Rosh Hashanah 5780
September 30, 2019
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen
It’s Hard Work Dealing with Antisemitism
This spring, I along with others from TBS, traveled to Eastern Europe, walking in the footsteps of our Czech Torah. This was an awesome journey learning about the strong Jewish communities that existed in Poland and the former Czech Republic to mourning the loss of these same communities and celebrating the resurgence of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. This was also a very hard trip to take as we walked through old ghetto streets and Auschwitz where millions were murdered all because they were Jewish. Some said they could never take a trip like this because it would be too hard to come face to face with such a tragic time in our history. But the thing is, being Jewish is hard. Facing our history is hard. And when we come face to face with it, we are better equipped to face the reality of where the Jewish community is today.
It’s hard to be a Jew. When I work with conversion students I always ask them, why do you want to be a part of one of the most persecuted people in the world? The students know this and they know the history from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, but most seem to go back to the same answer, because Judaism just fits in their lives. The values, the traditions, the people, just all seem to fit. And adopting this most dark part of our history is a given. And standing up for Judaism and the Jewish people is understood and a passion for most.
Yet still, why are so many afraid to face the past and experience it? Why do we shy away from reading the stories and memoirs of those who endured such tragedy and pain? Why do we put that responsibility on someone else? Is this how we face and deal with indifference? The answer should be simple, the responsibility for facing our history and for dealing with antisemitism is ours.
Dove Kent of Bend the Arc, A Jewish Partnership for Justice discussed the issues of increased prominence of anti-Semitism and the effect it is having on Jewish Americans. She defines antisemitism as a systemic oppression, dating back thousands of years, that sets the Jewish people up as scapegoats for society’s problems. Leaders threaten the safety of Jewish people or enable the threatening of Jewish people to put us in a position of fear. Sometimes this looks like blaming the Jewish people for economic crisis or an increase in immigration or other less obvious societal issues. It’s tapping into those age-old stereotypes through coded language to indicate that the Jewish people should be suspect in some way. Then these leaders perpetuate this hope to put the Jewish people in the middle of a power struggle in order to direct any kind of negative comments away from them but on to those who oppose them.
How do we deal with the rise in antisemitism today and not abandon our Jewish identity because we might think it’s just easier to not be connected to Judaism or to have to deal with the struggle of being Jewish because honestly, being Jewish is hard. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, wrote in his 1934 book, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), that the main cause of “the present crisis in Judaism” was the loss of belief among Jews and that, “Jewish origin brings with it nothing but economic handicaps and social inferiority.” The result, Kaplan wrote, was that “the Jew rebels against his fate” and hence our attitude of being proud to be Jewish has made a critical shift. Kaplan suggests that because we have lost our belief or connection to defining ourselves as Jewish, we are witnessing our people turning away from Judaism and Jewish community. Kaplan lived in a world that suggested then that the Jewish community was seen as dominating major sectors of the American economy. Want-ads in New York newspapers in the 1930s said that Jews need not apply, and Americans during World War II consistently expressed more hostility to Jews (and blacks) than to Germans or the Japanese.
A lot has changed since then in that overt discrimination has been outlawed. And yet we joke about “What is the meaning of Jewish holidays? They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” But hatred and antisemitism still exists today and there does not seem to be any end in sight. The vast majority of Americans—Christian, secular, or Muslim—do not harbor deep-seated prejudice against us and views of Jews are overwhelmingly favorable. Our allies far outnumber our enemies. But there is ample cause for wariness—and for determined action to strengthen both communal alliances and communal defenses.
Moments like Charlottesville with torch bearing activists shouting, “Jews will not replace us!” cannot be ignored. The shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue and close to home in Poway this past April brings up fear for us as a community. And we have spent over $100,000 shoring up our campus in hopes that this would never happen here. However, we all know that it’s hard to say “never” in a world where our children go through active shooter drills in their schools, even as young as elementary school for “when” an event happens. We’ve moved from “if” to “when.” We are left wondering how we can explain this to our children and ourselves that our buildings have to be fortified with fences and guards when churches down the street keep their buildings open. When we might never have thought about antisemitism before, we know that the reality is we have to be aware that it exists and we can no longer ignore it or think, this can’t happen to us.
But still, we have to not allow antisemitism to interfere with alliances between Jews and non-Jews, or to rob us of our trust in humanity or in God. We should not doubt the tradition we teach, and the community we are a part of, and like the abused victim, we have to remember that we have done nothing to cause the rise in antisemitism. Sure, we can hold on to Theodore Herzl’s lament in The Jewish State t hat “if only we were left in peace. But I think we will not be left in peace….” While antisemitism seems to be a fact of life that will not leave Jews in peace, it does not mean that we don’t take on the hard work of fighting against it and reshaping the Jewish narrative.
Arnold Eisen, Chancellor and President of the Faculties of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, suggests that there are three lessons we can learn from today’s current antisemitic climate.1
First, antisemitism has its roots in religious and economic areas. There is the age old argument against the Jewish community of not understanding why it is the Jews have not accepted Jesus or even in ancient times, the pagan gods of the day. The arguments that the Jews killed Jesus or rejected Mohammad; the frustration that Jews continue to hold on to our Torah when it has been, for some, superceded by Christian or Muslim scriptures. The greater argument against the Jewish community however is economic. That Jews have always held more power in business, finance and government. Jews have a larger proportionate number of people involved on Wall Street, University leadership, and in the halls of government offices. Unfortunately, there are those white supremists who hold on to America as a Christian country and Jews and Muslims cannot claim equal leadership. We even heard from Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, on September 1, that he blames mass shootings on our schools teaching evolution, that we should instead only be teaching about God and creationism, that this would stop mass shootings. Eisen says, “One still occasionally hears militant atheists blaming Jews for the continuing power of religion in the world, even as some militant Christians and Muslims blame Jews for the rise of modern, secular, liberal culture.”
Unfortunately, these thoughts are not going away any time soon. Therefore, it is important for us to keep our ears open to these criticisms and address them. That we teach our children that these claims against the Jewish community and any other religious community who is blamed for the downfall of society, are not true. We cannot ignore them.
This brings us to the second point and action: We as Jews are not alone. We have a strong relationship with our brothers and sisters of other faiths and traditions. And while antisemitism has found a way to impact all of us, we must remember that at the end of the day, we are privileged. Our Jewish faith has the power to go unseen in times of danger. While we might choose to wear the Star of David on our jewelry or wrap ourselves in tzitzit during times of prayer, we as Jews do not bear the potentially dangerous burden of immediate recognition. The majority of American Jews can walk down a busy street and never experience hateful attacks based solely on their appearance. This is not the case for everyone in our country at this point in time, and it is our responsibility as Jews to not only recognize our privilege but to also use it to lift others up who endure hatred on a daily basis, whether it be because of the color of their skin, the language that they speak, or the level of their physical ability. Just as Jews are blessed by our allies, we must always stand in active allyship to other communities around us.
Eisen writes: “the Jewish community must respond in measured fashion to verbal or physical attacks. We should by no means discount progress made in the past or despair of progress that can be made in the future. We should never forget that Jews have allies in other communities, need those allies, and need to stand by other groups in their time of need, both because it is the right thing to do and so that those groups will stand by us. We should—and did—express our outrage at the attack at a Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque, and reach out to comfort and stand with our Muslim neighbors. The attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston also drew immediate Jewish response. We know firsthand that this support makes a difference.”
We were moved here at TBS by the outpouring of love and support from our local community who came out for our solidarity service earlier this year and our living room was filled with flowers and notes from the community who came to support us. The same should and has been done for other communities who are victims of hate and discrimination. We are not surrounded by enemies, this is a 19th century thought. Rather, we are surrounded by those who love and support us. But we have to cultivate that relationship both inside and outside our synagogue walls. We cannot allow ourselves to go down the road of prejudice and belief that no one likes us for if we do, then we risk losing Jewish connections and connections to community because there are those who out of this fear choose not to affiliate with Jewish tradition, the Jewish people or Jewish community.
This leads us to the final lesson we have to learn and act upon: We must do our best to make sure that we do not run from Jewish commitment, or seek to hide our Jewishness. We should not be afraid to say, I am Jewish and stand proudly with that. How many shared with our school or work that we would not be there today because we are Jewish and it’s the High Holy Days? Then again, how many are not here today because they did not want to say, I’m Jewish and I should be in services instead of work or school? Have we lost our priorities and decided that Judaism is something to put on the backburner because it’s easier? Being Jewish is hard and it takes work and commitment.
Emil Fackenheim, one of the best-known Jewish theologians of the previous generation, famously posited that Jews are bound by a “614th commandment:” not to “grant Hitler posthumous victories” by giving up Jewish faith or affiliation. We should proudly hold on to our faith, our tradition and our Torah – holding on to it for dear life – because it teaches a profound and joyful path through life. Torah and Judaism provide a proven source of community and meaning. Within it is a path of great wisdom that has made and continues to make everlasting contributions to the world. That is why Am Yisrael Chai— “the Jewish People lives,” where other nations and civilizations of the past do not, and will be around for a long time to come.
We have to see that it is a blessing to live as Jews in a world in which we can live both in and outside the land of Israel. We not only survive but we thrive as Jews. There is so much to celebrate and to be proud of in being a part of the Jewish people. But we have to do the hard work of being a part of the community and not say it’s too hard to be Jewish because we don’t want to have to deal with antisemitism and hate. We can defeat those who seek to destroy us but only if we are willing to put in the work, build the commitment to our Jewish community, to our synagogue, to our Jewish identity. If we are not willing to do the hard work, then they win. So find your place, find your voice, find your connection to your Jewish life. If we want our community to survive, if we want Judaism to endure for generations to come, then don’t rely on someone else to do the work. And please, do not have the attitude that since Judaism has existed for millennia that it will always exist and that we can just walk away from it until the time comes when we need our Judaism and Jewish community. We cannot rely on someone else to be the caretaker of Judaism rather, that responsibility belongs to each and every one of us.
What is the hard work you are going to do this year? How are you going to be involved and a part of Jewish living and this community? How are you going to take responsibility to not let those who seek our destruction win? Yes, I’m putting this on each and every one of you here today. This is a new year and one person cannot do it alone. What is your commitment to your Jewish life this year? How can we count on you to ensure that Judaism is here for generations to come and specifically that Temple Beth Sholom remains as a synagogue and not a nice rental facility. God does not pay the bills and keep the lights on. Rabbi Tarfon used to say:
לֹא ָעֶליָך ַהְמָּלאָכה ִלְגמֹר, וְלֹא אַָתּה ֶבּן חוִֹרין ְלִהָבֵּטל ִמֶמָּנּה. It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. (Pirke Avot
2:16) We cannot rely only on the work of those who came before us for they left much undone. Therefore, we have hard work to do and we can, but we have to partner together to not only stamp out antisemitism and also ensure the continuity of Judaism. This is our blessing.
On this Rosh Hashanah let us roll up our sleeves, celebrate together, support each other in times of need and dream what it is we hope to do and who it is we want to be in this coming new year of 5780.