Who is Naya Lekht

Where are you from?

I was born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to America with my family in 1989. I came from a very Zionist-oriented family. My grandfather, who was born in what was then Poland, met Zev Zhabotinsky and spoke to me about his Jewish life growing up; he imbued in me a love for Israel, Judaism, and the Yiddish language. Like many Soviet Jewish families, my family was secular. For our family, Judaism manifested itself in pride over the Jewish people and our history. When we came to America, my parents sent me to a Jewish day-school. It was there that I learned Hebrew, stories from the bible, and gained a deeper awareness of my Judaism.

After high school, I went to UC Santa Cruz, where I studied Comparative Literature and Jewish History. It was there, unfortunately, that I also first encountered anti-Semitism directed against Israel. Although I am a firm believer in criticism, the invectives directed against Israel alone was without a doubt a sign of anti-Semitism. Dissatisfied with the silence coming from university officials and even from Jewish organizations regarding anti-Israel animus, I started a pro-Israel student group, Students for Peace in the Middle East. In an attempt to inject a balanced perspective regarding Israel, our group brought speakers such as Dennis Prager to campus. Although we faced several set-backs and attacks, we were fearless and as such were able to grow.

After college, I continued to pursue my love for literature and received a PhD in Russian Literature from UCLA. Although I was not as active during graduate school in terms of Israel advocacy, I continued to be repulsed by the growing animas against Israel and anyone who was a Zionist. My journey has been punctuated with a series of periods in which I devoted time to education and teaching. As such, I believe that Club Z brings together three majors passions that fuel my professional and personal growth: teaching, studying, and loving the Jewish people unconditionally.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee. Without. A. Doubt.

Why did you join Club Z?

I joined Club Z because I am a firm believer in education and am passionate about Jewish continuity and Israel. As a student of history, I am particularly attuned to the struggles and obstacles encountered by the Jewish people. Furthermore, my personal experience confronting anti-Israel animus on college campuses—both as an undergraduate and graduate student—shaped my desire to seek justice for the Jewish people.

Students often ask me why, for instance, I chose to devote much of my time and energy to anti-Semitism. I shrug my shoulders and respond, “I did not choose to study anti-Semitism. But its glaring presence has forced me to stand up. I have been called upon to stand up for justice and truth.” I therefore see Club Z as an amazing opportunity to bring my personal experience and depth of knowledge to future leaders—to help them stand up for justice and truth when the Jewish people may need them most.

What would you change about general education in the US about the Middle East?

I am constantly bewildered by the fact that when someone talks about the Middle East conflict, they mean the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To begin, the Middle East encompasses lands much wider than tiny Israel, Gaza, and the disputed territories. Second, and perhaps more important are the larger issues such as women’s rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of press which are largely missing from leading Arab countries in the Middle East. In part, I believe that the success of Western civilization rests on the shoulders of liberty, democracy, and educational reforms. To wit, these are generally absent from many Arab-majority countries in the Middle East. As such, when we teach about the Middle East, we must zoom out of the tiny Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has very little to do with obstacles facing countries such as Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.

What do you wish Israelis living in Israel understood about American Jewish life?

In terms of world history, Jews, and the United States, the American-Jewish experiment is without precedent. It is not accidental that at one point in Jewish history, America, and not Israel, was referred to as the goldene-medine (Yiddish for the “golden land”). But unlike Israel, American Jewry faces the threat of assimilation. Indeed, in a recent Pew Research poll, American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 75%. Likewise, if just 20 years ago Israel was one of four top foundations to unite American Jews, today its significance for American Jews is waning and for others still, divisive.

Israelis, therefore, must understand that the obstacles facing American Jews are not theirs: American Jews are not threatened by daily rocket launchings and menace from genocidal regimes such as Iran. Their threat is dormant and much more hidden. Likewise, American Jews should understand that when they try to “solve” the conflict, they do so from the comfort and safety of their American homes. My goal is for Israeli Jews and American Jews to recognize each other’s geographical context and unite, for regardless of our current moment in history, we are bound by a similar fate.

What advice do you have for freshmen going to college this fall?

My advice is to first and foremost, have a great time learning. Read the great books, criticize the critics, and engage with the philosophers! Don’t go to college on guard. Be open to all possibilities. But, when it comes to your Jewish identity and Israel, know that Israel is strong and can stand up for itself. However, if that moment ever comes when you feel the need to defend the Jewish homeland, know that when you stand for Israel, you are standing up for the basic right of being a Jewish person.

Three years from now, what would make working at Club Z the best decision you’ve ever made?

Although I am no seer, I know that an investment in education is a venture that grows exponentially. However Club Z isn’t just an investment in knowledge, it is a community of budding leaders who will, no doubt, contribute to the fabric of Israel and Zionism by ensuring the continuation of a vibrant, diverse, and strong Jewish people. I am proud to be a part of this community.