One day a rumor spread of a food delivery the next morning. A line formed early outside the supermarket. Soviets of every background gathered, hoping they might feed their families.
Several hours later, a store employee announced: “Attention please. The delivery will be arriving shortly. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough for everyone. Jews: please go home.” Dejectedly, the Jews departed.
Later, the man came out again: “Attention. The delivery will be arriving shortly. But there isn’t enough for everyone. If you’re not a veteran, please step away.” And those who hadn’t served left.
The next time, it was: “Only Communist Party members may remain in line.”
As the sun set: a final announcement: “There is no delivery today. Everyone: go home.”
One Party member then turns to another: “Those Jews! Why do they have all the luck?”
Is the story funny, or is it troubling?
It’s certainly an unsettling reminder that - 200 years after the Enlightenment’s promise that all people are equal - religious discrimination still flourishes in our world.
The statistics about antisemitism (the discrimination aimed specifically at us because we’re Jewish) are alarming. According to the ADL more than one billion people globally hold antisemitic views.
Those attitudes have frightening consequences. Internationally, the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University reports that Germany (as just one example) had a 70% increase in violent anti-Semitism in 2018.
Domestically, the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October was the single deadliest expression of antisemitism in American history. But there were also 38 other physical assaults against Jews across the country last year, a 105% increase over 2017.
And in New York City: the NYPD reports that 57% of all hate crimes in the city were antisemitic during the first quarter of 2019, almost double from the same period a year earlier.
So, yes, antisemitism in America includes the high profile and senseless violence of Pittsburgh, and of Poway, but it also hit closer to home. Six months ago, swastikas were found at a New Rochelle Middle School, both in the bathroom and in the back of textbooks. And even more recently, the symbol of Nazi hate was found in a Scarsdale High School bathroom and in Pelham Middle School.
The ADL notes that 249 incidents in 2018 were attributed to extremist groups and extremist ideology. Ideology was certainly at play in Pittsburgh, where the perpetrator had a documented history of engagement with the white supremacist fringe. He was a follower of the groups that gathered under the “Unite the Right” umbrella in Charlottesville in 2017. And he internalized that hate-mongering, and acted on it, when he attacked Tree of Life last year.
Deborah Lipstadt, one of our leading authorities on antisemitism, observes that one of the things that makes this moment particularly troubling is the fact that “we’re seeing a perfect storm, in that usually [antisemitism] comes from either the right or the left politically. Today we’re seeing it from the political right and the political left…”.
Take, for example, the case of the spring 2017 Chicago Dyke March, seeking to celebrate the rights of lesbians, as part of Chicago’s Pride Month. Three women were forced to leave the parade that year because they carried a rainbow flag that had a Jewish star on it. March participants were triggered by their perception of an Israeli flag. And because the march protested all oppression, the Jewish marchers were forced out.
Israel-supporting activists were subsequently excluded from other women’s marches. And this year’s Dyke March in Washington DC specifically banned the presence of Israeli flags, to show concern for the well-being of Palestinians.
I’m concerned for the plight of the Palestinians too. But when the right to march with an Israeli flag is trumped by concern for the Palestinians, with anti Zionists calling for Israel’s destruction, that becomes a dangerous expression of antisemitism.
And so: this evening we stand up to hatred and discrimination in all its forms, including when it shows up in our political discourse. Whether we are speaking of a President of the United States or a freshman congressperson. There is no room in our country for antisemitism or discrimination. We will not stand for it. We cannot afford to stand for it. For the Jewish People’s safety and security and our future both in this country and in Israel requires that we stand up for ourselves on this night of Kol Nidre, and on every single night of the year. The very survival of our people depends on it.
In the midst of these difficult times, it’s worth noting that our Yom Kippur fast functions, in part, as a vehicle to get God’s attention.
In that sense, fasting isn’t just about teshuvah. It’s about returning to the age old Jewish spiritual practice of expressing outrage, and begging the Holy One on High to empower us to act. Yom Kippur is our hunger strike. Help us O God, and save us, from the hatred and vitriol that we inflict on one another, and turn us, and our world, toward good.
It’s also important to clarify that this isn’t just political. It’s also personal. It’s personal when we have to keep our synagogue’s doors locked at all times because we never know who will walk in next. It’s personal when our preschool stocks lollipops to quickly quiet kids down during an emergency. And it’s personal when we must explain to our children why there are people who just hate Jews.
There’s a liturgical reading in English that I grew up reciting at Shabbat services. The refrain of the reading was: May the door of this synagogue be wide enough….and it was a prayer about inclusion and welcome.
The challenge that lies before us is: how can we honor that core value (of Judaism, and our synagogue) when the events of last year have taught us that vigilant watchfulness of our doors is also a necessity.
In the last year, we have taken several specific steps to enhance our security here. We’ve coated many of the windows and doors on the first floor with shatterproof film. We’ve added a PA system to reach the entire building to improve communications. We’ve installed new glass at the school entrance so our guards can see out, but others cannot see in. And we’ve added a state of the art access mechanism to the sanctuary side entrance. All of those steps to better enable us to watch our doors.
But closing our doors against the outside: never. In fact, our way forward is to open our doors, our minds, and our hearts even wider than before.
It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to only think of antisemitism as a “Jewish Problem.”
Antisemitism is a core component of a larger human crisis of discrimination. Anytime we “other” someone, with violence, name-calling, or second class treatment, we create a world where hate flourishes.
Discriminatory hate afflicts immigrants, those who identify as queer, people of color, the poor, women everywhere, and any population persecuted because of their faith.
Maybe you’re asking: why should we concern ourselves with the sufferings of others? Particularly after the antisemitism of the last year, isn’t it time to turn inward and look after our own? Our Tradition fundamentally disagrees.
Judaism is clear. We cannot build up a wall that segregates Jews from other discriminated-against minorities. Judaism is about breaking down walls and barriers - so that we can see our neighbors for the human beings they are: equally deserving of God’s love - and our own.
That ethos comes to us from a number of places in Torah, but perhaps none more powerfully than the words we will read tomorrow afternoon, from the heart of the Book of Leviticus: v’ahavta l’reiacha k’mocha - love your neighbor as yourself.
Contemporary Bible scholar S. Tamar Kamionkowski notes that the Hebrew construction v’ahavta l’ is unique and means to convey that loving one’s neighbor isn’t just an internal emotion we feel. She writes “there is an implication of action” in the commandment. Or, as Samson Raphael Hirsch of 19th century Germany, puts it: the commandment “proclaims the complete equality of all as the guiding principle for all of our actions. It appeals to us to seek our neighbor’s welfare as though it were our own; to transform egotism and self-love into love and respect for our neighbor; and to learn to love and respect each fellow [person] as our full equal.”
The imperative to care about others who suffer also grows out of our experience of the Holocaust.
Martin Neimoller - the Protestant pastor and anti-Nazi activist, famously observed:
First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out—because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out— because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out—because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemoller understood that when it comes to intolerance: we’re all in this together. If one minority is targeted, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us are as well.
Niemoller is echoed in the profound work of Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg. In the late 1950s, Greenberg realized that the only practical way to minimize antisemitism (and other discrimination) is for diverse people to come together and build bridges.
Greenberg warned that pluralism - simply tolerating those who are different - is not enough. We must move from pluralism to partnership. He writes: “Each partner affirms that its truth […] alone cannot fulfill God’s dreams. The world needs the contribution that the other […] can make […]. A partner affirms […] that God assigns different roles and different contributions to different [groups of people].”
We cannot fix the ills of this world ourselves. We have to dialogue and build partnerships with those who are different.
We had an opportunity to build some of those partnerships this past year. In the aftermath of the massacre in Christchurch in March, I prayed with our friends at Upper Westchester Muslim Society, and addressed their community, at a Friday prayer service.
We also had two rounds of dialogue with Father Don Baker and his Catholic community, where we explored texts and spoke about potential new opportunities for values-based collaboration as we move forward. Stay tuned for additional dialogue opportunities with them in the year ahead. All of this was, and is, inspired by Yitz Greenberg’s vision that Jewish communal life is strengthened and fortified against antisemitism when we build relationships of trust and partnership with other faith traditions.
It’s not enough, though, to dream of a rosy-colored future where we’ll all get along with one another. We need tangible steps to translate our inner outrage over antisemitism and discrimination into abiding positive change.
In addition to my earlier reference to fasting as a spiritual practice that enables us to vent our outrage to God over the hate we face in this world, let us also, on this Yom Kippur, re-dedicate ourselves to more thoughtful and wide-ranging study on the question of antisemitism in modern Jewish history. Join me later this year for a series of classes exploring the intersection between antisemitism and Zionism. It’ll be part history, part philosophy, and part current events as we seek to untangle the relationship between the enduring hatred of the Jewish People, and our vision for a safe and secure Jewish State. Join the conversation, and be moved toward activism as a result.
And, let 5780 be the year when we double down on the ethical and spiritual imperative of building relationships with those who have a different history or life experience than we do. Their history is our history, and it is time for us to go and learn it.
We’ll have the chance to do that together this spring when a synagogue delegation travels to the American South for four days of reflection about the history of the civil rights movement, and all of the ways our Jewish values continue to speak to that movement for change. Join us as we go on this journey of learning, discovery, and bridge building together.
I want to leave you with the image of a rainbow. For more than 3,000 years it has been a Jewish symbol of hope, and a reminder of our obligations to all of humanity.
At the end of the story of Noah, after the flood, after the devastation of violence and loss (and oh how we and so many others have suffered violence and loss this past year): the rainbow appeared in the sky. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that “The rainbow is a sign of peace in at least three ways: It represents the inverted bow, the weapon turned away so that it doesn’t threaten. It represents all shades and colors joined side by side in a single entity, calling on different races and nations to do the same. And it represents the promise that, no matter how hard it may rain, the rain will eventually stop - and the sun will come out again.”
After the flood, the waters calmed. The sun came out. And the rainbow appeared: marking the path forward. Toward new beginnings. New possibilities. And a renewed commitment for the diversity of humanity to find a way to march forward - living in peace together. That was Noah’s hope then; and it is our hope again…tonight.