Posted tagged ‘Remembering the Holocaust as a key aspect aof Jewish identity’

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.

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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.

Is American Judaism Going Down the Toilet?: Reflections on the Recent Pew Study of the American Jewish Community

November 14, 2013

The Pew Research Center is a highly respected institute that conducts many serious studies about the nature of religion in contemporary American life.  Last month they issued a 200 page report entited “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  It is the first such comprehensive study of the state of the American Jewish community to be released since the last National Jewish Population Survey, back in 2001.  For this study, 70,000 screening interviews were conducted, covering all 50 states in their search to identify Jewish respondents.  Of that group, they conducted fuller interviews with almost 3,500 Jews.

The results of this survey have generated a tremendous amount of conversation within the American Jewish community.  One writer claims that as his of his writing, over a million words have been published evaluating those results.[1]  I suspect that his estimate is low.

While it is impossible for me to give you all the results of the Pew Study in one posting, let me hit upon some of its highlights, both the good news and the bad news:

  1. 94% of those Jews surveyed claimed that they are proud to be Jewish.  That, of course, is very good news.
  2. The percentage of adult Americans who say that they are Jewish is a little less than 2%, which is about half of what it was in the late 1950’s.  Unfortunately, the American Jewish community is shrinking.
  3. 22% of those interviewed claim that they have no religious identity.  It should be noted that this statistic is very much in line with another statistic from a Pew survey of religious identity in general in America, where 20% of Americans claimed to have no religious identity.  Yet it should be of little comfort to us that we Jews are like the rest of our fellow Americans, moving further and further away from our religious roots.
  4. Among those Jews who claim no religious identity, it should be noted that they are far more represented among younger adults than older adults.  If you break it down by generation you find that among the Greatest Generation – those born between 1914 & 1927 – only 7% claim no religion.  Among the Silent Generation – those born between 1928 & 1945 – the number goes up to 14%.  Among Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 & 1964 – the number is 19%.  For Gen X’er – born between 1965 & 1980 – the number is 26%.  And finally, among the Millennials – those born after 1980 – the number is 32%, almost 5 times greater than the Greatest Generation and almost twice as great than Baby Boomers.  To say the least, this trend is frightening and should be of profound concern to us Jews who wish to see our faith survive long into the future.
  5. When asked if being Jewish was more about culture and ancestry than about religion, 62% of the respondents said that their Jewish identity was exclusively about culture and ancestry; 15% said it was about religion; and 23% said it was a combination of all three.  Such statistics do not bode well for those of us who work for the continued existence of synagogues like our own.
  6. The rate of intermarriage is also up.  60% of those who married since the year 2000 are intermarried, as compared to 40% of those who married in the ‘80’s and 17% of those who married in the ‘70’s.  Considering the fact that only 20% of intermarried couples raise their children as Jewish, this poses yet another challenge for the future.
  7. Regarding denominational identification, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination among American Jews, with 35% identifying as Reform.  The next largest group, with 30%, are those who claim no denominational identification.  18% claim to be Conservative, 10% claim to be Orthodox, and 6% claim to be other, such as Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal. However, it should be noted that the Orthodox, though small, have many more young people and generally raise larger families.  So we can expect to see this percentage grow for the Orthodox in the future.
  8. Passover remains the most practiced Jewish observance with 70% claiming they participate in a Passover Seder.  However, that is down from the 78% which was reported in the National Jewish Population Survey.
  9. 69% of those surveyed stated that they feel an attachment to the State of Israel.  This statistic remains unchanged from the National Jewish Population Survey.  We would have hoped to see this number rise as a result of programs like Birthright.  At least we are holding our own.
  10. When asked, “What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?” 73% said remembering the Holocaust; 69% said leading an ethical and moral life; 56% said working for justice and equality; 49% said being intellectually curious; 43% said caring about Israel; 42% said having a good sense of humor; 28% said being a part of a Jewish community; 19% said observing Jewish law; and 14% said eating traditional Jewish foods.  It is deeply disturbing that so many more Jews view having a sense of humor as more essential to their Jewish identity than either practicing our faith or being part of a Jewish community.

These statistics but scratch the surface of this study.  Yet, as a synagogue, they should give us much to ponder.  Reactions to this study have run the gamut from anxious hand wringing to almost joyous jubilation, depending upon one’s perception of American Jewish life in the first place.

One writer applauds the grim aspects of this report.  He claims that the reason most cultural Jews keep any Jewish traditions or identity is because they feel guilty on account of their parents.  He then goes on to announce that it is time for Jews to get over their guilt and drop these meaningless observances.[2]  While another author recalls how one edition of Look Magazine, back in 1964, had as its cover story “The Vanishing American Jew” and predicted that by the 21st century there would no longer be any Jews left in the United States.  He then joyfully quotes Mark Twain who said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”[3]

There are those who look at the report and offer sage advice.  A rabbi who was formerly a social scientist recalls one of her earliest research lessons; that correlation does not always mean causation; that statistics can only show us the present situation and cannot, by themselves, reveal the reason for that situation.  Indeed, I loved her analogy.  It was that a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level.  However, before those statistics mislead us, we must remember to take into account the factor of age, for infants have very small feet.[4]

Then there is our own URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who reminds us that when it comes to denominational breakdown, those Jews without religion are only second in number to Reform Judaism.  That they claim no religion, yet affirm their Jewish identity, indicates that within that group there is a great untapped potential if we can only find the key to attract them to Reform Judaism, Reform Jewish beliefs, and Reform Jewish practices.[5]

Then there is the writer who wrote a response to the article celebrating the imminent demise of Judaism.  She points out that most Jews lack basic Jewish literacy.  One cannot abandon what one never had in the first place.  Therefore, the challenge before us is to transform what the first author considered to be “intrinsically meaningless” into something deeply meaningful.  This, or course, is done through more effective Jewish education.[6]

Of all the statements I read on the subject, the one I really resonated with the most was by an author who said: “I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.”[7]  That is precisely what the synagogue world needs to do.  We need to look forward to our future.  We need to seriously examine these statistics, come to an understanding of where today’s American Jews are coming from in terms of their Jewish identity, and then do some serious reworking of synagogue life so as to draw them back to an attachment to our religion as well as our culture.  No, we should not resign ourselves to becoming mere Jewish cultural institutions, for Jewish identity cannot long endure as a testimony to bagels and Seinfeld, as one author framed it.  For it is our faith, when properly approached, which gives our Jewish identity, and particularly our Jewish values, their foundation.  Without that faith, the rest is built on shifting sand.  We cannot keep any synagogue building open for long if the primary purpose of our existence is merely to keep our buildings open.  We must mean more than that to our members. We must mean more than that to all those Jews out there who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  We must become the spiritual home they are seeking.  We must become a center of vibrant and meaningful Jewish life.  The statistics of the Pew Study tell us where we are today so that we can better plan where we need to go if we are ever to see tomorrow.


[1] Schick, Marvin, “The Problem With the Pew Study”. Tablet Magazine

[2] Roth, Gabriel, “American Jews are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated.  Great News!”, Slate Magazine.

[3] Blech, Rabbi Benjamin, “The Vanishing American Jew?”, Aish.com.

[4] Gurevitz, Rabbi Rachel, “The Pew Study: What the Stats Can and Can’t Teach Us”, Rabbis Without Borders.

[5] Jacobs, Rabbi Rick, “Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish”, HaAretz.

[6] Glick, Caroline, “Why Bother Being Jewish?”, the Jerusalem Post.

[7] Ibid, Gurevitz.