Rosh Hashanah Sermon: The New Age of Anti-Semitism

By now you may have noticed that our cabinet here in front where we usually keep our Holocaust Torah Scroll is empty.  That Sefer Torah was saved from the ashes of the Klatovy Jewish community in today’s Czech Republic…a Jewish community decimated in the Holocaust.  Every Torah is a symbol of the Jewish people…but that Torah is a different kind of symbol.  That Torah saw the very worst of the Jewish Experience…the darkest days in our collective history…and it survived those horrors to sit here with us for all of these years and to be witness to the beauty and richness of Jewish life in these times.  The mirror in that cabinet lets us see what it sees. 

But that Torah never forgets those dark times…it remembers them for us.  And it serves as that crossover point in our collective memories…the crossover from bad to good.  From destruction to re-construction.

The cabinet is empty, but the Torah isn’t missing.  It is being restored.

A family in our Bet Shalom community felt that our Klatovy Torah should be more than just a symbol…it should be used by us, the living and breathing Jewish community, so they are sponsoring its restoration.  We will welcome it back with great ceremony when it is completed…probably in February.  You’ll hear more about that soon. 

Yet even as a restored “living” Torah…it will always be a symbol and reminder of those dark days which most of us can’t remember.  In our own day, when arguably we have the freest most developed Jewish community in history, we remember the darkness through which this Torah came to us. 

And for many of us…that darkness has a triggering affect.  We can imagine what it saw and experienced.  And when we see images like what we imagine…we are triggered.

Images like burning synagogues.  This month we saw those horrific images on the news from Duluth. Adas Israel Synagogue, the 3rd Str. Shul, combusted and burned in the dark morning hours of a September Monday and was totally destroyed.  If you trace your roots through Duluth, then I am certain that you have at least one memory wound up in that building.  Even more-so if you grew up at the feet of your grandparents there. To our Duluth families in the Bet Shalom community, we are all so sorry for your loss.  My hope and prayer is that your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, who come after you, have the same kind of positive memories of you and Bet Shalom wound together, just as you do of your families and Adas Israel.

And while the news of the fire was breaking…so many of us couldn’t help but wonder about the cause.  The image of a burning synagogue tears our hearts.  Hearts that remember what we haven’t personally seen…memories the Torah carries for us.  There was a collective sigh of relief when it turned out to have been an accident…a poor soul trying to keep warm and his fire got out of control.  We were bracing for it to be antisemitism…and he was bracing against the cold.  In this era…both have become systemic problems.  Anti-Jewish sentiment AND people on the streets with nowhere to turn for warmth and security. 

-PAUSE-

Duluth is close to home…Minnetonka High School is closer.  Last winter an image surfaced of a teen asking her boyfriend to a school dance using various Hitleresc puns and symbols on a poster board.  And it went viral.  The Jewish community was rightfully up in arms. 

The next day I received a phone call requesting that I meet with the teens in the photo to help them understand why what they had done was so wrong.  Reluctantly, I agreed to meet with them before Shabbat services that Saturday morning.  I explained to them that the photo of them was like ripping off a bandage for our community that was covering a wound that would never heal.  I stood with them here in the sanctuary, in front of that cabinet with the Holocaust Scroll and while we stood there and talked, and I found them open to its truth. 

Some might disagree with how I responded to this situation.  But in that moment, I decided to forgive them…to offer them my love instead of my anger.  I decided to help them see that they had a higher purpose and that they could take their mistake and try to do right by it.  What they did perpetuated anti-Semitism no doubt…every such act opens the lid on Pandora’s box just a little more.  But they are not anti-Semites…they are teenagers who did a dumb thing.

Over the next several months, I met regularly with them and I taught them about Judaism, about our history, and about the wound into which they dumped salt.  Thanks to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) who supported my efforts, I was able to travel with them to Washington DC to accompany them to the Holocaust Museum.  I watched them change.  Perhaps the most memorable moment we shared in DC was standing at a table in the lobby of the museum where survivors sit and talk with museum guests.  At the table that day was a woman in her 90’s from the same town as Anne Frank…she had been friends with Anne Frank…It was like looking at and speaking with Anne Frank if she had survived.  It was then I believe they truly connected the dots from what they had done to the real world.  To our world.  And I know they repented their actions. 

I am not naïve.  Every member of the Jewish community alive today is still directly, or indirectly, affected by the Holocaust.  I’d like to think I honor those who died, and all of us who still live, by leaning into love instead of hate.  The anger and venom from our own community toward these kids was perhaps justified in the moment…who can blame an angry emotional reaction?  But vengeance is different than anger.  And as Rabbi Crimmings taught us last night, anger can be good when it moves us forward. 

But it seems like it just keeps coming.  Only days, there was another rash of vandalism against synagogues around the country…one of which is in Racine, Wisconsin.  That synagogue was spray painted with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. That wasn’t ignorance or an accident.  That was blatant antisemitism.  The result is the same though…it triggers our disgust and our fear. 

The first thing that many of us think about when we talk about anti-Jewish sentiment is safety. Some in our congregation worry about coming to Bet Shalom in our country’s current atmostphere.  The security of our community is something I take very seriously.  And so does the other clergy, our staff and our Board of Trustees.  We are secure here.  For years, our staff have regularly reviewed our safety policies and coordinated directly with the Jewish Community Relations Council which is the central organizer of security for the Jewish community.  With the JCRC’s help, Steve Barberio, our Executive Director has secured a $100k grant from the Department of Homeland Security to upgrade our systems and procedures for the building.  None of it is in your face because it doesn’t need to be.  Bet Shalom is secure and remains a haven from the darkness in the world.  This building is an extension of your home and it is a secure place to be.   

I am not here to say in any way that anti-Semitism isn’t a problem.  In fact, I believe the opposite is true.  The recent rise in anti-Jewish acts of hatred is a scary problem.  Our children who ensure the future of our tradition have seen more images of burning synagogues and Nazi Propaganda than most of us could have imagined outside of history class.  And they are far more likely to experience anti-Jewish sentiment in school than any adult is at their place of work.

Antisemitism is an affront to the democratic ideals on which our country was founded.  Maybe that is why we don’t like to think it can happen here.  That America, for all our issues, is too enlightened for a blight such as baseless hatred to take hold.

This is a societal problem, not just a Jewish problem.  A human problem.  And it comes from every direction…from the right and from the left.  It comes from the ignorant and from the educated…We see it in politicians of every persuasion and we have to call it out even when it is coming from “our side”.  No one gets a free pass.

We see it in the intersectionality of social activists who say our love for Israel cancels out our passion for social justice.  That a love for Israel means we are somehow less loyal to this country…or that we disregard human rights. 

We see it in the white supremacists and white nationalists who consider our concern for the immigrant treason against our country. 

We are not living in Germany in the 1930s…or France during the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s before that…or during the Cossack Uprisings in Poland, Lithuania and Russia during the Middle Ages before that…or the Inquisitions that reached from London to Amsterdam and beyond during the centuries before that…It may be hard sometimes to ignore parallels, but we are living in the 21st Century…in the United States of America…during the freest time our people have ever known in the modern world.  Yet we can see ourselves, at least our ancestors, in the experiences that the Holocaust Torah symbolizes, not just in the mirror behind it.

Last year after the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we gathered here for Shabbat, and our sanctuary was filled with Bet Shalomians AND our friends in the community.  If only we could bottle that spirit and let a little out each day into the world.  Think of what we can accomplish when we join together with others who share common values…people with different religions, culture…people from different socio-economic levels…different races…people born here or elsewhere…united under the shared goals of a safe and peaceful existence.

Every single time there is an act against the Jewish community we hear from those who won’t stand for it.  My inbox fills with messages from local Christian and Muslim leaders.  Just as Antisemitism paints the entire Jewish world with one exaggerated and dishonest brush stroke…we have to be careful not to do the same to others.  When our right to be who we are is threatened, their right to be who they are is threatened too.  Those who do hateful things DO NOT represent the whole…they are the minority.

Celebrating the values of Torah that have survived trough so many thousands of years to be in our midst, we can join arm in arm with those who hold up the Christian Bible or the Koran as their own source for illuminating the human spirit… and not only to stand against threats that injure our nation, but we can stand together for something.  From the ends of our driveways talking to neighbors, to interactions with our co-workers…in our city halls, in op-eds, on our Social Media feeds…we can stand for the kind of democratic pluralism that makes our country so different from all the other places in which our ancestors have been oppressed.

And maybe the world is finally starting to wake up to it.  Just this week the United Nations finally…finally…released a report on combatting anti-Semitism defining it as an international problem and it describes the activities of the BDS movement as fundamentally rooted in anti-Semitism, the movement advocating for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.  It isn’t enough…but it is rare for the United Nations to stand up for Israel or the Jewish people and it is a good thing.

I don’t want to be up here on this bima talking about anti-Semitism.  I’d rather be here talking about some finer point of Jewish liturgy or Jewish practice that brightens our lives and the world…not this issue which makes it darker…this issue that affects our children…and every member of our community. 

I’d rather be celebrating the work our congregation does as a sponsor of the Beacon Interfaith collaborative fighting for those who need housing and job support.  I’d rather be celebrating the good that comes from our support of the ICA…the Inter Congregation Association that provides food and resources for people in need here in our neighborhood.

And while we work to achieve that world, we have to continue to address anti-Jewish sentiment and anti-Semitism.  We have to recognize it and call it out when we see it.  If you experience some sort of anti-Jewish bias, we are here to support you.  We want to help you process it and we want to make sure the JCRC and proper authorities know about it. 

Being in community helps.  Our teens create safe space to discuss these things because they are with each other every week and have built trust.  Adults can create that space here at Bet Shalom too.  Our love of Judaism and our relationship with Israel are holy parts of who we are.  We should celebrate them…not be treated differently because of them.  And neither should we have to be scared to express them.         

Bari Weiss is an opinion writer for the New York times who writes convincingly about Jewish identity and recently wrote, “In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.”

It may not be so simple, but it is a great goal…in a sense she is saying that in order to fight those that hate us…we need to be more US.  We need to rebuke those that need to be rebuked…but turning from anger to love when we find we can teach teenagers who make mistakes.  Being US means immediately turning our anger to love when we find out the man who burned down a synagogue did so by accident trying to stay warm and then making sure he, and others like him, have shelter.

But being us also means that we have to constructively use the full force of our anger when we find that it wasn’t a mistake when someone makes anti-Semitic comments. or jokes, with hate in their heart…or when a gang defaces our holy spaces…then we need to act.  As Eli Wiesel taught…the opposite or love is not hate…it is indifference.  We cannot be indifferent, but hate isn’t the right response either.

In just a few minutes we’ll hear the words of the Akedah, the story in the Torah that describes Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son Isaac.  When God calls it off, Abraham sees a ram thrashing in the thicket.  Our sages teach us that in that moment, God told Abraham, “Thus are your children destined to be caught in iniquities and entangled in misfortunes.” Abraham turned to God and implored, “Master of the World! Will it be like this forever?” God replied, “In the end, they will be redeemed by the horns of this very ram.”       

This coming April will be the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  There is indeed more light in the world today than the darkness of those days.  And even though we may at times still feel like we are stuck in the thicket, the sound of the Shofar comes to remind us that redemption is in reach…but we must use our own hands to push back that thicket that entangles the world. 

May the year 5780 be bright.  May we honor the memories that the Holocaust scroll holds for us and may we reflect, as that mirror does, all the good in the world…may that mirror be a prism that magnifies the light of Torah as we, together…a community filled with joy and light…work to close pandora’s box and to make this world the better place we know it can be. 

Ken Yehi Razon – May this truly be God’s will.