Thursday, October 3, 2019

Responding to antisemitism in America (adapted from sermon for the 1st day of Rosh haShanah, 2019 / 5780)


I began my sermon with a brief description of my trip to Pittsburgh this January to spend a shabbat filling in for Rabbi Jonathan Perlman at the New Light Congregation, which lost 3 congregants in the terrible Tree of Life massacre.

(If you are curious why I have chosen the spelling ‘antisemitism’ (uncapitalized and without a hyphen), see here.)

….Rabbi Perlman’s community, called New Light, used to have its own building, but a few years ago they sold their building and began to rent space from the Tree of Life synagogue. Rabbi Perlman says he had never heard live gunfire before, but the moment he heard the sound, he knew what it was and that he had to hide and get others into hiding. He was able to hustle the other three people with him at the front of the room into a safe area, an electrical storage closet behind the wall where the aron kodesh, holy ark is.

So in that storage closet, which was pitch-black because they couldn’t find the light switch -- were four people: Rabbi Perlman, who has high-school-age and college-age children, And 3 congregants - a woman in her 60s, a man in his 70s, and a man in his upper 80s.

Then there was a lull in the shooting. And Melvin Wax, the man in his 80s, because of his hearing loss, was not able to hear the others instructing him not to open the door. So he opened the door - and was immediately shot and killed before their eyes.

The gunman then entered the closet and fumbled around in the dark for a moment and then left, leaving Rabbi Perlman and the other two people in the closet alive. And the gunman proceeded to the Tree of Life sanctuary where he killed his remaining victims. (and we plan to remember them all by name on Yom Kippur.)

The New Light community lost several of the people who had been instrumental in every part of synagogue life. For example, Mel Wax of blessed memory had been leading Psukei Dezimra at the time when the shooting began. Two of the regular Torah and haftarah readers were also murdered.



I was glad that I got to help Rabbi Perlman to take a well-deserved Shabbat away and to keep the service running smoothly. But clearly the impact of my visit upon me was greater than any assistance I was able to offer. By the time that I visited for a shabbat in January, about nine weeks after the attack, the situation was much closer to ‘back to normal.’ But of course it could never be like it was. I met the others in the community who knew there was no good reason why their friends and relatives were killed while they survived. And I met the other two surviving congregants who hid in that closet - who come to synagogue, each and every week. And most incredibly beyond belief, on the Shabbat when I was there, one of them read the haftarah, the portion from the prophets on Shabbat morning, and the other led portions of the Friday night service.

In the process, I learned so much more about courage and fortitude and resilience. I saw what a deeply supportive community looks like and feels like. The members of New Light Congregation come together each week as they always have - supporting one another, commiserating with each other, affirming that they are stronger than the hatred that pierced their community.

We need to acknowledge how painfully absurd it is that this is a 21st century American story. The story of people hiding in the closet - to escape from the antisemite - and someone opens the door and gets shot simply for being a Jew -- My great-grandparents in Poland and Ukraine told stories like that. My parents’ friends who were survivors told stories like that.

When the Jewish community looks back on the Jewish experience in the US in the Jewish year 5779 that is coming to an end - it had too many of these stories that seem like holdovers from another millennium. This past Passover, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein in Poway California, shot in the hand as he continued to speak and teach, as efforts were made to revive a murder victim in his synagogue. Synagogues from California to Florida to Massachusetts to New Jersey being sprayed with antisemitic symbols and slogans, just in the last couple of weeks. An epidemic of beatings against Hasidic Jews in some neighborhoods of Brooklyn. And memories of Charlottesville just two years in the past, And memories of antisemitic murders in France, in Denmark, in Israel, and other places around the world not long ago.

Earlier today, we chanted in Avinu Malkeinu - אבינו מלכנו עשה למען הרוגים על שם קדשך. “Avinu Malkeinu - our parent and sovereign - act for the sake of those who were martyred for the sake of Your holy name.” We did not envision that we would have new stories of such martyrs this year. We certainly did not envision that these martyrs would include people with whom we personally have connections - by just one or two degrees of separation.

Of all the Rosh Hashanahs I have ever spent in my life, this one especially feels like an act of defiance and solidarity. I want to say to every one of you: I am so grateful to you that you are here with us today - that you passed through security with the knowledge that you would see the police presence that is a regular sight anywhere large numbers of Jews gather. The antisemites wish that fear would have kept you away today, and we are grateful that it did not.

Never in my career have I given a high holiday sermon on the topic of antisemitism - until today of course. And my sense is that in synagogues around the country - rabbis who haven’t given sermons about antisemitism for many years are doing so at least once over the course of these high holidays because the hour seems to require it.

You might know that the Talmud says: (Yevamot 47a) When someone approaches a rabbinic leader to inquire about converting to Judaism, You know what the first question is supposed to be? “Are you out of your mind?” Are you unfamiliar with the phenomenon of people hating Jews,That if you join this people, that hatred may be turned upon you? At this point, presumably, some people say, “thanks but no thanks.” And the people who end up joining the Jewish people are the ones who say - יודע אני ואיני כדאי . They say: Yes, I realize it - but even so, being Jewish feels like a privilege to me that I would like to be worthy of. There’s wisdom here in this Jewish tradition that has been so energizing to the world, and is so potentially energizing to me. Hearing that there are people who are so threatened by what the Jewish people stands for - that doesn’t scare me, so much as makes me curious to learn more about what do they find so threatening about this tradition that seems so beautiful and reflective to me? Rather I am all the more committed to learn about Judaism and to connect to Judaism.

That is how I feel and how many of us feel - that hatred against us simply makes us stronger, makes us prouder, makes us ever more committed to being worthy of this privilege of being Jewish. Not out of spite -- NOT simply because we want to deny the antisemites a victory -- but because we recognize Judaism’s value. And feeling ourselves in a small way in the continuity of those who have been victimized for being Jewish reminds us how Judaism has been such a powerful source of support for Jews over the centuries, during times that were infinitely worse than this.

And yet many of us we remain full of disbelief. How did this come to be, in the United States? How should I relate to all the sometimes contradictory accusations of antisemitism and the wide range of Jewish communal responses? And how can we best create a Jewish community that is vibrant but also safe?

While time does not permit full answers to all these questions now, I want to share 3 main ideas that I hope will help us to cope with the reality of antisemitism in our contemporary world, and also to keep it in perspective with the rest of the Jewish values. As always, I would expect that every person here will find at least one thing I am saying that they agree with. And I would expect that many or most people here will find at least one thing I am saying that they disagree with. (Which from my perspective is what you should always assume when you listen to a sermon from anyone.)

My first thought to share is: ANTISEMITISM IS NOT A RIGHT-WING PHENOMENON OR A LEFT-WING PHENOMENON.

By the way, I know that some of you are going to go home and quote that selectively. Some of you are going to say: “That rabbi is such a rabid right-winger - He even said “antisemitism is not a right-wing phenomenon.” And others of you are going to say: “I can’t believe that bleeding heart liberal rabbi actually said that antisemitism is not a left-wing phenomenon.”

So please know I am choosing my words carefully. The history of antisemitism is not particularly tied more to the right-wing than to the left wing or vice versa. The Nazis were radical rightists. The Stalinists were radical leftists. Religious traditionalists like the medieval catholic church leaders, and advocates of religious and social reform like Voltaire, didn’t agree on much - but they agreed that they didn’t like us. I take a perverse pride in being the one issue in the world that can bring together David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. Imagine T.S. Eliot, Ayatollah Khomeini, Martin Heidegger, Mel Gibson, and Stokely Carmichael at a cocktail party - the only thing they would be able to agree on is their common contempt for the people in this room.

The journalist Yair Rosenberg does a demonstration in which he takes antisemitic tweets by right-wingers and by left-wingers and he removes the names and has people guess: did this come from a right-winger or a left-winger? He has found that people honestly can’t figure it out. So many of the stereotypes are the same, whether you’re looking at the right or the left.

It’s a good idea for Jews to be knowledgeable about the common anti-Jewish stereotypes and of the many varieties of antisemitism, and who believes what. As some of you know, earlier this year I made an effort to put that on a Venn diagram; I am not showing it to you today because even though I tried really hard to make it as simple as possible, it ended up with six color-coded overlapping circles for six completely different varieties of antisemitism. But in the center of this diagram, where all the varieties of antisemitism converged from the white nationalist antisemitism to the Christian supercessionist antisemitism to the jihadist antisemitim to the leftist antisemitism and others, there is a particular constellation of stereotypes. Jews are insular and only care about ourselves; we are crafty and manipulative and are the elite puppeteers controlling the fate of various groups in the world. We think we’re superior to everyone else, and we butt in where we are not wanted and where we don’t belong. And you can’t trust us because we have allegiances to distant places and distant communities around the world.

By the way, some of these stereotypes highlight how antisemitism is related to but also different from racism and various other forms of ethnic hatred and prejudice. Antisemitism is often described as a “punching-up” form of hatred, and as a result it is often appealing to people who feel like they aren’t getting their fair share in life and are looking for someone to blame who seems powerful.

And to make it even more complicated, because Jews are perceived as powerful, it sometimes happens that both sides of the spectrum will try to exploit the umbrage that comes from accusing the other side of antisemitism. And sadly, we have seen some of that this year. I hope we’re aware that not everyone who accuses someone else of antisemitism has entirely pure and altruistic motives.

Clearly there has been a coarsening of public discourse in our country and our world as of late, and various ideas on all sides that previously would have been whispered are now getting shouted. Whatever side of the spectrum you are on -- there is some antisemitism on your side of the spectrum, and it’s your responsibility to call it out when you see it and hear it. We cannot permit it to be normalized.

Now that does not mean that I am equally concerned with antisemitism on all sides of the spectrum. There were murders this Jewish year in synagogues perpetrated by emboldened white supremacists who felt that Jews are enemies of white America. At the current moment, it would be absurd to suggest that that is not the form of antisemitism that should most concern us. I’m also concerned with left-wing antisemitism, but it doesn’t have a body count at the moment.

And then of course there is the jihadist variety of antisemitism which doesn’t fall into this left-right dichotomy, but we know is pervasive and dangerous. When we heard about the shooting in Pittsburgh, but didn’t yet know who the perpetrator was, frankly it would have been no more surprising if it had been a jihadist, as we know that jihadists have often sought out Jewish targets in the past and could do so again.

And the relationship between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism is complicated to say the least. Obviously there is plenty of criticism of Israel that is not antisemitic. And yet, in a world where someone spraypaints the words ‘Free Palestine’ on the wall of a synagogue in Los Angeles as happened just 2 weeks ago along with numerous similar incidents this year, it’s hard to say that anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism are two completely distinct and non-overlapping categories. They are often thoroughly intertwined with each other. .

I sometimes hear comments of the form “Person X could not possibly be an antisemite, because of such-and-such a Jewish friend or relative that Person X has, or such and such a cause that Person X has supported, or such and such a statement that Person X has made.” Truly I have heard people on both sides of the spectrum say this about people they like. But we should strive for greater sophistication than this. Speaking this way makes antisemitism into a binary switch, that either you are an antisemite or you aren’t. And antisemitism doesn’t work that way. This is why, except in rare circumstances, I prefer to use the word ‘antisemitic’ to refer to statements and actions, rather than to people. (by the way, I recommend using the word ‘racist’ the same way - except in rare circumstances, to use it as a word that describes statements and actions, rather than people.) People are a mixture of the positive and the negative, and we should give them credit for the good things they do and say, while holding them accountable for the negative things they do and say.

This is actually an illustration of one of my favorite teachings from the Talmud for the High Holiday season: לעולם יראה אדם עצמו כאילו חציו חייב וחציו זכאי (Tractate Kiddushin 40b): We should always regard ourselves as half-liable and half-meritorious, so that everything is riding on the next thing we do. It’s not the Jewish way to let your good deeds get you off the hook for the bad things you do. So I suggest: if you ever find yourself on either side of an argument about whether a given Person X is an antisemite or not, your time could be better spent doing almost anything else. At the very least, shift the conversation to discussing whether something specific that Person X has done or said is antisemitic; that may be a more productive discussion to have.

By the way: we know that the murderer in Pittsburgh was motivated by hatred and fear of immigrants, and Jewish advocacy for immigrants and refugees, specifically seeking out a synagogue that had held a refugee shabbat in conjunction with the historically Jewish immigration organization HIAS. Well, our synagogue was and is also a proud partner of HIAS. And of course we’re going to continue partnering with HIAS. It’s not our style to let antisemites dissuade us from the work we do. But with the diversity in Jewish perspectives on this and any issue, it is categorically inappropriate for anyone to draw conclusions about someone’s political opinions based on their religion or ethnic group. HIAS doesn’t speak for all Jews, Stephen Miller doesn’t speak for all Jews. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t speak for all Jews, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t speak for all Jews. We are one people with many voices, and this is the way it has always been. Those who feel that they can bring all Jews into agreement on a particular issue may not have a particularly strong understanding of Jewish history.

SECOND: WE BUILD STRONGER AND SAFER COMMUNITIES THROUGH RELATIONSHIPS.

Walk back in time with me to last November, when hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths and no faith came out to stand by the Jewish community in congregations around the country. Many of you remember how on the Monday night that was less than 60 hours after the incident, this sanctuary was full to overflowing. We had political leaders, as well as religious leaders representing our local Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Sikh and Baha’i communities, standing with us, standing up to hate, proclaiming that what happened in Pittsburgh is the opposite of what is supposed to happen in a sanctuary, in a house of worship.

By the way, we had contemplated having the ceremony take place elsewhere, like outside in a public park, but we decided that the best place for such a ceremony would be in a synagogue itself, to have people of all faiths come to a synagogue and make the statement: We are not afraid to go to a synagogue, and we will work with you to make this synagogue as safe a place as it can be.

It bears repeating how we were able to make that gathering happen on such short notice. When people ask me why I spend so much of my time focused on interfaith cooperation activities, part of the answer is that I feel that Jewish ethics and values demand this of me, but part of the answer is that there’s an element of self-interest. When there was a racially motivated attack against Sikhs and there was a vigil in Jersey City, I and many people from our community showed up. When there was an attack on Muslims and there were vigils in Jersey City and in Union City, I and many people from our community showed up. When the American refugee program is in peril, when immigrant families are mistreated, many of us have shown up.

That’s not the only reason why so many religious leaders showed up in this synagogue. But clearly it is part of the reason why we knew who to call and so we could fill the room of diverse religious leaders in 72 hours. It looked like we planned that vigil in 2 days -- but really we planned that vigil over the course of years of building and nurturing relationships.

We are taking many different kinds of steps to make our synagogue community safer - from improvements to our building thanks to a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, to improved access control, to strengthened connection with the Hoboken Police Department and Hudson County Sheriff’s Department who have gone so far beyond the call of duty to help us to safeguard our synagogue. And along with all these efforts, part of the way we make ourselves and our world safer is by being maximally connected to our community.

And THIRD: ANTISEMITISM OUGHT NOT BE CENTRAL TO WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A JEW.
Let me share a sad story with you that happens on a regular basis. Several times a year, people from this community contact me and say things like ‘I am traveling in Spain over Simhat Torah and I would really like to go to synagogue while I am there.” Or “I will be in Berlin for the Passover Seders and I would like to find a Seder.” Or “I’m going to be visiting Panama and want to visit the synagogue when I am there.”

First of all, please know that this is a great thing to ask your rabbi for help with, and I love doing it! But second, please know that it often involves my writing letters to those communities to vouch that this potential visitor is in fact part of our Jewish community. Because otherwise they simply wouldn’t be let in, to these communities that often have fortress-like security, and frankly very few people inside. Going through security is often the most memorable part of the experience and often the part of the experience that people report back to us when asked how their trip was. On the one hand, the heavy security is a demonstration that we are defying the antisemites. But on the other hand, the empty synagogues inside are a demonstration that the antisemites have, to some degree, been victorious in some of those locations.

Our community, like every Jewish community in the country, has increased its security this year. Our most important priority is keeping everyone safe. It’s such a sad reality that it’s no longer right for a Jewish community to have an unmonitored unlocked door. And at the same time, we have seen what a communities can look like when they are concerned with security and little else. Obviously we’re focused on security, but we also recognize that our security needs are balanced with our other priorities. Any unnecessary moment we spend worrying about security is a moment we are LESS concerned with expressing Jewish values in the world. Any dollar we spend on security beyond what is necessary is a dollar NOT spent on delivering outstanding Jewish education for all ages. Antisemitism is of concern to us because it distracts us from focusing on what Judaism is actually about and what Jewish communities are supposed to accomplish.

Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University wrote a wonderful book last fall called Antisemitism Here and Now. This sadly prophetic book was actually published before the massacre in Pittsburgh. I remain especially moved by the conclusion of the book:

In countries throughout the world, armed guards are now regularly stationed in front of synagogues, and Jewish communal organizations have had to institute tight security measures. In some parts of the world, Jews intentionally avoid carrying or wearing anything that identifies them as Jews. But at the same time, it would be folly for Jews to make this the organizing principle of their lives. Although I have devoted most of my professional life to the study of the persecution of the Jews, that has never been what has driven me personally as a Jew. I value and celebrate my tradition and its teachings. My awareness of the many grievous wrongs that have been perpetrated against Jews throughout history is not the foundation of my Jewish identity. Jewish culture and Jewish history constitute the foundation of who I am.

This dichotomy was starkly illustrated during a recent Jewish holiday, as I entered my synagogue along with two friends— a five-year-old girl and her mother. The mom smiled at the security guard stationed at the door, turned to her daughter, and said, “Let’s say hi and thank you to the guard for keeping us safe.” A look of puzzlement swept across my little friend’s face. From the many books we have read together, she knows about “safe” places and “dangerous” places, and in her mind a synagogue did not fall under the latter category. It’s a joyful place where she runs around with the other kids in the playground, attends a children’s service that is filled with singing, and then wends her way into the main sanctuary, where she and her playmates help conclude the services and receive lollipops from the rabbi. Why would she need someone to help keep her safe in such a place? Yet we know that she does, indeed, need protection there. My hope for my little friend is that as she grows up, her awareness of the dangers that may threaten her well-being at the synagogue or any other Jewish venue will never overshadow the joys she finds there.
When I visited the New Light community in Pittsburgh this past January, I was aware that the way I could provide any semblance of comfort for them would be with my presence rather than through anything in particular I might say. But I was inclined to communicate a particular message to them - a message that I knew they already knew: that Jewish tradition tells us that when we pray we should face the direction of Jerusalem, the site of the Holy Temple, regarded as the very center of the Jewish world. But for the last few months, our Hoboken community, like every Jewish community in the world, had our hearts directed towards Pittsburgh -- because their community had become the very center of the Jewish world.
After returning from my trip, I realized that this idea was if anything resonating with me in an even stronger way than I intended. Because we face Jerusalem in prayer both because it is at the center of our consciousness, And because כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה’ מירושלים. Because of the verse ‘For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of God from Jerusalem.’ We sense that that’s where the Torah, the word of God, and the values of Jewish tradition emanate from. And the hope and inspiration and defiance spread from Pittsburgh throughout the Jewish world to remind us of the values of peace and tolerance and community, of courage and prayer and gratitude -- and of the remarkable resilience of the Jewish people, that for centuries has cultivated the ability to stare in the face of hatred and danger and to say ‘not only will we outlast you, but we will use your terrible deed as an opportunity to make our people and the world ever safer, ever stronger, and ever more compassionate.”

May this new year 5780 bring health, joy, safety, strength and resolve and comfort to our people and our world.

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