What Are We Going to Do About It?

Yom Kippur Day 5780

It was a Saturday morning around 8am. I picked up a few dozen donuts and drove to Sinai to deliver breakfast to our 5th and 6th students who spent the night sleeping at the temple. When I arrived, half of the students were barely awake, struggling to pack up their sleeping bags,  and the other half  had a ton of energy, “we’ve been awake since 5, rabbi!”. And by 9, all students had been picked up. I got in my car feeling like the Shabbat sleepover was a success. The 5th and 6th graders had a great time, and everyone made it home safely.

Well, not everyone. It was October 27th, 2018.

As our students made their way home safely that Shabbat morning,  a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire. 11 worshipers were murdered. 7 others wounded. All at the hands of a terrorist fueled by hate.

I haven’t felt the same since. I haven’t felt the same in any synagogue since.

 And I know I’m not alone.

I don’t like how I now feel. I don’t like how I now feel because I loved being in synagogues. One of the things I love most about services [here] at Sinai is the opportunity to sit up on the bima next to Rabbis Limmer and Zinn. I love looking out into the sanctuary at your faces, sharing a smile across the room. I love watching the joyous energy of congregants singing out loud to heartfelt prayers. I love the warm feeling of our community coming together at the end of the week to pause for Shabbat. 

But since Pittsburgh, sitting on the bima has felt different. Since Pittsburgh, sitting on the bima IS different. The joy I once felt sitting on the bima staring out into the congregation has been clouded by concern, by suspicion, and if I’m being really honest, by fear, too.

Now when I sit on the bima, I look out into the congregation, and think:

 “What would I do tonight if a shooter came in?”

“Which door would I leave through?”

“How quickly could I exit?”

I don’t like to admit it, but every time someone I don’t recognize walks into the sanctuary, I’ll even turn to Rabbi Zinn or Rabbi Limmer and ask, “Do you know that person?”

Or if someone walks in with a large bag, I think to myself:

            “I really hope our security team checked that.”

In so many ways, our bima, which was once a place of comfort, warmth and security, has been taken away from me. Instead it has become a place where I feel insecure, worried, and scared.

 For most of my lifetime, the word “antisemitism” was used only in talking about historical events of the past — restricted country clubs in Chicago,  Pogroms in Europe, and of course the Shoah. Even on the North Shore where I grew up,  I still remember my Nana pointing to the side of the road, and saying “here is where there used to be a sign that said, “No dogs. No Jews.”

I simply listened to these stories, sheltered by safety of the 1990s. From the youngest age the words “never again” were ingrained in my heart and mind, but I never thought they were a call to action; I understood them, instead, as a promise:  We’ve learned from the past, and never again would we encounter that type of hatred. Or so I mistakenly assumed, or perhaps I blindly closed my eyes to what was happening beneath the surface.

Slowly it became clear that antisemitism was once again on the rise, but in Europe. In May of 2014 I read online as a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels killing four people. And in January 2015 I watched on TV, as four Jewish men were killed at a Kosher supermarket in Paris. But that was far away; that was Europe. The trope “it can never happen here” continued in America. It may have been time for Jews in Europe to begin to think about leaving, but America remained a safe haven. Or so we thought.

In a million years, and among all the possible high holy day sermon topics I could deliver, never did I think that I would have to speak about Antisemitism on Yom Kippur, let alone within the first five years of my rabbinate. I don’t want to give this sermon. But, I need to give this sermon.

In this past year alone, the year of the first mass synagogue shooting in American history over 300 antisemitic incidents occurred in our K-12 secular schools, and over 200 incidents were recorded at Jewish institutions. 2018 was not an isolated episode: the number of antisemitic incents in the United States rose 57% from 2016 to 2017.[1]  We are no longer experiencing the antisemitism of ages past, or witnessing it from afar.  We are talking about the present, what is happening right here and right now.

There is no question antisemitism is getting worse. The question for us today is: what are we going to do about it?

Well, we know what we cannot do: we cannot do nothing. This afternoon, we will read the following from the book of Leviticus: lo ta’amod al dam reacha, You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.[2] Remaining idle, simply standing by and watching antisemitism unfold, worsen, and spread is not on option.  We need to do something.

This morning I’d like to propose three ways for us to respond to the antisemitism that is becoming pervasive in our world, our country and even in our community.

The first is: stand up and speak out.

It sounds trite, I know. Even obvious. And there may be nothing original about the message to call out antisemitic language and behavior. But I can’t give a sermon this morning without making it clear that we have come to a moment in time where if we don’t speak out, if we remain silent, antisemitism will continue to be normalized and continue to erupt in violence. Even more importantly, renowned Historian and author of the book “Antisemitism: Here and Now” Deborah Lipstadt teaches, “sometimes the most harm can be done, not by the violent, in-your-face, self-professed Jew-hater, but by ordinary people who have acquired these views almost through cultural osmosis.”[3]

We can’t let our culture continue to passively absorb antisemitism. We need to call it out every time it rears its ugly head. And that is hard. And that is uncomfortable. And we don’t always want to do it.

You see, part of the goal of antisemites is just that. To make us feel resentful that we have to engage. To make us feel shame at having to call out antisemitic language and behavior. To make it tempting to be invisible and powerless. But since there is no doubt antisemitism has intruded into the center of American life, we know we can be the only people who can push it back to the margins of our society.

So whether we like it or not, we have to stop every incident of antisemtic speech, every single time we hear it. When we hear jokes about Jews and money, or stereotypical name calling someone a “JAP,” a Jewish American Princess- poking fun at ourselves only sends a message that it is okay for others to do so as well.  When we see swastikas in our schools or on city buses, we must report the hate crime. When we hear a student called a “dirty Jew” at their very diverse private school, we must make sure that the person uttering the antisemitic phrase is called out and held accountable. Words are not only hurtful, they are harmful. Antisemitism may begin with hateful social media posts, but it worsens through acts of violence.

I haven’t felt the same in a synagogue since October 27th, 2018, because Antisemitism is assailing us from all sides. Let me make it clear this morning that I don’t care what political camp you are part of — wherever and whenever we see Antisemitism, whether it comes from your own party or not, call it out and never excuse it. Because here’s the problem: the antisemitism that comes from the extreme right and the antisemitism that stems from the extreme left, they come around to meet each other. They actually are in alignment; they line up their sights to delegitimize and destroy the Jewish people. That should worry every one of us. If we want to maintain our own integrity when it comes to fighting antisemitism, we cannot make excuses for antisemitism that hovers on either side.

And if you are thinking to yourself, “I can’t really change another person’s beliefs or actions.” Let me tell you that you are more capable than you think. And let me tell you something further: standing up to antisemitism is not only about changing other people’s minds, it is also about making sure we believe we are the kind of people who believe we can change other people’s minds. We must recognize what’s at stake is about calling out what has become a nearly invisible societal norm and acceptable behavior.  It’s about saying out loud, “I will not accept a society in which hateful language pervades. I will not live in a world in which people are unkind to one another for any reason, no less the religion they practice.”

So that’s number 1, stand up, speak out. Always.

What’s number 2? It’s building bridges.

We know that we cannot fight Antisemitism alone, we need allies;  we need to recognize that Antisemitism does not exist in a vacuum. Just take the shooting in Pittsburgh. Remember what the shooter wrote on social meeting just hours before he opened fire?

            “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”[4]

The gunman who murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue didn’t just hate the Jews. He hated immigrants, too.

And remember the gunman from the shooting at the Chabad Synagogue in Poway California? Just one month before that shooting he was accused of setting fire to a mosque. He didn’t just hate Jews, he hated Muslims too.

Eric Ward, a black activist from the Southern Poverty Law Center teaches that the history of antisemitism is linked to the history of the White Nationalist Movement.  He writes, “antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within White nationalist thought…”[5]

We learn from Ward that antisemitism is connected to other forms of hatred. Bigotry doesn’t discriminate between racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and antisemitism. These forms of hatred are not separate for white nationalists. They are intertwined. Long before Eric Ward, our ancient rabbis taught: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor, we visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and we bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.”[6]

Our safety and security depends on solidarity. We need allies and they need us too.

Therefore, we must redouble our commitment to not stand idly by not only when it comes to antisemtic remarks, but also when it comes to any form of hatred toward any group of people. It is our obligation to prevent the demonization of the Other in our society. When we hear hateful rhetoric it is simply unacceptable to turn a blind eye or laugh it off because a comedian said it on a talk show, or because a leader or a politician affirmed it. We need to remember that hatred for us does not exist in isolation, and that the only way to build bridges and alliances, is to stand up for others before we ask them to stand up for us. We will ensure that we have friends, when first we make sure we are good friends to others in need. 

Number 3: Show up.

It is normal to avoid scary situations. It is human instinct to be deterred by fear. However, when a cloud of fear hangs over where once there was joy, we have to choose between what nourishes joy over what feeds our fears. We must not stay away from Judaism because we are afraid. We must not distance ourselves from Jewish communities. We must not  avoid going to synagogues. No, we need to go to Judaism, run to our Judaism, we need to go to Synagogue and we need to go in and we need to go deeper.

Following the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue, AJC CEO, David Harris said: “It’s grief, it’s solidarity, it’s anger, all that is motivating people. Once you get beyond thoughts and prayers, here’s something tangible you could do; show up.”[7]

And we did. So many of us — those who come to Friday night Shabbat services regularly, those who show up every now and then, and even those who had never before attended a worship service at a synagogue on a Friday evening. In our sanctuary, in sanctuaries all around our country. We declared that night, loudly and proudly: “hate will not destroy us.”

And in just a few weeks, on the anniversary of the Pittsburgh shooting, we will ask that you join us again for #showupforshabbat. And we hope that you will, and we hope that the presence of praying together in a community will give us hope and comfort. But, we cannot wait for another shooting or another anniversary of a violent antisemtic attack to call us to show up. To call us to show our pride and recommit ourselves to Judaism.

It is not enough to show our pride in being Jewish, because “they” hate us. We cannot let antisemitism and our fight against it to become the sum of what it means to be Jewish in 5780. It is enough that they might be redefining our budgets. We cannot let those who hate us deter us from our love of being Jewish. Judaism is far too valuable, far too meaningful, far too important to be replaced by the fight against antisemitism.

The goal of Antisemitism is not only to destroy jews; it is to destroy Judaism.  If the goal of antisemitism is to suck the joy I once felt being Jewish, the joy I once felt being with my Jewish community, the joy I once felt being in synagogue and replace it with fear, then it is up to me to double down on the joy of being Jewish.

What does it mean to double down on being Jewish?

It means that if you come here once a year on Yom Kippur, then in the next year, show up twice. And if you come to services only twice a year, show up four times. If you are a regular at Friday night Shabbat services, show up for our weekday learning. And if you embrace your Judaism on Sunday mornings here at Sinai, well then double down and show up for our holiday celebrations. If you feel joy at Sinai on Mitzvah weekend, volunteering to help those in need, then show up and volunteer all year round, not just one weekend a year.

The early morning of October 27th, 2018 brought me so much joy. I was brought back to my own memories of youth group sleepovers on temple retreats — staying up late laughing so much that we forgot what was so funny, bonding over our shared love for Judaism. That’s why I became a rabbi — I wanted to spread the joy that Judaism once brought to my life to others. I wanted to help foster a deep and meaningful and fun Jewish community for others. I was brought back that early morning to those positive memories.

Where are those positive memories for you? Are they around the family seder tables? Right here in the sanctuary on the High Holy Days listening to the melodies of these days of Awe? Perhaps they are in the chilly fall season spent outdoors in the Sukkah with family and friends. Maybe they can be found through the lights of your Hanukkah menorah that brighten the darkness of the winter nights.

And maybe you don’t have those positive memories yet. Well, then, it’s time to create them.  In fact, even if your heart is filled with the most positive memories of being Jewish, it’s time today to create even more.

On this sacred day of Yom Kippur, we stand not only physically at Sinai [with our Sinai Community], but also metaphorically as we listened moments ago to the words of Deuteronomy, “You stand [at Sinai] this day, all of you.[8]”  Our ancient tradition imagines a time and a place in which we stand, all of us, together, as one family, as one Jewish people. I don’t have a cure for Antisemitism, I wish I did. I can’t carve a path forward that will completely eradicate hate from our world. I wish I could. But what I can stand up here this morning and say is that we must play our part, by doing exactly what our Torah commands of us this day and every day.

To stand again at Sinai, stand upon that mountain top — that place where we came together as one Jewish people with a shared vision, a vision of hope, a vision of redemption. To stand at Sinai as our people did thousands of years ago, with open minds, and dispelled fears. To stand at Sinai and double down on our Judaism, recommitting and rededicating ourselves to a tradition that was built before us, and one that will endure long after. 

Stand Up and Speak Out.

Build Bridges.

Show up.

May this new year of 5780 be a year where we continue to rejoice, continue to celebrate, continue to live so that we keep the chain alive.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will. 

[2] Lev 19:16

[3] Lipstadt, Deborah. Antisemitism: Here and Now. 80.

[6] Gittin 61a

[7] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/claudiakoerner/show-up-for-shabbat-solidarity-pittsburgh

[8] Deuteronomy 29:9.

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