Rosh Hashanah 5780 - How to Fight Anti-Semitism
Shana Tova! Tonight, we begin the year 5780. This past month has been filled with new beginnings—the start of the new school year, new personal endeavors, and new goal setting. Last Tuesday night, Rabbi Pokras and I met with our 30 new confirmation students. One of the highlights early in the confirmation year is our annual trip to New York City to study the Jewish Immigrant Experience in America.
Last year’s class traveled to New York in October. We experienced a joyous Shabbat Friday night. Our spirits were high—our students felt pride in their Jewish identity and comfortable being able to outwardly declare their Judaism in public.
The next morning, we attended Shabbat services at one of the oldest Reform Temples in Manhattan, Temple Emanu-El. There was a real sense of community among our students. Just to be able to spend the entirety of Shabbat with members of the Jewish community was a gift. With our cell phones turned off, we all enjoyed the peace of Shabbat. It was only after services had ended and when we went to greet the rabbis who had officiated at the service, that one of the rabbis informed me what had happened during the service. The date was October 27th, 2018. I learned that at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a Jewish section of Pittsburgh, a man with a gun had entered the synagogue during Shabbat services and yelled out, “All Jews must die,” before firing and killing innocent individuals, including a relative of one of our congregational families.
How was I to tell my students that just as we had been engaging in Shabbat worship together, other Jews attending Shabbat Services elsewhere had been killed. I didn’t want to scare them. As a parent and an adult, I felt a need to reach out to our student’s parents and tell them we were all ok. I wanted them to also know that Temple Emanu-El – an iconic Jewish landmark in NYC – has a small police substation across the street and a large presence of uniformed and under-cover police officers manning the doors and metal detectors that we had been required to walk through upon entry that morning. A sad commentary but now, in the moment, fitting and necessary. We were safe and isolated from what has happening just a few states away.
We sat the students down at the temple and told them what had happened. We told them to feel free to call their parents and check in. Later that night, when we returned to the hotel, we spent about 2 hours processing the students’ feelings. Many shared how this felt no different from the sense of fear they were accustomed to—school shootings and lock down drills. Yet, to me, this attack felt different because it had targeted people specifically as Jews. For our students this is their new normal, it is the world they are growing up in.
For the last couple of years during discussions with our Confirmation Class, I have been horrified to hear how familiar our teenagers are with acts of Anti-Semitism at their schools. The prevalence of these incidents is astounding, and I have to admit, initially my thoughts were centered on “how does this happen in Montgomery County”—from swastikas drawn in restrooms and on desks and football fields, to bullying on social media.
Reflecting on my early years in New York and growing up, this was not something I recall having any regular exposure to – but for our kids, it is a regular occurrence… Growing up I tried to blend in with my neighbors. While I always had a strong Jewish identity, I saw myself equally as an American. If asked if I was a Jew first or an American first—I refused to answer—saying they weren’t mutually exclusive. I always felt I belonged here.
But now it seems the world is asking us to choose.
Our loyalties are being called into question as well as our sense of acceptance and security.
For many years America has felt like a safe place for Jews. We weren’t always welcomed openly in mainstream places. Places like universities and Country Clubs. My alma matter Brandeis University was founded in response to this as was Woodmont Country Club just down the street. Nowadays we are welcomed into most places in which we desire entry. We may have felt like a minority, but we weren’t always as apparent. With a diminishing number of Holocaust survivors still alive to bear witness and influence younger generations, a segment of people who lack any understanding of what living in a world that was anti-Semitic was like. That said, we keep waiting for something like what happened at Tree of Life to happen again.
For the last five years we have heard of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. After the atrocities of the Holocaust it was hard to fathom witnessing it again. We started to wonder if this was really the 21st century when the news felt strangely reminiscent of the 1930s.
According to a survey conducted by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights which tried to gauge the Jewish perception of anti-Semitism in Europe, 90 percent of the respondents reported that they noticed an increase in acts of anti-Semitism in the last five years, with 1 out of 5 respondents sharing that they had personally been assaulted or harassed. 85 percent of those polled in Germany, expressed a high level of anti-Semitism.
And while this is alarming it felt far away — “it’s” in Europe. Perhaps we were naïve or perhaps we choose not to identify with it as being a local problem. But now it feels real, more local, more personal…. It isn’t so foreign or offshore, it is happening, and it is occurring close by – and it needs our attention.
What grabbed our attention here in America was the march in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017 when white nationalists and Neo-Nazis marched in protest of the removal of the statue of Robert Lee, a slave owner. These protesters marched holding torches, chanting the words, “Jews will not replace us.”
What made Charlottesville different than other acts of white supremacy was that these men didn’t wear hoods hiding their identity; rather, they marched in khakis and polos, at first glance – regular and like everyone else, identifying that this is what America looks like while powerfully and inaudibly revealing – ‘and it’s all around you”. It was frightening to watch it all out in the open and men bearing no shame of their hatred. It wasn’t a movie, it was legally conducted, and it wasn’t something that we could write off as alien or foreign – these first amendment protected protesters are local and live in our communities – in Virginia or DC or Rockville.
Journalist and Author Bari Weiss explains in relation to Charlottesville, “our real fear now was that the once-marginal haters—the Neo-Nazis, the white Supremacists…were no longer marginal. They had become the visible exemplars of a new political and cultural style that had overthrown long-standing sets of norms about tolerance, basic decency and civility. The speech and behavior that had until recently been confined to basements and backrooms was now visible on Twitter and cable news.”
And then things got worse. The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh marked the largest act of violence against a Jewish institution on American soil. And just six months later, we experienced another shooting, this time at a Chabad in Poway, California. It’s not just at places of worship that hate crimes occur—we continue to see Religious Jews attacked in New York, on the streets of Brooklyn and in Rockland County as well as several Jewish cemeteries that have been desecrated. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions across the country since 2018. 1,879! This is the third highest on record since the ADL started tracking such data in the 1970s.
Just a couple of weeks ago, members of the Key of David Christian Center displayed numerous offensive signs at the University of Maryland including one that read “Obey Jesus.” According to a school newspaper article by Char Freeberg who grew up at Beth Ami, “The Christian Center came to the university and taunted students warning them that ‘walking in the ways of Jesus Christ was the only path to prevent them from eternal damnation.” According to one student, they were literally pinpointing people out in the audience, calling people awful names saying we were all going to Hell.” In April, the Key of David Christian Center staged a similar demonstration at Towson University. This is what our kids and grandchildren are encountering on their college campuses.
In her recent book, Anti-Semitism: Here and Now. Professor Deborah Lipstadt notes the role that social media has played in perpetuating these ideas, which has given extremists a new “lease on life” for finding like-minded people and using the internet as a platform to amplify and spread their views. She says. “Many who were uncomfortable with white nationalism and supremacists’ open adulation of Nazis, love of violence, overt Anti-Semitism, and racism and may not join these groups will nonetheless begin to repeat some of their arguments.
Anti-Semitism comes from multiple sources—from the Extreme Right: The White Nationalist movement, from the Liberal Left: The Politicians that hate Israel, and from adherents of Radical Islam.
On the left, we have seen a few Democratic members of Congress sharply criticizing Israel and trying to get bills supporting BDS-the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement passed by Congress. Luckily these measures have failed—and despite the media’s portrayals, most of the Democrats in Congress are supportive of Israel. Yet this represents a trend of those on the left being critical of Israel and has perpetuated this idea that if you are a Democrat you are somehow anti-Semitic.
As Israel has moved politically to the right, many Liberal Jews have felt a growing chasm of shared values. And in London, anti-Semitic Politician Jeremy Corbyn has transformed the left into as Bari Weiss calls it, “a hub of Jew hatred.” Bari Weiss, who herself became a Bat Mitzvah at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, explains, “Right now in America, leftists who share Corbyn’s worldview are building grassroots movements and establishing factions in the Democratic party actively hostile to Jewish power, and ultimately to Jews.
The extreme left leaves many Jews feeling excluded in several ways. Many Jews had to decide if they wanted to participate in a Women’s March because while they believe in women’s rights, they also did not want to support its Anti-Semitic Leaders. Its why Jewish lesbians holding rainbow flags with Jewish stars were kicked out of the so-called Dyke March in Chicago in 2017. And why two years later, that March here in Washington officially banned flags with Jewish Stars under the guise of banning “nationalist symbols.” Bari Weiss points out the irony that “once anti-Semitism required Jews to publicly mark themselves. Now in some of the precincts of progressivism, anti-Semitism requires them not to!”
We need Jews active on both sides of the aisle-in both political parties –Democrats and Republicans to fight for justice and fair legislation and to make it known—that we can be Democrats or Republicans and be both loyal Jews and loyal Americans.
Deborah Lipstadt categorized four types of Anti-Semites
- What she calls Dinner Party Anti-Semites
- And Finally, Clueless Anti-Semitism.
The extremists are the easiest to identify. The enablers are not as obvious. When challenged enablers will often cite personal relationships with the very people they have offended. “Some of my best friends or relatives are Jewish or black or gay so I can’t possibly be anti-Semitic, racist or homophobic.
The enablers are individuals who while they may not see themselves as an anti-Semite, facilitate the spread of anti-Semitism out of purely political or opportunistic motives. Israel has become a political card that they play to fan the flames by calling those on the left anti-Semites and by creating a polarization that being critical of Israel’s politics makes one anti-Israel.
The 3rd kind of Anti-Semite is what Lipstadt cleverly calls the “Dinner Party or Polite Anti-Semites.” She describes these individuals as those who have Jewish business associates, perhaps a Jewish friend or two, are horrified by Charlottesville and donated to the Holocaust Museum. She finds these people more insidious than the overt, unapologetic and easily identifiable kind because they are easily camouflaged, subtle and allusive.
The 4th type of anti-Semite is the Clueless Anti-Semite. We have each had experiences when a friend or colleague or neighbor makes an offensive statement about Jewish people without realizing its inherit prejudice. It’s the person that told you that the store clerk tried to “jew him down,” or the friend that tells you that you must be good with money because you are Jewish. We see it in play out when NJ Councilwoman Kathy McBride makes the statement that “Jew down is not a hateful term but rather a verb for negotiating.”
Consider the following story about a Jewish woman named Sandra.
Sandra had just completed an intense graduate program in New York and had gone out for a celebratory lunch with a small group of fellow students with whom she had become close during the program. Most of them came from cities were there was a very small Jewish population. Sandra was the only Jew at the table. The four other women had been to her parents’ home for more than a few Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders. Most had never interacted with Jews before and had a great time learning about Jewish customs with Sandra’s welcoming family.
During lunch, one of the women described an unadvertised sale at a store nearby. When she finished, she turned to Sandra and said, with great excitement, “I’m really looking forward to seeing what they have. You’re going, of course, aren’t you, Sandra? Can I come along with you? I know you’ll know a bargain when you see one.” When Sandra stared at her, flabbergasted, the woman became flustered.
Sandra took a deep breath and said with a smile, “I don’t think Jews are the only people predisposed to find great ways to save money. Personally, I do most of my shopping online.” The woman stammered out an apology, which Sandra graciously accepted.
What would you have said in that situation?
Lipstadt explains that this is “perhaps the saddest and most personally hurtful manifestations of anti-Semitism. The clueless anti-Semite is an otherwise nice and well-meaning person who is completely unaware that she has internalized anti-Semitism and is perpetuating [those stereotypes].” Many of us hold our own stereotypes of other races, religions, professions and people that live in different locations. And we may not realize when we think we are being funny or matter of fact that we could be hurting those we love.
Tonight, begins Rosh Hashanah, which is supposed to be one of our happiest and most hopeful times of the year. It is the season of new beginnings, a celebration of creation, and time to set new goals and start the year afresh. Yet among our joy, I need to acknowledge a fear that many of us feel. We may be nervous to come to synagogue. By being here you are being courageous. Many people are nervous to send their kids to Jewish preschool or religious school. Some of us feel anxiety entering a temple these days. We are worried what the future looks like for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
But NOT coming to temple is NOT an option. We know that we must stand up against hate and not allow it to prevail.
It was for the same reason so many of us gathered together here at Beth Ami a few days after Pittsburgh for a Solidarity service. –A synagogue, what was supposed to be a safe space was violated, we didn’t want to allow ourselves to give in to fear, and we wanted to be with the Jewish community and feel supported by our neighbors.
We know the threat of anti-Semitism is real—and we don’t want to live in fear. So, what can we do about the rise in Anti-Semitism? How do we combat it?
First- We must affirm our common values and join with other communities who share those values. We need to speak out against all acts of violence—and realize that hatred against one group of people is hate against each of us.
On Rosh Hashanah, we read that when God created the world, God created us Betzelem Elohim—in God’s image –we are charged to recognize the humanity in each and every individual.
Second- We must educate the next generation and give them the tools they need to combat the Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism they encounter especially on college campuses.
Third- Our security is important. Here at Beth Ami we have taken several precautions to enhance your security and your children and grandchildren’s safety when you come to Synagogue. You have noticed that you were asked for a photo id when entering the synagogue—we do this not to cause inconvenience but rather to keep everyone as safe as we can. We have created a security task force and have engaged a security specialist to make our facility safer which includes new locks, blackout shades, and instilled in our staff a heightened vigilance.
We can also be vigilant by actively participating in Jewish life and specifically by being present in temple.
- On the anniversary of the incident at Tree of Life Synagogue, the AJC-The American Jewish Committee is calling for a Shabbat of Solidarity on October 25-26 which they are calling #SHOWUPFORSHABBAT. We must show that we will not be deterred from practicing our religion and being proud of our Jewish identity. So, post pictures of yourself heading off to temple or lighting shabbat candles!
- I am excited to announce that on that same weekend on Sunday, October 27th, Ambassador Dennis Ross will be speaking about his new book, “Be Strong and of Good Courage” in which he illustrates how different Prime Ministers in Israel modeled leadership in difficult times and what we can learn from them.. It is important for us to stay informed on issues facing the Jewish community and Israel.
As Bari Weiss reminds us, “In these trying times, our best strategy is to build a Judaism and Jewish people that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, human, joyful and life affirming…We must create a Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul, and in the souls of anyone who throws in his or her lot with ours.”
We want the future to be safe for our children, our grandchildren and all the generations to follow. As we celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the world, we know there is still much work to be done to make this a place where all people are valued, accepted, and able to live in safety and security. We must continue to show up at Jewish institutions, speak out against hate and educate all those who ignorantly spread the rhetoric of hatred. As our traditional tells us, “We are not obligated to complete the work, yet that doesn’t mean we are free to desist from engaging in it.” May we work as God’s co-creators to make this the kind of world in which we want to live. Wishing each of you a Shana Tova uh-metukah—A Happy and Sweet New Year.
 Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism. CROWN, Penguin Random House, 2019. p.57
 Lipstadt, Deborah E. Anti-Semitism Here and Now. Shocken Books, 2019. p.35
 Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism. CROWN, Penguin Random House, 2019. P86-7
 Weiss, Bari. How to Fight Anti-Semitism. CROWN, Penguin Random House, 2019. P91
 Lipstadt, Deborah E. Anti-Semitism Here and Now. Shocken Books, 2019. p.70-73
 Lipstadt, Deborah E. Anti-Semitism Here and Now. Shocken Books, 2019. p.76
 Weiss, Bari. “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” New York Times, Sunday, September 8, 2019.