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We are Jewish: Fighting back against anti-Semitism

10/09/2019 09:50:47 AM

Oct9

Rabbi Laura J. Abrasley

Like most of my friends and acquaintances in high school, I had a drab blue locker that was located far away from my home room. It was upstairs next to a long row of science classrooms. Everyone knew this was where all the Jewish kids had their lockers. They called it Hebrew Hall.

In my teenage mind, the location wasn’t assigned to me, I chose it. It never occurred to my 14-year-old self that this separation could have been intentional. That they, whoever “they” were, wanted to keep me, and a small group of Jewish kids, apart from the others.

Back then, I did not consider growing up Jewish in Texas particularly exotic. My family was comfortably middle class and comfortably Jewish. We belonged to a synagogue. I went to religious school and Jewish summer camp. We celebrated the big holidays with my grandparents. I wore t-shirts to youth group retreats emblazoned with Shalom Y’all.

I have no memories of being ashamed that I was Jewish. But I do remember feeling different. A little on the outside looking into a Texas culture that sometimes, for better or worse, mingled freely with Christian culture.

I heard more than once from a “well-meaning” classmate that without Christianity, I couldn’t get into heaven, but it still didn’t occur to me until I was much older, that while growing up Jewish in Texas I was exposed to a subtle form of anti-Semitism. So consciously or unconsciously I avoided uncomfortable questions and conversations. I knew when to try to blend in and not mention my Judaism. I knew it was useless to complain that all the songs we sang at the winter concert were Christmas carols or that when I missed school for the High Holy Days, it was counted as an unexcused absence.

To this day, I sometimes still lean on this early training to build a protective, cautious fence around my outfacing Jewish identity. Years of practice, I suppose. Because being Jewish in Texas was just complicated. I could be Jewish or Texan. But not always openly both. And sometimes, more often than I want to admit, I chose to hide my Judaism because it was easier.

I never imagined that I would ever write a sermon like this one. I know that anti-Semitism exists. I know now that its effects linger on our cultural consciousness. But, I believed, perhaps rather naively, that the vitriol and hatred against Jews I learned reading history books was located on the margins of American society, not in the mainstream and for sure not in my neighborhood.

I must stand here before you on the holiest of days, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and confess to you that I have missed the mark. My fear of the unknown and my fear of exposure has prevented me until now from standing up and calling out anti-Semitism in all its forms, big and small, intentional and accidental, from the left and from the right and from the middle.

Sadly, Anti-Semitism is as old as Judaism itself. In his book First The Jews, Rabbi Evan Moffic suggests that this “hostility towards Jews and Judaism”[1] can be traced back to an Egyptian priest named Manetho in the 3rd century BCE. Manetho wrote history during the time of the pharaohs. His version of the Exodus story, distinctly different from the one we find in the Hebrew Bible, “establishes the Jews as deceitful people dedicated to undermining society wherever they live.”[2]

Sound familiar? A quick glance at anti-Semitic incidents and rhetoric over the last couple of years suggests this idea of Jews as “deceitful people” still drives anti-Semites in the 21st century. And we suffer for it. With each passing day, I fear the comfort, security and acceptance I’ve always felt as an American Jew is under fire. I’ve struggled with the right response to help all of us feel safe, with a response that recognizes and respects our different understandings, with a response that resonates with Jewish wisdom and values.

So, today, I must confess that my Texas upbringing of making nice does not seem to matter anymore. I must confess that we can no longer hope it will go away. The time has come to wake up.

But wake up to what? You do not need me to remind you of the alarming increase in hate crimes against Jews in cities across the country.[3] You know about neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” About unthinkable violence and loss on an October morning as Jews in Squirrel Hill gathered for Shabbat prayers. About politicians in Europe and America dredging up old accusations of diaspora Jews disloyalty.

You do not need me to tell you all the reasons you should be concerned. You need me for comfort. To remind you that things will be okay. That modern Judaism is a worthy, strong, powerful religious practice.

But the words of my German grandmother reverberate in my ear. Ellen rarely spoke about her childhood in Germany before Hitler rose to power, but she would sometimes issue a warning when pressed about the past. She challenged us not to abandon our Jewish identity, not to get so comfortable that we forget our Judaism. In Germany, everything was fine.  Until it wasn’t.

I fear everything is not fine in America today. But all is not yet lost. We have the answers to fight back against anti-Semitism. They are found right here in our communal experience of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur can feel very personal. The experience of fasting, prayer and reflection calls us to recount our specific individual lives. But to dwell only on our personal fate misses the point of Yom Kippur’s central theme of vidui, of confession. 

The ritual of confession is ancient, recounted in our Torah. It was practiced by the High Priest on our behalf. The priest would receive our mistakes and transgressions and transmit them to a designated animal, usually a goat, who would be set free in the wilderness, literally taking away the community’s sins for another year. With the destruction of the Temple, the obligation of atonement transferred to the people. Today, we personally take responsibility for the sins committed, the missed opportunities, the times we did not speak out, the times we hid, the times we pretended or hoped it would all go away.

And on Yom Kippur, our confession purposefully happens in the collective. Ashamnu is not just about me, it’s about we. Even if we did not commit each sin ourselves. So why “we?” A beautiful phrase in our tradition answers this succinctly. Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All of Israel (the collective, inclusive, diverse Jewish people) is responsible for one another.[4]

Our collective confession on this most powerful of days is a sign of our collective strength. It serves an important purpose: to inspire our collective resolve.

I have agonized over this sermon, struggled with just the right words to ease your fears. I fell short again and again, my words focused only on challenge and fear. I would read over my notes and slip into a deep funk, worried that our new reality is stronger than my optimism.

Then I remembered the day after Tree of Life. And how this community came together to stand as one in the face of a tragedy that happened in a synagogue that felt so much like our own. I spoke that day about a teaching from Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of the state of Israel. I shared:

“Kook taught about what we must do when faced with sinat chinam, baseless hatred. “If we are destroyed - and the world with us - due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love – ahavat chiman.”[5] The only way to destroy powerful hate is to completely overwhelm it with powerful love.”

What you (and frankly I) need now is love. But not just love for the other, for the one who wants to destroy that which they do not understand. Love for ourselves and love for Judaism. I want us to see the strength in that love. That we inherit a remarkable, complicated, ever-evolving tradition with a strength not just in survival, but in revival.

Every generation revives and reimagines Judaism against voices inside a secular society that threatens to push us permanently into history. Today, we refuse to let that happen. We will stand our ground and insist the diverse, inclusive, expanding Jewish community is here to stay.

One of my favorite verses from Torah comes from the middle of the book of Exodus. God asks the Israelites. Will you be my people? Will you follow the strength of the tradition I lay before you? And the people respond: “na’aseh v’nishmah” -- we will do, and we will understand[6].  For generations we have answered, “na’aseh v’nishmah” - we will do … and in the doing of Judaism, we will understand that our strength comes from embodying Jewish values and Jewish practice, as they evolve and change across the generations.

This morning, we renew our commitment to our individual and collective Jewish strength. We can begin by cultivating a strong pride in our Jewish identity. A quick story to illustrate how.

A few days after Tree of Life, I stood behind my car for a good 10 minutes staring at the magnet from Noah’s day school. It’s in Hebrew. I wondered, is this visibility a good idea anymore? I took the sticker off and headed over to get some lunch at a nearby restaurant. On my way in, a young man held the door open for me. When I looked up to thank him, I noticed his kippah. He left. But instead of walking inside, something in me felt compelled to run after him. I caught up to him and blurted out, “I have to thank you again.” Before he could open his mouth, I continued, “Yes, for holding the door, but really for wearing your kippah. I am Jewish, too. And I’m thankful you’re wearing your Judaism with pride these days.” He smiled and wished me a good day. I went back to my car and put the magnet from Noah’s day school back on.

No more hiding. No more Texas two-step. The days of “show a little but not too much” are officially over. We need to fight back with love and not hate. With pride, not fear. We have a moral compass in our DNA to guide us. Since our biblical beginnings we have pushed back against the evil and injustice that threatened to destroy us.

Moses refused to bow down to pharoah. The Hebrew prophets dedicated themselves, often at great risk, to speaking out wherever they saw immoral behavior. Fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto resisted against all odds until the bitter end. Today we continue this strong legacy of pushing back evil and pursuing justice for ourselves.

After the Tree of Life tragedy, we held a Friday night service called Show Up for Shabbat. The Jewish community demonstrated its collective strength in numbers. Here at Temple Shalom, we packed the Sanctuary and sang out together. In the midst of so much challenge and sadness, we demonstrated our collective strength with palpable joy. What would it take to make every Shabbat a picture of our collective strength and palpable joy?

Judaism has so much to offer all of us. But without all of you there is no collective Jewish community. And as much as I like arguing with Rabbi Berry about the intricacies of a Hebrew word and its proper translation, I would much prefer for you to come here regularly to challenge and engage with us.
 

Tradition teaches that when we finish reading a book in the Torah, those gathered immediately recite the words: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and we will be strong. Wondering why we say chazak twice, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman teaches that “It is to tell us that if you and I are strong, then together we are even stronger.”[7]

The forces of anti-Semitism are mighty. But we, the collective Jewish community, are stronger. Our strength is in showing up, singing loudly, standing up to falsehoods, wearing our Judaism proudly – out loud and without reservation.

Many years ago, I read a powerful book entitled “I am Jewish.” Inspired by the last words of the journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Islamic militants in Pakistan, it gathered statements on Jewish identity by a diverse group of Jews: writers, rabbis, students, actors and politicians. Everyone was asked to respond to Pearl’s powerful last words, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish”. One of my favorites has a refrain that stuck in my head all these years. It’s written by a 14-year-old named Felicia. She wrote:

“Being Jewish is not keeping kosher, it’s not going to services every week, and it’s not reading from the Torah daily. Judaism is a decision only you can make. There’s no right or wrong way to be Jewish because no one can tell you how to connect with God. I am a giver, I am a receiver, I am a believer, I am strong, I am proud, and most important, I am Jewish.”[8]

Today I reach back to another 14-year-old standing alone in a Texas high school hallway. I hold her hand, and we come together to connect with the strong legacy of our Jewish identity, practice and community. We brush off our fear and refuse to hide. Our Jewish strength propels us together into a strong and bright future. We say together:

We are strong. We are proud. We are Jewish.

Won’t you stand with us? We need you now more than ever.

We are strong.

We are proud.

We are Jewish.

 

[1] Rabbi Evan Moffic. First The Jews: Combating the World’s Longest-Running Hate Campaign. 2019, pg. xi

[2] Ibid. pg. 84

[3] www.adl.org

[4] BT Shevuot 39a

[5] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Orot HaKodesh vol. III. pg. 324

[6] Exodus 24:7

[8] Judea and Ruth Pearl. I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. 2004. pg. 121

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780