, has happened when we were divided. Even before the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temple, the Jewish people were divided. And to the contrary, when we look at the opposite, when Jews are united, and empowered, when they know who they are, and are fulfilling their purpose, we overcome. Every single challenge we have faced, when powerful nations came to destroy us, miracles happen, and we survive. Many say that the creation of the State of Israel was a miracle. But the miracle only happens when this equation happens; when Jews are united. When Jews are able to empower themselves and fill their purpose, we succeed. We are the variable that changes the outcome of our situation. Clearly, Jews are not the only minority that have faced hatred. It’s usually one group against another group, not all groups. What is unique to the Jewish people though, is that the extreme of every hate group believes that we are the problem. But It’s not something we’re doing. We’re not making these problems. So I started thinking maybe it’s something that we’re not doing. And what are we supposed to do in this world that we’re not doing? What is our mission statement? Tikkun Olam/Repairing the world, and being a Light unto other Nations has been our mission statement, our purpose for thousands of years. We can use the analogy of the immune system in the human body. The immune system’s responsibility is to heal the body and to empower the other organs to function. If the immune system does not work right, the body becomes sick and all the other organs blame the immune system for the diseases. It’s not because the immune system created the disease. But rather, because subconsciously, the organs recognize that it was the immune system’s responsibility to prevent it. In my opinion, that is why these different groups throughout history conclude that we are the problem. Because deep down inside of them they recognized that we had a responsibility to prevent these problems from happening and we did not. So now we’re being blamed for them. And that’s something that many Jews are not yet ready to hear because we’re too comfortable, we’re too traumatized, and we’re too victimized. And we think that the way to succeed is by getting the rest of the world to save us. It’s also a process of decolonization. We’ve been through mental, psychological, spiritual, and physical colonization for 2000 years and we need to undo those things and figure out who we really are and figure out as a generation where and how we move forward. The problem is that we’re not even conscious of what our responsibility and abilities are. These things are happening, not caused by us, but could potentially be prevented by us. For thousands of years, our ancestors have been saying our responsibility is to heal this world and to enlighten and free the other nations from whatever slavery, mentally or physically, that they’re living in. So that’s our goal and our responsibility.
Cindy: How do you make this relevant today, especially for students facing antisemitism on college campuses?
Rudy: It’s still relevant to fight on campuses and to debate and to shift the pop culture narrative. Part of the reason we’re doing this documentary is to reconnect today’s activists back to the greater whole. But for us to be most effective in the short term, we have to understand the long term. It’s just like playing chess. You have to know where you’re moving your pieces in order to get to your end goal.
Cindy: What are effective steps that college students facing antisemitism and antizionism can take? Rudy: I think we can learn from examples throughout history like the Civil Rights movement. The black community was able to get their rights by fighting for them, earning them, and shifting pop culture. And as that younger generation grew to a strong enough demographic, politicians had to take them seriously and eventually those individuals also grew up and became the next politicians. And I tell the Jews living in Europe, where antisemitism is systematically much more developed, they either need to stand up for themselves and fight back or leave. They don’t have the option to stand down or ignore what is happening. And as the Jewish younger generation grows to a strong enough demographic and politicians start to take them seriously, and they grow up to become the next politicians, we will hopefully see that same pop culture shift. Because if we don’t stand up and fight back, it’s only going to lead to what we’ve seen happen many times in the past. This applies to America too.
Cindy: How effective do you think the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement against Israel has been?
Rudy: BDS is a big distraction strategy. It’s trying to get us to focus on attacking a resolution rather than attacking the shift to pop culture. The moment that it’s brought up every single year in this BDS campaign, whether it passes or not, is irrelevant to the fact that it’s even spoken about. It shifts the mindset of the future political and intellectual class of the next generation so that when they get into positions of power, they look at Israel wrong. And then I realized that the greater problems were not how strong the movement was, but how weak our own movement was or how nonexistent it was. So it’s a shift in mentality that I’m trying to help spark, especially amongst the younger generation. Dealing with the symptoms is not usually curing the actual problem that you have. We need to understand that the most important thing is to deal with the actual cause of this. I don’t think that I’m the first person to come out as an empowered individual. I think that the Jews fundamentally are empowered. But in my opinion, when you hide your identity you’re partaking and investing in a reality that you should be afraid of, which only gets exponentially worse and is far more dangerous than the potential danger you could have faced as an individual or on the collective level. And so we need to understand that regardless of us seeing ourselves in a very hyper-individualized society, we are a part of a collective and based on how we function, that collective will be targeted in different ways and then it impacts the individuals. So again it’s another shift of mentality about understanding how we need to see ourselves. Again, that is the reason I went to Columbia. To prove that I could go to the number one most antiSemitic school, revolutionize the campus, and bring up a movement that was strong enough to inspire another 50 different campuses to do the same. I’m trying my best to give tools to the younger generation in ways that I wish I would have had or understood or known when I was younger before finding them myself. I try to reach as many people through my videos. A lot of people that see these videos are able to see how they can stand up for themselves, they can be smart, reasonable, calm, and articulate.
Cindy: Today, if a young person didn’t grow up in a particularly religious home, or a culturally Jewish and/or Zionist home, what do they hold onto?
Rudy: Someone can have the sense of identity if you understand that you’re a part of a collective, you’re a continuation of this history. On top of that, if you add the layer of understanding our collective purpose, then you’re able to be strong regardless of your spiritual level. Although I do think the spiritual element is a huge part of our culture, a very important part of our culture.
Cindy: Is there anything you would like to add while we are on this subject?
Rudy: If we don’t respect ourselves, we can’t expect the world to respect us. If we want to change things, it’s up to us. It is also true that Jews tend to go and help every other minority group, because it’s in our culture, it’s in our nature to do so. But we can’t do that at the cost of forgetting to stand up for ourselves. I’ve been faced with thousands of antisemites from every single corner of the world, and I can tell you that when you are strong and empowered, but also respectful, and not coming from a place of attacking but enlightening, it shuts down the antisemites every time.
Cindy: When did you know you would become an activist? Rudy: My undergrad degree was in political science technically, but in practice, it was really fighting antisemitism and helping the Jewish people move forward. That’s really what I was learning there. But even at 7 years old it became clear to me that I would live my life to help the Jewish people move forward. Cindy: What triggered that epiphany?
Rudy: When I was seven, I took a trip to London with my mom and brother. We were on a bus when the driver asked my mom if she was Jewish, because of the Hebrew writing on her shirt. He literally threw her off the bus. That moment changed my life. That experience made me realize that the next time I go through something like this, I have to be prepared. Even at seven, I realized that the attack against my mother was also an attack against my people. I knew that I would always be a protector of our people.
Cindy: Where do you see yourself in 10 years or what are your goals for the future?
Rudy: Personally, I hope to be married with at least five kids and living in Israel. My professional goal is to activate the Jewish people and to use my potential and the abilities that I have to fix the problems that I see. I’m doing my best to achieve that.