Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – Combatting Our Worst Fear: Antisemitism
Gathering together today for Rosh Hashanah is one of the most sacred tasks we can perform. Hundreds of us are here today along with several million of our fellow Jews around the world as we dedicate ourselves to the task of repentance and renewal. It’s a deeply spiritual undertaking one in which we devote hours of time today and throughout these 10 days of repentance. By listening to the haunting and ancient melodies, by reading the moving and provocative prayers, and simply by sitting in our seats with our eyes closed, we can reflect upon who we are and where we want to be. That process is a meditative one that requires concentration and mental energy so that we can remain focused and not be distracted.
But if you’ve ever tried to meditate, as I have, you know how difficult it can be to clear our minds of distracting thoughts and be totally centered on one and only one thing. Invariably other thoughts enter my head and I find myself following another train of thought rather than the spiritual one. But even more than my own personal distractions, I sometimes find that events in my life and in the world around me intervene and prevent me from engaging in this spiritual work.
Such is the case this year and at this moment. Of course, we are grateful that we are alive and healthy enough to be in this sanctuary once again but the anxious among us may be concerned for our safety and security. Fortunately, we have the eyes of Montgomery County Police officers outside our building but who would have dreamt that we would ever need their protection? This is America, the “goldene medina” that our ancestors dreamt about and who struggled with their last penny and through arduous journeys to reach these very shores. Escaping pogroms in Russia or the shoah our ancestors knew they had no other choice but to get here, where they hoped they would be free.
Though our ancestors encountered antisemitic comments after they arrived, they were able to build synagogues, they were able to make a living and buy a house, and to send their children to the best schools – nothing was denied them like it was in Europe. Since Jews started arriving here in 1654, we have built the largest and most diverse Jewish community outside of Israel. Nowhere else in our 4,000-year history have we been able to build institutions of higher learning; nowhere else have we created a broad and extensive philanthropic network; nowhere else has Judaism been able to evolve and develop from the ultra-Orthodox to Jewish Renewal. We have also made an impact in every aspect of American culture and society. We are involved in entertainment, politics, sports, media and academia. Though we comprise only 2-3% of the American population, we have made a significant impact.
Our contributions to American society and the laws that guarantee freedom of religion have created a sense of comfort among us. We have taken for granted all these years that finally, outside of Israel, there is a country where we can be free to be Jewish. I can feel comfortable wearing my kippah in public. I can feel comfortable walking to shul on shabbat. We can feel proud to be Jewish.
Until last October 27. That shabbat, when 11 Jews were gunned down in synagogue, served as a horrific wake-up call to the American Jewish community. We now realize that antisemitic acts of violence and other antisemitic hate crimes have been on the rise. As the ADL – the Anti-Defamation League – reported, there were 1,879 antisemitic incidents in America in 2018. The Pittsburgh synagogue attack was one of 39 cases of physical assault reported which was a 105% increase over 2017. 249 of those over 1800 incidents were attributed to extremist groups or individuals influenced by extremist ideology. That number marks the highest level of such incidents since 2004.
But these statistics shouldn’t surprise us. We have seen this rise first hand in our greater Washington community. Swastikas and other antisemitic graffiti has been found in several public schools in the area. Antisemitic graffiti was spray painted several months ago on the JCC building in Northern VA. And our own building in White Oak was spray painted over 35 years ago. We’ve all experienced this rise in antisemitism and some of us have witnessed it first-hand. Yet we’ve somehow been able to ignore it or at least to push it to the back of our minds because no one was hurt. We could just say that these were individual acts of hatred, that they certainly don’t represent the sentiment of the majority of Americans.
And yet - Julie Zauzmer, in an article in the Washington Post back in August, highlighted a disturbing feature of this rising tide of White Nationalism and antisemitism in America. In that article she detailed a trend among evangelical Christians of getting their news only from Christian websites. She quoted several people who watch YouTube channels of prominent Christian pastors. Zauzmer highlighted TruNews, for example, which is a “nightly newscast with more than 18 million views on YouTube. It bills its purpose ‘to offer Christians a positive alternative to the anti-Christian bigotry of the mainstream media.’ Jews and Israel are a constant target for Rick Wiles, the Florida pastor who runs the show.” Zauzmer goes on in her article to quote Wanda and Doug Meyer who are a retired teacher and retired insurance specialist who say, “It’s right there on YouTube. You don’t hear it on mainstream media. We know Kenneth Copeland. We know Paula White. We know David Barton. Different ministers, that’s where we get our news. People who know what’s really going on.”
Antisemitism has always had religious undertones. We’re hated because of the belief, as written in the Christian Bible, that we killed Jesus. That evolved into other antisemitic tropes and led to laws that, in some places in Europe, either severely limited our ability to work and live or expelled us completely from the country – as our ancestors were from England for 600 years. Antisemitism clearly isn’t just another hate tool used by extremist groups to blame others for problems. It isn’t just a way of saying “it’s their fault that we’re in this mess today.” People of different colors and different nationalities have always been a target of hatred and frustration. But when that hatred is based on a religious tenet then it makes it that much more difficult to combat.
Clearly antisemitic incitement and acts of violence are on the rise. And the question is, as it has been throughout our history, how do we respond? What is the best way to respond to such acts of hatred? What can we do to protect ourselves and what can we do to put an end to such racism and overcome the religious basis for it?
In a recent article, based on her newly published book, Bari Weiss, the New York Times Op-Ed staff writer and editor, summarized our age-old dilemma. Bari Weiss is Jewish and grew up in Pittsburgh and therefore the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, which she and her family attended, was deeply personal for her. Essentially, she argues, there have been two responses to ongoing and consistent antisemitism – either Jews have hidden, or they have become resolved to be even more Jewish. Or as Weiss put it, “does safety come from contorting ourselves to look more like everyone else? Or does it come from drilling down into the wellspring of what made us special to begin with?”
Three hundred years ago Moses ben Mendel was born in Dessau, Germany. Destined for a rabbinic career he instead studied German philosophy and thought. His writings influenced the foundation of what became known as the Haskalah – the Jewish enlightenment movement. He changed his last name to Mendelssohn (ben Mendel means Mendel’s son) and advocated for Jews to learn German and integrate into German society. He translated the Bible into German in order to facilitate the Jews’ ability to learn German. Though he himself was quite learned in Jewish texts, he argued that Jews should be learned in both Jewish subjects and German culture. That would be the only way to become accepted into German society.
Two generations later, while the Jews in Germany and elsewhere continued to fight for equality, Mendelsohn’s grandson Felix, the famous composer, converted to Christianity. He like so many others felt that the only way to advance in society and be treated equally was to convert. He wasn’t the only one. Over one hundred years ago another famous composer – Gustav Mahler – converted to Christianity in order to be appointed the music director of the Vienna Court Opera. Though he had other positions in Europe, that one was the most prestigious and could only be held by a Catholic.
When Jews tried to achieve success on their own, they at times were thoroughly rebuffed. The classic case in point was Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a captain in the French army over 100 years ago and he was accused of passing information to the German enemy. After a show trial, Dreyfus was convicted and was sent to prison. Ten years later after lengthy appeals he was finally exonerated.
Journalists from around the world converged on Paris during the trial in 1894 including one from Vienna, Theodor Herzl. As a result of the rabid anti-Semitism on display and the clear miscarriage of justice simply because Dreyfus was Jewish, Herzl realized that there was no longer any place in Europe for the Jews. The Jews needed to respond to anti-Semitism not by becoming German or French (as Mendelssohn, Mahler and Dreyfus had) but to establish their own state in the land of Israel. Zionism was the antidote to antisemitism because becoming Christian to seek acceptance was clearly not the answer. The only way for the Jew to be absolutely free to be Jewish, Herzl felt, was to have a state of our own. Zionism was the only way for Judaism to survive and for the Jewish people to survive.
Though many of us may have learned about these people and events before, we may have said to ourselves, “thank God this doesn’t apply to our lives today.” As a student of history, I read about these and many other stories of our people. No matter what period of time we read about, Jewish history is mainly defined by how the country in which the Jews lived treated the Jews. If Jews lived in a tolerant society – like Muslim Spain in the early middle ages – then Jewish culture and the people thrived. If they lived in an intolerant society, like Russia in the 1600’s, then Jews suffered and were massacred. It’s a terrible way to understand our history - essentially a history of abuse and persecution. But nonetheless while learning this history as I was in college and rabbinical school, I was grateful to be living in America. I was grateful that Jews here didn’t have to face the harsh choices that our ancestors did. I was grateful that I and my fellow Jews could thrive and flourish in a country that accepted us for who we were and allowed us and encouraged us to achieve our potential.
As Bari Weiss points out in her article, we as a Jewish community are beginning to see signs that the rise of antisemitism today is similar in scope to how it was for Jews in Europe a century ago and frankly how it continues to be in some places in Europe today. We now are beginning to realize that we face the same choices that our ancestors did. How are we going to confront this rising tide of hatred? How are we going to respond to the growing threats on our safety and well-being? How are we going to ensure our freedom to express our Jewish identity openly and with pride?
In Weiss’ words she says, “In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming. A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul – and in the souls of everyone who throws in their lot with ours.”
Weiss is absolutely correct. It is our responsibility, both as Jews and as synagogues, to ensure that amidst this onslaught of hatred that we remain committed to our identity and to strengthening it. We know that our heritage is rich and meaningful. We know that our religion is based on love and compassion. We have to commit ourselves to seek opportunities to strengthen and to be strengthened. We as a synagogue need to ensure that we provide the spiritual resources you need to lead a rich and meaningful life. And you need us as a source of community and education and programming that will add to the richness of your life. Together we can confront the hatred around us with love and compassion.
And Weiss continues, “But the Jewish community…cannot go at this problem alone. We have to insist that the societies of which we are a part take a stand against anti-Semitism, because any society in which [antisemitism] flourishes, is one that is dead or dying.” As Americans and as Jews we have a dual responsibility to save American society from itself. We need to find ways to interact with our neighbors and advocate not just against antisemitism but against all forms of hatred.
I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to interact with my interfaith clergy colleagues here in Olney. For nearly 10 years we have gathered together regularly to study and to find ways in which our greater faith community can learn from and interact with each other. We have led panel discussions, interfaith Thanksgiving services and in-service days that have brought together many people of diverse backgrounds. It has been wonderful to see people of diverse backgrounds gathered together to learn, pray and socialize.
Our social action committee has also been instrumental in this effort as well. We have had speakers last year like Darryl Davis who spoke about racism and methods that they have found to combat that hatred successfully. Our committee will continue to work this year with programs focusing on welcoming the stranger and how we can ensure that all who seek a better life can find sanctuary and opportunity here.
It is these efforts, by building and strengthening relationships, that we can be most effective. Thanks to my interfaith clergy group I have learned a lot about Islam and Christianity, and I hope they have learned about Judaism from me. I can appreciate the positive lessons other religions have to offer mainly because I have had a positive relationship with the individual clergy. One relationship at a time we too can make a difference.
On Rosh Hashanah, after each set of shofar blasts in the musaf service, we recite a prayer that begins “Ha yom harat olam – today the world was conceived.” Rosh Hashanah traditionally is seen to be the anniversary of the creation of the world. Today we celebrate the earth’s birthday and recognize that today is an opportunity to start over. We can start fresh. We can look back at where we’ve been, and we can look forward with promise into the future. But how will we face the year ahead? How will we confront the forces that surround us that hate us?
As Weiss says, “the long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.” This then is what we should meditate on today and the rest of the High Holidays. Instead of being distracted by the outside forces and the multitude of issues facing us, let us focus on that affirmative battle.
We can focus on that battle by being inspired by our past. When our building was defaced over 35 years ago with antisemitic graffiti, Rabbi Martin Halpern (may he rest in peace) and our shul leadership did two very important things. First, they left the graffiti on the building until the neighboring community was informed and could be organized to clean the building. Instead of hiring a power-washing company, members of all races and creeds from the White Oak community gathered together to clean the building and make it sacred once again. In the face of hatred, the community came together in love and peace to literally wash away any signs of hatred.
The other thing our shul leadership did was bring this crime – the defacing of our building – to trial. The case made its way up the ladder through the local, state and federal court system until it reached the Supreme Court. Remarkably the Supreme Court ruled in our favor and decided that antisemitic vandalism is a hate crime and we, as Jews, are protected like any other race in America. By fighting this case in court our congregation boldly asserted that we will not walk away from injustice, that we would not shy away from conflict. Instead we said that we would stand up for our rights, we would fight against hatred and bigotry.
Let our shul’s history be a lesson for us today. We cannot cower in the face of this rising tide of antisemitism. We need to continue to find partners, to build relationships, in the struggle for justice. We need to build on the models we already have and find more opportunities to bring people of different backgrounds together.
And we must also continue to publicly fight against this hatred. Just like our shul leadership did, we need to have the confidence that we can stand up against this bullying and remind people through our efforts that we are on the side of justice and peace. That we know that we have the right to live free as Americans and Jews and that we will continue to stand up strong and proud in the face of this racism. May we be so emboldened to be a force for good. May we spread love and peace. May each one of us, one by one, be able to change the world one person at a time. Amen.