Monthly Clergy Message - Rabbi Weiss>
Growing up in New York City, I never felt that I had to keep my Jewish identity a secret. While Jews were always technically a minority, I always felt connected to the larger community. Despite some alienation during the December holidays and a High School prom planned on Shabbat, my Judaism was not something I felt I had to conceal.
Each year when we read the Purim story of Queen Esther and Mordecai, it was hard for me to connect with a world in which Jews had to hide their identities. We learn that Esther’s lesser known Hebrew name was Hadassah and she was not easily identified as a Jew, so much so that her husband, King Achashverosh knew nothing about this identity—I guess that means they didn’t have a Jewish wedding?
Her cousin Mordecai, on the other hand, wore his religion outwardly. He had a Jewish name, refused to bow down to Haman, and looked stereotypically Jewish. For publicly identifying as Jewish, his life, along with all other identifiable Jews, becomes endangered.
When I sat down to write this Chadashot article, the news had been filled with the recent anti-Semitic attacks in New York during the week of Hanukkah including in Monsey, which followed another hate crime in New Jersey. According to a New York blog, “The City” there has been a 23 percent spike in anti-Semitic hate crime complaints this year. According to NYPD statistics, 227 anti-Semitic incidents have been reported.
This world seems a very different one from the one in which I grew up. I hear our local high school students talk about swastikas found in their schools and anti-Semitic comments made by friends. I never felt unsafe because of my Jewish identity, and like Mordecai, the name Baht, did not exactly allow myself to hide my religious affiliation. As a synagogue in California was desecrated right before Hanukkah and then followed by these crimes in my native town—it makes our Biblical stories suddenly, sadly, become more identifiable.
And it is the Jews who look most outwardly Jewish==wear a kippa or a yarmulke, dress in Chassidic dress or don beards and those that shop at Kosher supermarkets and those that attend synagogues across the country, that like Mordecai become those that are the greatest target.
Many Jews have been going “underground” and concealing their Judaism to not risk attack. In a survey of American Jews by the American Jewish Committee, released in October, 31 percent of respondents said they had taken steps to hide their Jewish identity in public while 25 percent said they now avoided Jewish Sites. AJC CE0 David Harris points out, that this was before the recent attacks in Monsey and Jersey City.
Queen also was tempted to act this way. She was afraid of putting herself in danger by affiliating, but ultimately, she knew it was her responsibility to be true to herself and her people. We find ourselves in a moment like Esther did—when we wonder if we should stand up and speak out or try to blend in.
I will be diving into this concept of our Dual Identities as Jews and Americans during a Live and Learn Series this month on February 4, 11 and 18 at 10:30am and comparing our lives to the Purim story of Shushan. I hope you will join me.
There will always be individuals that will threaten our religious freedom. Despite these fearful times, how can, we like Queen Esther, come out as Jews? It could be as simple as wearing a Jewish star necklace in public to standing in solidarity with all Jews and all religions-realizing that hate is hate.
An opinion column in the New York Times, reminds us that “we cannot allow this situation to become the ‘new normal’ as if attacks on Americans because of their religious or ethnic identities are now expected as part of every day lives. These attacks violate everything that Americans should hold dear. An attack on any American group is a threat to the pluralistic fabric of our nation.”
We must continue to show up at synagogues and at churches and at mosques to support each other. We cannot be afraid to speak out against injustice because as Mordecai told Esther, “perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:14)
We must use all positions of power and influence to speak out against hate and to be proud of our Jewish identity. One of my favorite examples of the power of community engagement is what happened in Billings Montana in 1993 after a year of racist and anti-Semitic incitements that culminated with the throwing of a brick through the bedroom window of a young child in a Jewish home that had a menorah on display. In response to this, under the leadership of the police chief and a newspaper editor, paper cutouts of a menorah were made widely available. Thousands of households in Billings put them in their windows, the message was clear Anti-Semitism and Racism had no place there.
As we prepare for the next Jewish holiday of Purim, may we take off our masks that hide our true identity. May we be proud of who we are and refuse to live in fear. Let us summon our own inner Queen Esther and speak out for what is right.
 Loewy, Nita and Harris, David “How to Respond to Anti-Semitic Attack in Monsey,” NY Times December 30, 2019