Rabbi Elka Abrahamson on Anti-Semitism - 92Y, New York

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Bronfman Center for Jewish Life

Rabbi Elka Abrahamson on Anti-Semitism

Oct 9, 2019

A note from Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, Director of Jewish Community and Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92nd Street Y:

92Y joins with all good people in condemning the violence against Jews and others in Halle, Germany in October 2019. In her Yom Kippur sermon about anti-Semitism, Rabbi Abrahamson reminded us that "the command of lovingkindness is at the center of our being as we inscribe our deeds in this new year."

Becoming Bridge People
Yom Kippur 5780, 92Y
Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson
On a beautiful late-April morning, the last day of Passover, I walked to the synagogue near my home in Bexley, Ohio to say Yizkor for my father, z"l, who had died last November. The spring sunshine came pouring through the stained-glass windows. It was so perfect a day, one congregant opened the door to the outside so we could all enjoy the warm breeze and the welcome sight of new, spring leaves.  Not even a New York minute had passed before a wave of anxiety crashed. I admit it. I was scared of that open door facing a busy street.  I felt vulnerable and swiftly tried to reassure myself.  “We’re safe here! This is home. Nobody is going to...”
But Later that day, my soul, our souls, were pierced with horror as we learned of the shooting in the San Diego synagogue. How could this happen again? Again, exactly six months to the day after the mass shooting at Etz Chaim Congregation in Pittsburgh, Jews gathered for prayer had been killed by an antisemitic murderer.  One of those innocents was Lori Gilbert Kaye, gunned down on the morning she came to say Yizkor prayers for her father who also died in November.  We’re scared, we’re shocked and we ask ourselves unanswerable questions: “What is the source of such hatred? What could propel someone to gun down Jews in prayer? What will it take to feel safe once again?” 
During our Yizkor service we will remember by name those murdered in Pittsburgh and Poway. We remain devastated by their deaths. We are saddened that security concerns have become a major focus for leaders of synagogues, day schools and JCCs throughout North America. I want to thank the security team at 92Y who are committed and attentive to our safety so that we might focus on the needs of our souls as enter the new year, helping us find the balance between caution and openness at the doorways of our community.
While we embrace 5780 with a hopeful countenance, we must consider what hope can mean following a year filled with violence and characterized by ugly political, social, racial and ethnic divisions. Something in me changed these last months.  I felt blow after blow shake my foundational sense of wellbeing and heighten my anxiety about the unfolding future.  Each day politicians and pundits ratchet up their verbal attacks.  Social media fuels an over-heated climate of rage as emboldened bigots freely express contempt – and much worse.  Earlier this month, I discovered a despicable site created by a white supremacist.  In a sickening, cowardly effort to mock Jews through the stereotypes of what it means to “look Jewish -- an outdated construct given the diversity of our Jewish community today -- this blogger uploaded hundreds of pictures grabbed from the internet…ignorantly he called them “typical Jews.”  As I moved the cursor through his “gallery,” I saw the faces of many friends and colleagues. And then, stomach churning, I saw the face of my own child.
The pictures have, thankfully, been removed – but the knot in my stomach, mixed with anger and sorrow, remains.  In 2018 and 2019, there were 3,991 incidents of extremism or anti-Semitism in the United States. In this great city known for its unique mix of peoples, this city where so many of our grandparents found refuge and relief, nearly 200 hate-crime complaints were filed in the first months of 2019 - an 83% increase from the year before. Close to 60% of those were anti-Semitic in nature. What is happening in our society, my friends? What is happening? The short answer? We / are / broken.

More specifically, the moral guardrails of our society have been broken. We witness hateful ‘other’ing in our culture because our ethical standards of public civility, speech and mutual respect have been discarded. We have lost confidence in leaders we once felt we could hold to their promises to safeguard our democracy, our national security and the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all. Particularly as Jews, we have through the decades cherished and thrived because most of our fellow citizens celebrated with us the precious commitment to tolerance and respect for people of all faiths, creeds and origins. I fear this democratic guardrail too has crumpled under the weight of prejudice and the unsettling normalization of rampant racism. It’s so easy now – push a button and blast out to an untold number of readers your hateful ideas, your viscous taunts, your invitations to join the raucous fray. Kids do it. Grownups do it. Our sports heroes do it. Actors do it. Our politicians do it with shocking regularity. In today’s America, the intolerance of our elected leaders is somehow widely tolerated. With a broken heart I must say to you -- We live now in the divided… and not the United States.

In a time of civil breakdown, anti-Semitism arises both from the left and the right of the political divide.  Anti-Semitism is not a partisan phenomenon. On the left we find an increasing anti-Israel sentiment. Not just criticism of Israeli policies, but a specific challenge to Israel’s very right to exist. On the right, the intolerance comes from white supremacists who claim racial superiority and those who embrace conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the media, the global economy and even the government. 
The historian Victor Tcherikover famously said there are few things in human history that have lasted longer than 2000 years. Antisemitism is one of them. How is it possible that both of the following statements are true at exactly the same time? The American Jewish Community is among the most vibrant in the world.  We enjoy more privileges, opportunities, successes and political representation than at any other time in American history….and… The American Jewish community is vulnerable, we are fearful because anti-Semitism is on the rise and we are increasingly the victims of hatred, ridicule, and life-threatening violence.
The renowned scholar of antisemitism, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, recently published a book called Antisemitism: Here and Now. Professor Lipstadt suggests that, unlike other “isms,” anti-Semitism has certain distinct elements not always evident. She compares it to racist behavior and explains: The racist punches down. He or she sees the black or brown person or the Muslim as “lesser than” and “dangerous to” their vision of a white Christian world. The racist charges that “those people” will harm their gene pool. So, the racist punches down to prevent a perceived assault from below.
By contrast, the antisemite punches up. An antisemite considers “the Jews” to be a secretive, manipulative, powerful force  -- also committed to the obliteration of the white race. Against such deep pockets and influence the antisemite must punch up from a perceived position of victimhood. That is why the shooters in both Pittsburgh and San Diego shouted “you will not destroy the white race” as they killed Jews. That is why those who deny Israel’s right to exist often, ironically, compare Israel’s policies to those of Hitler and the Nazis.
Antisemitism is an important -- but painful topic. Not easy to talk about. Not easy to hear. I want to be very clear. This is not Nazi Germany. This is 2019 it is still very true that the American Jewish Community enjoys more privileges, opportunities, successes and political representation than at any other time in our history. It is not 1939 when Jews were taught to become invisible to survive.  We are not hiding. We are indeed in all the places and positions of influence that will enable us effectively to generate change, to combat baseless hatred and never cower or shrink from our challenges.  We begin a new year determined to participate in holy acts – communal, social and political acts of tikkun, of repair, -- that will help put the guardrails back in place and secure them for the future. 
Yom Kippur has always been the holy day on which we need all of our strength, all our courage. We bravely examine our souls, acknowledge missteps, un-bury shameful secrets and vow to do better. We confront our mortality, acknowledging that we might -not -- be - here - next year. And today, we must just as fearlessly look at antisemitism in its complicated 21st century incarnation. What will our society be like one year from now? This atonement day, we make this vow: Our Jewish community will not hide in fear, nor, God forbid, shrug in apathy, nor join the ranks of those who fight hatred with more hatred. If anti-semitism is a virus that spreads across the political divide, then let it be a contagion of unity for Jews and non-Jews of every political persuasion – drawing us together from right, center and left into a bold coalition which condemns antisemitism and sustains tireless advocates for the rights and dignity of every human being.
The Torah asks, why should you not hate the ger, the stranger? Because you once stood where they stand now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah warns against the wronging of a ger thirty-six times; far more repetitions than any other commandment!  The Torah also specifies: “You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.”  Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must receive the positive welfare provisions of society. But the law goes even further:  the stranger must be loved: “Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. What is the Torah trying to teach us again and again? That we cannot rally against just one ‘ism’ – antisemitism -- to the exclusion of all others.  We are not the only strangers, the only vulnerable community.  If we are going to fight prejudice, we must fight for all who feel the pain of exclusion and the fear of attack: The Jew in the kippah, the Muslim woman in the hijab, the black teenager in a hoodie, the transgender in the military, immigrant families seeking security here as my grandparents did.  All must feel safe, for they…are us.  We know their pain, in their bodies, in their spirits – we know the heart of the stranger all too well.  In a fight against hate, there can be no bystanders.  The onlooker is not neutral, but complicit.  Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, once said, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent”

“Cry aloud, do not hold back” Isaiah proclaims in Yom Kippur’s haftarah text. “Let your voice resound like a shofar” (Is. 58:1). How does Isaiah use his resounding voice?  He condemns the moral failings of his day. “Is not this the fast I look for,” the prophet continues: “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? “

Tekiah Gedola! Our fast will end with one long blast of the shofar. Let that be the alarm that stirs us to rebuild the decaying moral parapet upon which civil society relies. If not us, who? Speak up when you hear hate speech, be it antisemitic or something else, be it blatant or veiled, whether at a dinner party or from our political parties. If you see something, say something even if it is on your own side of the aisle. Be as quick to praise and appreciate those who publicly condemn antisemitism even if it’s on the other side of the aisle. Be tenacious, resolute and specific. 

Journalist Bari Weiss, who became a Bat Mitzvah at Etz Chaim in Pittsburgh, urges us to follow what she calls the Pittsburgh Principle. In Pittsburgh, Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, politicians, police, corporate officers and even the Steelers stood up and said no! No to antisemitism, to baseless hatred, and to the glorification of violence. If the Shabbat morning of October 27, 2018 was deadly anti-Semitic rage at its worst ever in America, then the days that followed in Squirrel Hill were America’s response to hate at its best ever. Pittsburgh responded with love – and so, my friends, must we respond with love. And love calls on us to, in the words of author Brian Stevenson, get proximate.” Most of us are taught to stay away from [those making] problems, Stevenson said, but “there is power in proximity.”  
A dramatic example of that power is the story of two college students in Florida. Matthew Stevenson, one of the only observant Jews on his small campus, bravely decided to get proximate with a vocal classmate Derek Black. Derek, the godson of white nationalist David Duke, held that multiculturalism is responsible for oppression of white people in their own country and believed that a conspiracy of Jewish power was behind it all.  So Matthew did what very few of us would think of doing, he invited Derek, who had no history of violence against Jews, for Shabbat dinner. And they began a conversation that continued for two years, every week the two spent hours talking at, of all places, the Shabbos table. Stevenson was criticized for befriending someone who had contempt for Jews, who denied the Holocaust and whose father ran a popular hate-filled website. Stevenson was not interested in ambushing Derek, he did not want to put him on the defensive by discussing white nationalism or statistics. He reflected “People don’t change by being told how stupid they are. And they don’t change by quiet conversation alone.” Derek explained that the public outrage about his ideology in tandem with the private and persistent friendship with the other is what moved him to change. Derek Black, a golden boy of white supremacy, was willing to accept the invitation of Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, who courageously chose private proximity over public protest. It is a very dramatic tale, a story about what it truly means to be bridge people.
Let us make allies, gather strangers and loved ones alike to fight this fight with relentless will, with curious and courageous hearts. It is up to us to assist in building a world where the synagogue doors, and the church doors, and the mosque doors can be swung wide open on a beautiful autumn morning, and none shall be afraid. Might that also include – wisely and safely – opening our office doors and the doors to our homes? If that feels too complex, and it is, what if we form small groups for facilitated dialogue? If not New York City, where? Ask yourself, as I am asking myself this Yom Kippur day…how do I widen my circle in order to be a better bridge person?
And finally, I believe with a full heart that the very best way to combat antisemitism is for each and every one of us to build a durable, unshakable bridge to a flourishing and joyful Jewish future. We cannot afford to be unified only against those who are out to destroy us. Let us rather unify around one another because we have a holy vision of what the world might look like.  We Jews are not fomenting a conspiracy; we are embracing a theology and a mission: to see the Divine in every human being and to fix our broken world. Yes, we must secure our synagogue and schools, but we best secure the Jewish future by learning and living our Jewish ideals, demonstrating love for the stranger, learning our wise texts, praying together and celebrating Shabbat with friends and yes, with unlikely guests around the table. We have seen dark days of hate in 5779.  Let us pierce that darkness with Yahrtzeit candles to remember the fallen, with Shabbat candles and Chanukah candles to affirm the sanctity and joy of our rituals. At the very center of the sefer Torah, our People’s book of life, we find the words:  Vahavta l’reyecha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.  Let us all keep the command of lovingkindness at the center of our being as we inscribe our deeds in this new year. May it be so. Please God make it so.

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