Posted tagged ‘Antisemitism’

ANTISEMITISM: THE REALITY OF THE CHALLENGE

January 13, 2019

Mark Finkelstein of the Jewish Community Relations Board of the Des Moines Jewish Federation was kind enough to ask me to prepare a statement on the topic of contemporary antisemitism which he hoped in include in the proceedings of two statewide meetings on antisemitism. He asked this of me because I have been very concerned with and have posted extensively on Facebook, about the frightening growth of antisemitism around the world and here in the United States for several years, and especially since 2014.  He asked that I limit it to 2 pages, so of course, I wrote 3.  Truth is, even in the 3 pages I wrote, I was only scratching the surface of what needs to be said.  Nevertheless, I now wish to share this statement with you.

But before I proceed, let me tell you a little about myself. I was ordained a Reform rabbi in 1975, from the New York City campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1985, I assumed the pulpit of Temple Emanuel of the Quad Cities, from which I retired on July 1, 2017 with the title of Rabbi Emeritus. Since first coming to Iowa, I also have served as an adjunct professor on the faculty of the Theology Department of St. Ambrose University. During my time at St. Ambrose, I have taught one course a year on the Holocaust. For the last several years, that course has been “The Holocaust in Film.” Twice, I have been accepted to participate in seminars for university faculty at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, having studied there with such noted scholars as Victoria Barnett and Deborah Lipstadt. So I am no stranger to the issue of antisemitism and to the struggle to eradicate it.

Along with my teaching about the Holocaust, over the years I have been deeply involved in the struggle for social justice in the Quad Cities, especially focusing on combating the forces of hatred. In November 2016 I was one of the founders of a local organization which we named “One Human Family QCA.” The mission statement of our organization is “To Welcome and protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places of our community.” Fundamental to our organizational philosophy is that we are dedicated to coalition building. We believe that those who hate tend to be “equal opportunity” haters. They do not focus their hate against one targeted group but have more than enough hate in their hearts to target multiple groups. They are not just antisemites but also racists, Islamophobes, homophobes, xenophobes, misogynists, and the list goes on. Therefore, we believe that if hate is ever to be defeated, we cannot maintain a singular focus on only one of its manifestations, such as antisemitism. We must come together as a coalition of targeted groups and people of conscience and stand up, protecting each other in times of distress. For our enemy is not just one manifestation of hate but rather hate itself. If we fight for each other as well as for ourselves, then we have a far better chance to drive back the darkness and bring on the light of a society in which all groups are respected.  As the 1st century Jewish sage Hillel said:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)

It was not long before One Human Family QCA found itself embroiled in a struggle with a nationally based hate group. Early in August of 2017 the White Supremacist group known as the National Alliance began conducting a recruitment campaign in the Quad Cities. They targeted various neighborhoods with their flyers calling upon the people of the community to join their fight to keep our country “racially pure.” Our struggle with them continues to this day. From the Jewish perspective, they made it abundantly clear that the Jews were the masterminds behind a plot to destroy American racial purity. (see their flyer attached to this end of this text)

While it is vital that the Jewish community stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other targeted communities in our battle against the purveyors of hate in our society, that in no way means that we should abandon or minimize our struggle against antisemitism. Quite the opposite. We need to lead the fight against antisemitism, bringing it to the attention of our neighbors (and to our own people) and educating them as to just how toxic is this form of hatred. There are far too many people – Jews as well as non-Jews – who refuse to see the virulence and danger that antisemitism presents. They have a tendency to see us, and we tend to see ourselves, as safe and secure in American society. At one time, not that many years ago, that might have been true. But over the past few years, American society has experienced a massive sea change in which the many faces of hate have been empowered to arise from the shadows and from under their rocks and to become, in a sick way, an acceptable form of public expression. Top of the list has been none other than antisemitism. In the most recent statistical reporting, both by the FBI and the ADL, incidents of antisemitic acts of hatred have topped their lists. In New York City last year, there have been more reported acts of antisemitic hatred than all other acts of hatred combined.

When I started tracking antisemitic activities reported in the media, the overwhelming majority were taking place in Europe (leaving out the Middle East conflict), with but a smattering taking place on our shores. It was in 2014, with the Israeli-Hamas War, that I began to notice a truly frightening change. In various cities, both in Europe and the U.S., pro-Palestinian protests seem to seamlessly move from expressing anti-Israel sentiments to expressing antisemitic sentiments. One protest in Paris ended up besieging a synagogue on Shabbat while another, in Berlin, had marchers chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone” and yet another, in New York City, chose as its venue Manhattan’s Diamond District, in which a large number of the jewelry exchanges are Jewishly owned, and there they chanted, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine must be free!” The “River” being the Jordan River and the “Sea” being the Mediterranean – in other words, all of what was formerly Palestine, including what today is Israel in its pre-1967 borders. Now, let me make this clear:  I am not one of those who automatically equates criticism of the policies of the State of Israel with antisemitism. As someone who has much to criticize about the policies of my own current government, I firmly believe that there are times when criticism of governmental policies can be legitimate. I concur with the sentiments of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – is antisemitic, and not saying so is dishonest.” The events of 2014 brought into crystal clear focus for me just how easy it is for some folks to allow their criticism of the policies of the Israel government to morph into expressions of blatant antisemitism and for other folks to use their criticisms of Israel as a vehicle in which to disguise and sanitize their latent antisemitism.  Along these lines, I cannot help but reflect upon a powerful presentation Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, made to a group of British school children.  He asked them whether or not it was acceptable to criticize some of the policies and actions of the British government, to which they agreed that it was.  He then asked if it was acceptable to call for the destruction of the British state, to which they all readiness said it was not.  He then pointed to that very same distinction when it comes to the State of Israel.

It was in 2014, with all that was going on in morphing criticism of Israeli policies into virulent antisemitism, that I started publishing a regular Facebook post which I called “Antisemitism in Action.” Over the years, I quickly found that I often had more than enough material to publish this posting on a nearly daily basis. It is frightening to realize that almost every day there is an antisemitic incident worthy of publishing. With the passage of years, while antisemitic incidents in Europe have remained very high, there has been an alarming increase in antisemitic incidents here in the U.S. So much so, that in my reporting they have almost eclipsed my sharing of the incidents out of Europe.
Also with the passage of time, it has become increasingly clear that we Jews are being attacked on two fronts; from both the extreme right and the extreme left. When the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, they chanted “The JEWS will not replace us!” Meanwhile today we are struggling with our torn values challenging us to either support the Woman’s March or stand up against the antisemitism so clearly expressed by its national leaders. To the followers of Louis Farrakhan, we Jews are not just White but Whiter than White and the leaders of White suppression against the Blacks. Yet to the White Supremacists and the Neo-Nazis we are anything but White. We are the intended destroyers of the White Race.

I firmly believe that we as Jews can no longer afford to claim that this hatred of us is a passing phenomenon or a manifestation of those who exist on the extremes of our society. We are under a very real and serious threat, in a time when expressing hate in all its forms has become socially acceptable. As we watch our own government go after the Latinos among us – documented as well as undocumented immigrants – and the Black athletes who drop to their knees, as if in prayer, in opposition to the indiscriminate shooting of their brothers and sisters, and the members of the LGBTQ community, as those at the highest levels of our national government try to legislate these Americans out of their citizenship right, and the indigenous Americans who continue to be stripped of their land whenever the wealthy see fit to do so, I cannot help but think of the famous “Martin Niemoller quote:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

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When Purim Invades the Headlines

February 23, 2017

The Jewish world will soon be observing the holiday of Purim.  I said “observing” when truth be known, we Jews don’t just “observe” Purim; we CELEBRATE it!  We dress in costume.  We hold the most raucous, noisiest worship service of the year.  We sing and we shout and we stomp our feet.  We eat and we drink (and I am not just talking about iced tea or punch but the hard stuff, for on Purim the Talmud commands us to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.”[1]).  And then, of course there is the Purim Seudah (feast – in our case, a pizza dinner) and the ever popular Carnival.  We eat hamantaschen, send shlach manot (food gifts to our loved ones) and matanot le’evyonim (gifts to the poor).  It is Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, that December season of giving whose name we never mention, all rolled up into one.  It is one heck of a party and we fondly carry our childhood memories of it with us throughout our lives.

Yet somehow or other, in the midst of all our partying, we can often forget why we party so; what is the cause of the celebration?

The answer is wrapped in a sinister cloud.  It is dark and it is painful.  For Purim commemorates our victory over antisemitism.  It celebrates the defeat of Haman – the Hitler of his day – whose goal it was to accomplish nothing short of a genocide of the Jewish people.  So we party hardy as an affirmation of life in what was supposed to be the face of a certain and horrible death.  Purim is the personification of the old saying, “The definition of every Jewish holiday is:  They tried to kill us.  We won.  Let’s eat!”

Today, most of us intentionally avoid these more somber thoughts when it comes to Purim.  We choose to focus on the joy rather than on the fear.

Unfortunately, this year, at least some of that fear seems to be unavoidable for we have been forced to confront the fact that antisemitism is real and alive in our nation as well as in the rest of the world.  Over the last 72 hours the news media has “discovered” that antisemitism really exists in the United States. The dramatic vandalism of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, with the desecration of over 100 gravestones, along with the addition of 11 more bomb threats to Jewish community centers (bringing the number up to 59 if my math and facts are correct), coupled with the President’s bizarre reticence to address the very issue of antisemitism or to even mention Jews in his statement about Holocaust memorial, and his finally condemning (though weakly) the acts of antisemitism, have forced not only the President but the mainstream media to acknowledge this elephant in the room, if only for the moment. But as we all should know, this issue is an even greater one that many are willing to admit.  And these are only the stories that the mainstream media has picked up on.  For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you know that since 2014 I have been reporting, almost on an daily basis, various acts of antisemitism that have taken place in our country and around the world.  I know that there are those that have found my “Antisemitism in Action” reports to be somewhat irritating and alarmist for our lives have been good lives and we generally don’t live in fear.  But still, these attacks upon our people are real and they have been real for some time now.  Unfortunately, they will continue to be real after this current news cycle ends and the stories of antisemitism once again fade from the headlines.

Obviously, there is nothing new about antisemitism. It has been with us for at least 2,000 years. Over that time it has taken on nuanced changes but at its core, it has essentially remained the same and, of course, its impact upon the Jewish people has most certainly remained the same. It matters but little what excuse the antisemites give for despising us, for degrading us, and for persecuting us, in the end it all results in the same suffering, ranging from humiliation to extermination.

That being said, today what we are experiencing in America is not the same singular hatred that has marked most of the history of antisemitism. Rather, today’s American antisemitism is but one component of a complex dynamic of American hatred that has found its voice and has felt profoundly empowered over the past year, especially in the wake of the recent presidential campaign. For today’s American antisemitism is intimately and inextricably connected to a web of hatred which includes racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism (and probably a few other bigotries I forgot to mention). For quite some time now I have been fond of saying, “Those who hate tend to be equal opportunity haters.” Today in America those “equal opportunity haters” are sensing a new liberation as they are stepping out of the shadows and coming out from under their rocks to assert their prejudices upon our society, and Jew hatred is but one of those prejudices.

But all this should not get us down.  After all, soon it will be Purim and we will be celebrating; celebrating vigorously.  Why will we be celebrating while bomb threats may be continuing to roll in and perhaps other Jewish cemeteries will be desecrated?  We will be celebrating because, just as our history has shown us, no matter what they try to do to us, in the end we will win.  We will win because it is our right to win.  We will win because there are too many good people in this world to allow evil to prosper.

There is an old Midrash about two men on a lake in a rowboat. One of them takes out a drill and starts boring under his seat. The other, in distress, calls out to him: “What do you think you are doing?” The fellow replies: “What do you care? It’s none of your business. I’m drilling under my own seat!” The moral is that we are all in this boat together – sink or swim. We cannot afford to focus solely on the prejudices that attack us personally. We must ban together – all victims of prejudice, along with all people of good conscience – and confront the current hatred in all of its forms, standing up for each other and standing with each other in common purpose.

If we ban together with others of good conscience in opposition to ALL forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, then we will win because we will not let the purveyors of hatred win.  We will stand up to them and we will defeat them, in much the same manner that Mordecai & Esther defeated Haman.  Each of us will just have to choose to be the Mordecai and the Esther of today.  HAPPY PURIM!!!!!!!

 

[1]   Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 7b.

Quad Cities Equality Rally Remarks

January 23, 2017

On Saturday afternoon, January 21st, as 100’s of 1,000’s of men, women, & children were gathering in Washington DC and in communities throughout the nation to protest the objectification of women and the growing dangers of bigotry and hate that have infected our land, in the Quad Cities, a rally was held to show our solidarity with all those throughout the country who were marching.  The rally, which was called an Equality Rally, focused both on the recent challenges to women’s rights and on how that challenge is inextricably connected to a complex of challenges to the rights of many targeted minorities in our society.  The rally was held in the meeting hall of the United Steelworkers Union, in Bettendorf.  The hall was filled beyond overflowing, as a mass of supporters were forced to stand out in front of the hall, due to lack of space inside.  Several inspiring individuals spoke, expressing the pain of women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanics, Indigenous Americans, and people with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.  I was among those honored with an invitation to speak from the perspective of our community’s newest human rights organization – One Human Family QCA (Quad Cities Area).  Below is a transcript of my remarks.

First off, thank you for the honor of allowing me to share these remarks with you today.

Before coming here today, my wife and I were attending a memorial service for Reverend Tom Kalshoven. Tom was the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area from 1973 to 1991. Those of you who knew Rev. Kalshoven know that he was a person profoundly committed to the causes of social justice. He marched with Dr. King. He served as the conscience of this community. I cannot help but think of how thrilled he would have been to see so many of you gathered here to affirm the cause of justice in our community.

We have come together because we are deeply concerned about what has been happening in our nation over the past year or so, and what might very well happen as we journey into the future. Let’s face it. Many of us are more than concerned. We are downright afraid, and with good cause.

This past Monday, I was similarly honored to offer a pastoral prayer at a local Martin Luther King Day celebration. There, too, those who were gathered shared our concerns and our fears. Being Martin Luther King Day, I built my prayer around one of the inspiring teachings of Dr. King. He said, “The arc of history is long, but bends towards justice.” Yet we seem to be living at a time when that arc has been diverted far off of its course, as it travels, not towards justice, but far away from it.

And that is what frightens us, for we have witnessed the forces of hate as they have freely crawled out from under the rocks which have hidden them for so long and have joyously reasserted their ideology of bigotry, and not without the encouragement of some of our nation’s most highly placed individuals. A dark and ominous cloud of prejudice is engulfing our nation. A virulent virus of discrimination is infecting it as the fever of intolerance burns hot in the minds and souls of far too many of our fellow Americans.

Part of what frightens us is that we see the profound dedication of people who hate to their hatred; people like Dylann Roof who is willingly ready to martyr himself in the cause of hate. Part of what frightens us that we have come to recognize that those who thrive on hate tend to be equal opportunity haters. They hate African Americans. They hate Muslims. They hate Jews. They hate Latinos. They hate those who do not share their sexual orientation. They hate those with lifelong mental and physical disabilities. They hate the defenders of the environment. They hate intellectuals. They may not hate women but they sure don’t look upon women as the equal of men. Rather, they prefer to look at women as mere objects placed on earth, primarily to fulfill the physical pleasure of men.

And now such people feel empowered. Now such people are empowered. And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do about that?” Of course, our natural instinct is to respond, “Protest!” but what does that really mean? We sign petitions. We post our feelings on Facebook. We gather for rallies, just like this one. But all these things; they are not really protest. They are but a prelude to protest. For true protest requires us to take action. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not for a week. But ongoing action until we have achieved our goals. We need to work for change, with the emphasis on work; work until the job is done.

Nor can we stand alone. No one group of us can stand alone in our efforts to drive back the darkness. We need to stand together – men, women, young, old, laborers, professionals, people of every color, every race, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of national origins, regardless of religious identity, regardless of political affiliations. We must cross lines and lock arms in common cause. On Monday, I shared with my fellow Martin Luther King Day celebrants, and I share with you now, the classic wisdom of Rev. Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany, who bravely stood up against the Nazis. He said, “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the incurably ill and I did not speak out because I was not incurably ill. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.” We do not have the luxury to think of ourselves as separate from others; as our plight being separate from their plight. Once again, to quote Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we do not choose to stand together then we will not stand at all.

In our community, we have birthed a new organization. We call it One Human Family QCA. Some of you here today already have joined our ranks. Our stated mission is “to protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places in our community.” We are not looking to re-invent the wheel but to work cooperatively with many of the agencies and organizations that already exist to address issues of common concern. And when it comes to certain issues, for which no agencies or organizations exist, then we are ready to open new doors of dialogue and advocacy. Our organization provides but one opportunity to take your concerns and your values and put them into action in order to effect positive change and drive back the darkness that is engulfing us. There are many others dedicated to this cause; organizations like Quad Cities Interfaith and Progressive Action for the Common Good. The point is, when you leave here today, do not see this as an end to your protest but rather as a beginning of the very hard but important work of bringing the arc of history back on course toward justice. To quote a sage from my own Jewish tradition, Hillel the Elder, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Our time is now and our cause is just. We only need to choose to act.

It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

October 4, 2016

Every year we join our fellow Jews around the world in making our annual pilgrimage to the synagogue in observance of the High Holy Days.  But what is it that draws us to this place on this night?  On any given Shabbat, with the exception of special events, there are far, far more empty seats in this sanctuary than there are those that are occupied.  But tonight, the seats that are filled clearly outnumber the seats that are empty.  It is not that we are alone in this experience.  The same could be said of most houses of worship – Jewish and otherwise – across our land.  The non-Jews too have their special days on which their people flock to their sanctuaries in numbers far exceeding their Sabbath worship attendance.

But why is that?  I know that if I were to go around this sanctuary right now and ask each and every one of you individually, “Why did you come here tonight?  What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue” that I would receive an extensive and varied collection of responses.  While as diverse as those responses would be, I suspect that the majority of them would have something to do with connecting with one’s fellow Jews or somehow affirming one’s personal Jewish identity.  “I do it because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.  They go to services on the High Holy Days.”

Now I am sure that there are those of you who feel that way; that there are those of you who feel truly, in your heart of hearts, that “I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do on the High Holy Days” is reason enough to be here tonight.  But is it really?  At one time, maybe it was, but is it now?

I can tell you, not only as a rabbi whose rabbinic career is drawing to a close, but more importantly, as a Jew who has spent his life in the synagogue – and not just any synagogue, but in the Reform synagogue – no longer is that answer enough.  At one time, observing the High Holy Days if, for no other reason than “I am a Jew and this is what Jews do,” meant truly observing them.  It meant, not just going to a service here or a service there and feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to our Jewish identity, but it meant truly setting aside these days for us and our families as Jewish days; as days on which we withdraw from our engagement with the rest of the world and maintain our focus on who we are as Jews.

As a child growing up in New York City in the ‘50‘s and the ‘60’s, it was utterly unthinkable for my Classical Reform Jewish father to attend the Rosh Hashanah Evening service and then go to work on Rosh Hashanah Day, or to go to work after the Rosh Hashanah Morning service, and you could count on the fact that on Yom Kippur my parents spent the entire day in our synagogue, and they were far from alone in that.  And so it was with us children as well.  There was no question in my house as to whether or not I was going to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even for part of the day, for I was not.  If I had even broached the question with my parents – a highly unlikely scenario – they would have had none of it.  Like my parents, I was not alone in this.  For all of my religious school friends, it was the same.  We were in the synagogue for all of the services, sitting beside our parents.

Yet if my parents and most of their contemporaries were asked back then the question I asked you this evening – “What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue?” – many of them, including my parents – or at least my father – would have given the same answer “Because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.”  But that was then and this is now.  For many of my parents’ generation grew up as Orthodox Jews who later discovered Reform Judaism.  My father’s grandfather had been a noted Orthodox educator back in Europe.  Theirs was the generation that experienced both the agony of the Holocaust and the ecstasy of the birth of Israel.  Their Jewish identity was indelibly impressed upon them by the forces of history and family tradition.  Therefore a more active observance of the High Holy Days was a natural expression of their Jewish identity and a product of their experiences and upbringing.

But we are not them, for our experiences and our upbringing are not theirs.  Today, the number of Jews who set these days aside and make it clear to the rest of the world that “You are just going to have to do without me on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” is dwindling.  And it will continue to dwindle, especially as so many of our children are raised in households which choose to send then to school rather than to services on the High Holy Days.

It is not that we are bad people, or even bad Jews.  It is just that with the passage of time, the world has changed and for many Jews, being Jewish and going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days simply because that is what Jews do, is no longer enough of a reason to seriously dedicate more than perhaps a portion of these days to that part of us which is Jewish.

Of course I am certainly prejudiced on this matter, but I believe that the High Holy Days, and indeed Judaism and Jewish life itself, are too important, too precious, not only to us as Jews but to the world, to be allowed to dwindle away into nothingness.  There is a good reason why we have survived for 4,000 years in spite of the efforts of all those who have tried to destroy us.  There is a good reason why we – who have always been so few in numbers – have made such a significant impact upon not only the history of humanity but upon the culture of humanity.  And that reason is to be found enfolded into the very fabric of the Judaism we have come to this synagogue tonight to observe.  It is inherent in Judaism itself and it is both expressed and promoted in our observances and our values.  It is the Jewish perspective on what it means to be a part of humanity.  It is the Jewish call for building a better world on the foundations of compassion and right behavior.  It is the Jewish expectation that we constantly strive to make of ourselves better people.

It is vital for Jewish survival that we come to acknowledge that in the 21st century, doing Jewish things because this is what Jews do is no longer a compelling argument for us to continue to pursue a Jewish life.  There are just too many distractions and to be quite frank, many of them are simply more appealing.  They touch us in ways that are deeper than blindly following some traditions because our parents and grandparents did so.  So if we are to keep our Judaism alive, we need to seek out a deeper meaning in doing so.  Something that moves us.  Something that inspires us.  Something that touches our hearts and our souls, and fills us with a higher sense of purpose.

But where can that be found?  Where should our search begin?  Perhaps we need to go back in time, to a time before the reason Jews did Jewish things like observing the High Holy Days was just “because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do?”  When the reason Jews lived a Jewish life was more substantive than just keeping certain traditions alive for the sake of tradition; when Jews were bound to their Jewish identity by more than just a thin thread stretching back into their past but rather they were bound by golden cords that not only stretched back into their past but also wove intimately through their present and then travelled forward into their future.

So maybe we need to go back in time and ask those Jews “What is it, not just about the High Holy Days, but about Judaism itself that drew them to the synagogue and inspired them to live Jewish lives?”  While some of them still might say, “Because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do”, most of them would say something different. Most of them would talk about something that we today don’t spend enough time talking about, or even thinking about, for that matter.  They would talk about God and their relationship with God.  For them, God was a real player in their lives.  They felt connected to God in ways that we have somehow lost.

Of course one of the reasons that they felt more connected to God was because they felt more dependent on God.  There was so much in their world that they did not understand.  Why some people were struck down by dread diseases.  Why, at a moment’s notice, a storm could utterly destroy the livelihood and even the life of a family or an entire village.  So much seemed out of their control and therefore must be in the control of another, and that other was, in their minds, God.  So they feared God, or more precisely, they feared offending God.  They even called these High Holy Days the Yamim HaNora’im – the “Days of Awe” with the Hebrew word for “Awe” being the very same word as the Hebrew for “Fear.”  So prayer was very real to them.  It was a desperate attempt to communicate with a Divinity that was present in their daily lives, and by so doing hopefully change their future for the better.

We are most certainly not that people and the God whom they feared has little if any place in our lives.  Yet we would be sorely mistaken if we were to convince ourselves that the only God they believed in was the God to be feared. Quite the contrary, for their God was anything but one dimensional.  From the very beginning of Judaism, God was, and remains, a colorful and complex character.  As the High Holy Day prayer describes God, Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.”  Powerful enough to be feared, like a king or a queen, but also loving and compassionate, like a caring mother or father.  Yes, these Jews feared God but they also loved God.  For God was not just the deliverer of punishments but also the giver of gifts. The gifts of life, of health, of food, of love, of beauty, of wisdom, of truth, of understanding, of knowledge, and of the abilities to learn and to create.  Indeed, they clearly understood that when it came to Judaism, it all begins with God.  From the moment of our people’s birth, when God first called to Abraham, Judaism was primarily about establishing a positive, healthy, and mutual relationship with God.  Without God, Judaism must fade away, for God is the foundation stone of everything that Judaism stands for.  Without God, Judaism becomes a meaningless and empty exercise, as empty and meaningless as the words in the prayer book when read by someone who chooses to watch the clock rather than search for a personal connection to God in the prayers.  For our Judaism – and for these High Holy Days – to have real meaning, we have to accept that it all begins with God.

Most Jews would agree that there is no more important a text in the Torah than the Ten Commandments.  The power of the Ten Commandments has not only touched the soul of the Jewish world but of the Christian world as well.  Our two faiths share the Ten Commandments, or so we think.  But believe it or not there are differences between the way the Christians read them and the way we Jews read them.  For the Christians, the first commandment states “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me,” while for us Jews, the first commandment is “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”, period.  For us, it is the second commandment that reads “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Christian version is obviously a commandment.  It instructs to action – “Have no other gods before Me.”  But what about the Jewish version?  It appears to be a declarative statement – “I am the Eternal your God…” rather than a commandment.  Where is its call to action?  Well its call to action is implied and it is essential for everything else which follows; for all the other commandments to have any meaning.  The implied commandment is simply this:  Take this statement to heart and accept it as the foundation for all that follows.  Accept that God exists and that we as Jews live in a sacred relationship with God, and that all the other commandments, all the other expectations of actions and values that are found in the Torah and grow out of it across the ages, are but functions of that relationship between us and God.  They are there to define our role in that relationship.  They feed that relationship and in so doing draw us personally closer to God.

Over the past several years, I have found it odd indeed that people are interested in talking about and seeking spirituality but not so interested in talking about and seeking God, as if the two were completely separate experiences.  But they are not.  Spirituality is far more than just a good feeling about ourselves.  It is about our reaching out for God and God touching our lives.  How so?  Our tradition teaches us that we human beings are not like any other creature living on the earth for we possess something very special; a soul.  The soul was implanted within us by God in order to enable us to connect with God.  It is our divine umbilical cord, if you will, for it enables spiritual energy to flow between us and God.  But that spiritual energy does not flow freely.  It flows at our choosing.  We control how much or how little we receive; how wide or how narrow that umbilical cord is.  If it were solely up to God, the flow would be constant and vast, but God gave us the gift of free will so that we could choose how much or how little we would let God into our lives.  There is a Hasidic saying that “there is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  Sadly, for too many, that is exactly what has happened.  They have turned their control valve and limited the spiritual flow to a trickle, if not closed it off completely, and in so doing, abandoned themselves to being guided primarily or solely by their base animal instincts.  They have starved their souls from the spiritual nutrients they need.

But this need not remain the case.  We can open that value, reach out to God, and feel God’s presence in our lives.  We can feed our souls and in so doing grow as more spiritual and better human beings.  How do we accomplish such a feat?  That is what a better part of our Judaism is about.  It is about how we can connect with God and let God into our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.  Through the Torah and our sacred teachings, we have been given the owner’s manual to the soul.  We have been instructed on how to awaken and strengthen our souls so that we can come to live our lives in an ongoing relationship with God.  Not just on the High Holy Days and not even just on Shabbat, but rather on a day-to-day basis.  For whether we realize it or not, our day-to-day lives are lived in a relationship with God.  However it is up to us what the nature of that relationship will be.  We can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which strengthen the bonds between us and God or we can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which weaken those bonds.  It is up to us.

This past year, here at Temple Emanuel, I taught a series of mini-courses on what our tradition calls MussarMussar is the companion to Halachah.  As Halachah constitutes a body of Jewish laws which lead us to right actions, Mussar constitutes a body of Jewish virtues or ethical perspectives which liberate our souls and enable us to adopt sacred and healthy life attitudes.  While Halachah instructs us about what we should do while living in a sacred relationship with God, Mussar instructs us about how we can better mold our attitudes so that they ultimately instinctually guide us into right behaviors and therefore transform our lives into an active partnership with God.

While the building blocks of Halachah are mitzvot – sacred actions – the building blocks of Mussar are middot – sacred values, sacred attitudes.  I am dedicating the remainder of my High Holy Day sermons to exploring various middot in the hopes that we will begin to understand that if we choose to strengthen our souls by taking on sacred attitudes, then that can lead us to living lives filled with sacred actions, which in turn will connect us more strongly to God and help us to grow into the type of people we aspire to become.

Once we perceive of our lives as being lived in a sacred partnership with God, then we will find that there are far more inspiring reasons to come to the synagogue on the High Holy Days than merely because we are Jews and this is what Jews do.

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

When Silence Becomes Sinful

May 22, 2016

As a child, it was not uncommon for me to receive from my parents the counsel that “Silence is golden.” They were far from alone in their positive assessment of the virtues of silence. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tributes to it. The Psalmist said, “To You, O God, silence is praise.” In Proverbs we read, “Even a fool, when he holds is peace, is counted wise.” The prophet Habbakuk proclaimed, “Let all the earth keep silent before God.” Nor does it stop there in Jewish sacred literature. In Pirke Avot, the great Rabbi Akiba said that “Silence is a fence for wisdom.” In Tractate Yevamot of the Talmud it states “Your silence is better than your speech.” The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote “The world would be much happier if people were fully able to keep silence as they are able to speak.” Even such a non-Jewish luminary as Mother Teresa sang the praises of silence when she said “God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence.” Everyone seems to agree with my parents about the virtue of silence; how great it is!

But truth be told, as history has taught us, there are times when silence isn’t golden but rather toxic; when silence doesn’t praise God but rather denies God; when silence isn’t wisdom but rather foolishness, fatal foolishness; when silence doesn’t make the world a happier place but rather a far more painful place in which to live; when God is not the friend of silence but rather it’s mourner; when silence isn’t a virtue but rather a sin.

Who should know this better than we, the Jewish people? Is our collective memory so short lived – so narrow – that we are so quick to forget the toxic silence of the Holocaust? As I teach my students at St. Ambrose University, if we retell the story of the Holocaust believing that there were just the good guys and the bad guys, the victims and the murderers, the rescuers and the collaborators, then we do that story a great disservice. For there were others who were present in that time and at that place and though they never lifted their hands against a Jew, they still were far from innocent. We call them the Bystanders. These were the millions of people who stood by, watching the Nazis cart off the Jews to gas chambers, crematoria, concentration camps, and who stood by in silence. They may not have lifted a finger to help the Nazis but neither did they even utter a word of protest to save the Jews. They stood by, and in their silence and in their inaction, they allowed it to happen. It haunts me, and it should haunt you as well, every time I look at any one of the many photos taken on Kristallnacht in which crowds of bystanders are passively looking on as synagogues are being burned or Jews are being humiliated. So many silently stood by as 6 million of our brothers and sisters, infants and elderly and all those in between, were turned into ash and were sent up to heaven in dark and dusky smoke. We know from the history of our people that silence can kill.

The philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” And what is keeping silent if it is not choosing to do nothing? We have seen evil triumph, even if just for a while, aided and abetted by the silence of the multitude; by the inaction of the multitude. Now those who kept their silence may have been good people at heart, but they gazed upon the victims and said to themselves, “That’s not me nor is it my family, so it’s really not my problem.” But they were wrong. For it was their problem. For in their silence, they permitted it to happen unchallenged and unopposed, and for having so chosen, they bear their own portion of the burden of the guilt. In their silence and in their inaction, they became accomplices to the crime.

Now one could say, “That was then this is now.” Or is it? Perhaps with every passing day, “now” is becoming more and more like “then,” and we, who now live safely and securely in our own homes are finding ourselves in the role, not so much of the victim, but rather of the onlooker, the bystander. As such, with every passing day, we are being challenged – whether or not we acknowledge the challenge – we are being challenged as to whether or not we will say something; whether or not we will do something; whether or not we will keep silent and passive as we watch the world crumble around the lives of human beings other than ourselves.

Over the past few years, across our planet, we have experienced a frightening rebirth of the social acceptability of bigotry. And lately that disease has spread its infection within the very borders of our own homeland. No longer are expressions and actions born of prejudice restricted to the fringes of our society. Indeed there are those – some of whom are in high places – who encourage these expressions, these actions, and the attitudes that give birth to them, and wrap them in a so-called patriotic package they call protecting America and making America great again. But how can America be protected when certain Americans are openly attacked? How can the greatness of America grow when its seeds are sown in the soil of hatred and prejudice?

We American Jews have been lucky this time. Yes, there have been Jews who have been attacked on the streets of our cities and certainly, it is with fear and trepidation these days that we send our children off to college when antisemitism is definitely growing on the campuses of our colleges and universities. But all this is nothing compared to what is happening to the Jewish communities in Europe.  All that is nothing compared to what is happening to some other minorities in our own country.

Yes, there are others in our own land who are not so fortunate as we have been. They are today’s victims. Foremost among them probably is the Muslim community. Islamophobia has become a wildfire, blazing out of control. In my community, at a recent interfaith dialogue program entitled “The Toxicity of Fear,”two deeply disturbing stories were shared. One was caught on film outside of a Starbuck’s in the Washington D.C. area. A Muslim woman, in traditional garb, was sitting, checking her phone, bothering no one, when a Caucasian woman accosted her, screaming obscenities in her face. The Caucasian woman briefly walked away, soon to return in order to dump a cup of smelly liquid over the Muslim woman’s head. The other story struck even closer to home for it involved a well known member of our local Muslim community. One night, in the recent past, she was driving home from western Iowa, along Interstate 80, wearing her traditional head covering, when she found herself being followed very closely by a beat-up pickup truck. She sped up and so did her followers. So she pulled over and slowed down to let them pass. As they passed, they opened their window and shouted at her all sorts of obscenities and hate filled remarks about her being a Muslim. A little while later, they pulled off the road and waited for her. As she passed them, then threw beer cans and other garbage at her car. Incidents such as these are happening all over our country. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of them?

Nor are they the only victims, as we witness a resurgence of homophobia, especially as it has been directed at those with a transgender sexual orientation. This prejudice has manifested itself both privately and publicly, in word, in deed, and even in law. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of it?

Yes, there are times when silence is indeed golden and discretion is the better part of wisdom. But there are also times when silence becomes sinful and we, by our very silence, become greatly diminished as moral human beings and in the sight of God. Of all the people on the face of the earth, we Jews know how very lethal silence can be, for our kindred suffered and bled and died while others remained silent to their plight. If there is a commanding voice coming out of the Holocaust, then it is the same commanding voice that came out of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt. For as the Torah demands of us again and again, “Do not wrong the stranger for remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We Jews have been victims of hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and sometimes we still are. Therefore we, of all people, must take up the cause of today’s victims. In the language of the Holocaust, God expects of us that we should become the Rescuers rather than the Perpetrators of even the Bystanders.

It was with all this in mind that a group of us who have a special interest in promoting Holocaust awareness – Jews and non-Jews alike – put together a statement entitled “A Statement Against the Rhetoric of Fear and Intolerance.”  We have been inviting those who share our concerns to add their names to our call for decency and the respect of human dignity.  As of this writing, we have collected over 200 names, but it is going to take far more than that to make enough of an impact to effectively get our message across.  I have posted that document on my blog, where you can find it immediately preceding this post.  I invite you to read it and if your agree with its message, add your name to it by simply stating your name in a “comment” to the blog.  Speaking out is the first step to putting an end to the toxic bigotry which is spreading across our country and around the world.

Abraham and Isaac are Us – Moriah is Jerusalem

September 27, 2014

In the past, I have been asked, “Can’t we read some other section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah? The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is so difficult to listen to. Indeed it is frightening.” While I have always appreciated these concerns, I have never acceded to these requests.

Why? Perhaps partly because, having been raised as a Reform Jew, for all of my childhood and much of my life this was the only Torah text to be found in our High Holy Day prayer book for Rosh Hashanah. You must remember that in those days, Reform Jews never considered the possibility of observing a second day of Rosh Hashanah and therefore needing a second Torah portion. In fact, the rabbis who framed the old UNION PRAYER BOOK intentionally chose this text in spite of the fact that in traditional synagogues it is read on the second day and not the first. Why? Because they had ideological problems with the traditional text for the first day. While it does include the birth of Isaac, it also includes Abraham and Sarah driving Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, out of their camp to live or die in the wilderness. That, they found that to be morally questionable.

30 years ago, when GATES OF REPENTANCE was published, it did include a second Rosh Hashanah Morning service, for those who choose to observe a second day. However, for that service, they still did not include the other traditional Torah portion but rather they inserted the story of Creation. Still I stuck with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, partly because of nostalgia and partly because this is a story about Jews while the Creation story is about a time before there were Jews. Now, in this new prayer book,     MISHKAN HANFESH, they have chosen to include, not only today’s Torah text and the story of Creation, but also the other traditional Torah reading and a fourth reading as well.

But still, I am deeply tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. That bond exists not just because of nostalgia, nor even just because it is a story of the early days of our people, but also because of the presence in it of Mt. Moriah. For Mt. Moriah would later be called Mt. Zion, and upon that mountain would be built the sacred city of Jerusalem. This story is so compelling because, from the earliest times of our people’s existence – 4,000 year ago – it binds the generations of Jews – Abraham and Isaac and all the generations to follow – to the land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Jerusalem.

Granted, it is not an easy story. It is one fraught with danger and heartache, sacrifice and tears. But that is part of the price that we Jews have had to pay throughout the ages for the privilege of having a land of our own. Jews for 4,000 years have tended to agree that it is a price well worth paying.

Throughout the ages, we have called it the Promised Land, but more accurately we should have called it the Land of the Covenant. For, from the very beginning of the Jewish people – when Abraham and God first struck a deal which would establish forever the unique relationship between our people and God, a central part of that deal, that covenant, that brit, was that there would be this land which God would give us as homeland for all time.

So today we read from the Torah some of our earliest history and what do we see? Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; standing and praying on the site of the very heart of Jerusalem; the site where both Temples would eventually stand.

As Abraham and Isaac stood on Mt. Moriah, there were others who inhabited that land as well; people such as the Amorites, Hittites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. But all those people are gone. They have disappeared from the face of history and not a trace of them remains, other than some sporadic archaeological finds. But we Jews, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, remain. We still exist and throughout the centuries, whether living on that land or in exile, the bonds between us and that land have remained unbroken.

2,700 years ago, when our people were dragged into exile in Babylonia, the Psalmist sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” For 2,000 years, while in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in our worship we prayed daily for our return to Israel. 69 years ago, on April 20, 1945, on the first Shabbat after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a British radio reporter shared with the world his recording of the surviving Jews singing “Hatikvah” – “The Hope”; the song that would become the national anthem of the State of Israel. Throughout our history, whether we were living on the land or off of it, we never forgot Jerusalem; the cords that bound us to the land of Israel may have been stretched but never broken. In the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet and philosophy, Yehuda HaLevi, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

What I speak of is a sort of mystical magnetism, yet I know that there are those among us who do not sense it. When considering vacation destinations, Israel may not even make the list and that is a shame. It is a shame because for most Jews – indeed, for most Christians – but especially for most Jews, once they have spent any time in Israel, they understand from whence I speak. They feel the magnetism. They become connected – in spiritual ways connected – to the land and its people. They come to understand that the Jewish people and the land of Israel are inseparable no matter where we live.

I share all this with you because this past summer has been a very difficult and trying time for Israel and for all of us who love Israel. Indeed, it has been a trying time for all Jews, whether we love Israel or not. While Israelis has suffered under the constant barrage of Hamas missiles, needing to flee with very little advanced notice into their bomb shelters, we all have suffered as we have witnessed, and perhaps experienced, the dramatic rise in the levels of antisemitism throughout the world as a direct result of Israel’s war with Hamas. But even as I say that, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it truly as a result of the war, or is there something else at work here?”

For years there have been those who have claimed that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being antisemitic. Of course, that is, at the least, a horrible overstatement. That someone criticizes Israel in no way automatically means that they hate Jews. We Americans, of all people, should understand that, for we are constantly criticizing our own government but that does not mean that we do so out of hatred. But perhaps what those who equate being anti-Israel with being antisemitic are trying to say, though saying it poorly, is that while there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel, just as there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any nation, there are still those individuals and groups who use their socially acceptable criticism of Israel in order to mask their socially unacceptable attitudes of antisemitism. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, expressed this eloquently when he wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is antisemitc, and not saying so is dishonest.”

What we have been witnessing is a dark combination of the Thomas Friedman ‘anti-Israel / antisemitism’ formula side-by-side with a toxic, blatant, endemic antisemitism which has taken advantage of the war to come out of the shadows and reveal itself in the light of day.

When respected bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution to divest from Israel, even in a limited fashion, and didn’t even consider framing a resolution in which they would take a stand against Hamas firing thousands of rockets directed at civilian targets in Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When the Metropolitan Opera insists upon producing and performing a work which seeks to justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered a wheel chair bound American Jew who simply was on vacation with his wife, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When during the war, the news media gave extensive coverage to the suffering of the citizens of Gaza but gave only meager coverage to the extent of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or to the multiple efforts made by the Israelis to forewarn Gaza civilians of imminent attacks so that they could get out of harm’s way, or to the various ways in which Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as human shields so as to protect their own fighters while creating a humanitarian crisis which they would then use as propaganda against Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke.

Yet we have witnessed the other type of antisemitism as well, and in frightening ways. When those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war besieged a synagogue in Paris, filled with Jews who had gathered for no other reason but to observe Shabbat, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in Berlin those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war started chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone,” that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in New York those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war took their demonstration to the streets of the Diamond District, knowing that most of the jewelry exchanges located there are Jewishly owned and operated, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When someone in our own community plastered a gruesome anti-Israel poster on every utility pole surrounding our own synagogue, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly.

What can we learn from all of this? We learn that there is a certain irony in the fact that while some or many of us may have, for whatever reasons, lost our sense of intimate connection with the land and the State of Israel, it is our enemies who remember and continue to recognize it. Of course, they do not see its positive values but rather see it as fuel for their hatred of us. We, on the other hand need to embrace it and trust it. As throughout our history, our connection to Israel has been an integral component of Jewish identity and of our unique relationship with God, it remains so today. As we believe, and I hope we believe, that our relationship with God has produced for our people an elevated values system; one which lifts up justice and living the ethical life, then we have to trust that it is that very same value system that serves as the foundation of Israeli society – that Israel truly is a Jewish state and not just because it is populated by Jews.

We need to embrace that perspective, for once we do so, we can begin to prepare ourselves for how to respond to Israel’s detractors. We can begin to formulate our answer to the question of whether or not in the recent war, and in recent history, Israel has been placed in the role of the victim or the villain.

In our search for that answer let me leave you with some thought-starting questions:

Which party in the recent conflict has been deeply invested in peace and historically and consistently committed to finding a two-state solution, and which party has consistently and adamantly refused to sit at a negotiating table?

If Israel is not interested in making peace with its neighbors then how do you explain its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, its 2000 offer to the Palestinians of 97% of the disputed territories, and its 2005 total withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza?

Which party in the recent conflict used its rockets to protect its children and which party used its children to protect its rockets?

Which party in the recent conflict invested billions of dollars in constructing bomb shelters to protect its people and which party invested billions of dollars in constructing terror tunnels?

Which party in the recent conflict made extensive efforts to forewarn civilians on the other side of coming attacks?

Which nation in the Middle East does the most to protect religious freedom, the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, and the rights of all minority groups within its borders?

If you honestly seek the answers to these and similar questions you will have begun the search to determine who indeed is the victim and who the villain. Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that Israel truly is a Jewish state, in values as well as in name; that it seeks peace, not war, with its neighbors and prays for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side as friends rather than as enemies.

MEMORIAL DAY: Dare We Forget the Sacrifices?

May 24, 2014

It is Memorial Day weekend and so many of us are looking forward to the holiday; a 3-day weekend for most with plenty of sunshine (hopefully), as we relax with family and friends, basking in the Spring weather. Perhaps we will have or attend a barbeque. Perhaps a graduation party. Perhaps we may hit the road for a mini-vacation. Perhaps we will take advantage of all the holiday sales. What a wonderful holiday Memorial Day is for us!
While it is a wonderful break, especially after such a long, hard winter, it seems that in the midst of all our relaxing and partying, we may have forgotten something. We may have forgotten the reason for the holiday; what the holiday is supposed to be about. It’s not barbeque day. It’s not bask in the sunshine day. Its not take a mini vacation day. It’s not shop the sales day. It is MEMORIAL Day. It is a time when our thoughts should be turning to some very, very special people; people who were dedicated, brave and self-sacrificing. Indeed, these people made the ultimate sacrifice for us. They gave up their very lives so that we can continue to live in freedom.
On the Yahrzeit board in my synagogue’s sanctuary, in the bottom right-hand corner, there are eight plaques with stars next to their names. The star is there to acknowledge that each of these individuals was killed while in service to our country. One of them died in the First World War and seven in the Second World War. On this Memorial Day Shabbat, I will be including their names in the list of those others being remembered as we recite the Kaddish.
I am assuming – rightfully or wrongly – that this is a short list of those members of Temple Emanuel who over the years made that ultimate sacrifice. It is definitely a short list of those who served our country in time of war. With our congregation having been founded in 1861, I suspect that there were members of our congregation who fought in the Civil War, some of whom may have been in killed on the battlefield. Perhaps some of our number fought and maybe fell in the Spanish American War. Perhaps also in the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The members of our community have always been willing to serve, and if necessary, die for our country.
When we consider the history of our people, with all its pain and suffering, with all the prejudice, persecution, and bloodshed, the freedoms this nation has offered to us most certainly should be cherished. When practically no other nation on earth would welcome us, nevertheless give us full and equal rights and protections under the law, America stood out to us as a beacon of hope, security, and dignity. For our people, America was the exception to the rule, and continues to be the exception of the rule. Since before the birth of this nation as a nation, Jews have not been considered aliens or hardly tolerated guest but rather we have been welcomed as full partners in the American experiment.
With the Holocaust and all its horrors now being almost 70 years in the past, and the generation who lived through those dreadful years growing fewer and fewer with the passage of time, it is all too easy for us Jews who were born in the safety and security, and especially the full inclusion, of American life to take our freedoms – our acceptance – for granted for we have personally known no other existence. We have never been thrown into a ghetto or worse. We have never been denied our rights to vote or get an education or live in a particular neighborhood or work in a particular profession or for a particular employer. We have never felt the sting of living in a society permeated by the hatred of us; a hatred sponsored by the state itself. Yet these are precisely the things about America that we should not take for granted but rather cling to and value to the highest degree. Our gratitude should ever continue to be boundless; as boundless as the wonderful opportunities we so readily enjoy in this land.
All this brings us back to what Memorial Day should mean for us as Americans, and particularly as Jews. As easy as our lives are today, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the freedoms we take so much for granted were easily gained or easily maintained. For they were not. In every generation from the birth of this country to this present day, there have been those who sought to destroy all that we have; those who sought to destroy the promise of America. In every generation, Americans have had to take up arms in order to protect the American way of life. They have had to take up arms to protect those very freedoms which we enjoy today and which have meant so much to us as Jews living in this land of freedom. Along the way, many of them have sacrificed their lives in that cause. They fought and their died so that we could gather in our synagogues on Shabbat and holidays, worshiping God in our own way – in the Jewish way – and free to do so without fear or dire repercussions. They fought and died for the freedom of American Jews and American Catholics and American Protestants and American Muslims and American Unitarians and Hindus and Buddhist and Sikhs. They fought and died for the freedom of the Whites and the Blacks and the Hispanics and the Asians of our land. They fought and died for the freedom of all Americans, regardless of race or creed or gender or age or sexual orientation. That freedom, which we too often take for granted, was more valuable to these military martyrs than was their lives. That we are who we are today is in no small way owing to their ultimate sacrifices. How could we ever adequately express what should be our gratitude?
Perhaps we can start by taking the time before we leave this building tonight to go over and look at those eight Yahrzeit plaques and consider all that they stand for. Perhaps as we look at those plaques we can say in our hearts, or maybe even out loud, “Thank you.” In any event, in the midst of all our leisure and pleasure on this holiday weekend let us try to set aside some time to reflect upon the great debt that we owe to America’s warriors and especially to those who have fallen in the line of duty. But if we truly want to render proper honor to the memories of these brave people, then we need to retrain ourselves in such a way that we never again take for granted that for which they so willingly sacrificed their lives.