Friday, August 25, 2017

Reflections on Charlottesville and Jersey City for Elul

“Jew will not replace us.” These words were chanted by hundreds of people in Charlottesville at a massive neo-Nazi rally in our country. My suspicion is that the older folks in our congregation are less surprised by the presence of antisemitism. Both my grandparents and parents experienced this hate, and the intersection of antisemitism with bigotry against other minorities. One of the most important stories my grandparents told me about their past was when my grandfather was stationed in South Carolina for army training before he entered combat in World War II.
Having come from Jersey City, my grandparents were not used to segregated buses, but they were introduced to this expression of systemic bigotry quickly. They walked on a bus early in their time in South Carolina and by habit, walked to the back of the bus. The driver stopped them, and told them that as white folks, they needed to sit up front. Neither of my grandparents were activists in the traditional sense of the word, and were not interested in taking public action or drawing attention to themselves.  But they were also keenly aware of the fact that they were Jews and that their families were being slaughtered en masse in Europe because of their “racial inferiority.” They continued to walk to the back of the bus and just told the driver to go. It made no sense to fight genocidal racism in Europe and feed it back at home. When my grandparents returned to New Jersey after the war, my grandmother became the secretary to one of the first tenured African-American professors at Jersey City State College, the artist Ben Jones. My grandfather became a public school teacher in Newark.
What impresses me about my grandparents’ legacy is that they never sought or received public recognition for much of anything they did. But they passed their stories onto their grandchildren -- from freeing concentration camps abroad, to pursuing justice at home, and sustaining Jewish communities that animated and transmitted their values. There is a deep wisdom to this approach to justice work. I moderated a panel with Tilar Mazzeo that centered on her book, “Irena’s Children,” about a Polish woman who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust. If Irena’s actions had been public, both she and those children would have been killed. The truly courageous work is not televised or posted on Instagram. It is done through living lives of integrity and quiet sacrifice, and through a deep confidence in who you are and what you believe. It is done by putting your body between the vulnerable and the violence that is bound to kill them. It is rarely public, but no doubt, God takes note.
We are approaching Elul, our month of repentance and spiritual preparation before the High Holidays. Let us remember two things: 1) Our actions matter, and more often than not, the greatest mitzvahs we do are seen only by God. 2) The value of synagogue life is crucial. Our community allows these stories can be passed from generation, not only as a source of inspiration, but also of protection. Our elders have an obligation to share their stories, and our youth have the obligation to hear them. Many young Jews are just experiencing antisemitism for the first time, and it is often a shock. Knowing that our elders had the strength and integrity to stand tall as Jews is an important source of strength in fighting the impulse to hide and flee for a false sense of security. Let us take this month as time of reflection, gratitude, and taking stock of who we are not only as individuals, but as a multi-generational community that must stand tall not only for ourselves, but also for those who share in our struggle.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will, and L’Shanah Tovah u’mitukah (A Happy and Sweet New year!)

Friday, August 4, 2017

From Tisha B'av to Tu B'Av

The Jewish calendar can often feel like an emotional see-saw. On the night we end grieving fallen Israeli soldiers on Yom HaZikaron, we are expected to turn on a dime and begin celebrating Israel’s independence with Yom Ha’atzmaut. On the heels of the spiritually taxing Yom Kippur, we are to begin immediately building our sukkah, our dwelling place for the festival of our happiness.  So too, with the month of Av.  On the 9th of Av (Tisha B’av), we are to mourn every calamity that has befallen the Jewish people, from the destruction of the temples all the way to the Holocaust. Less than a week later, we are to celebrate the 15th of Av (Tu B’av), the Jewish holiday of love when mourning is forbidden and we celebrate amorous relations. Why this constant back and forth? And what can we learn from the communal, ritualized ups and downs of Jewish life?

For one thing, it teaches us that our sadness is not for naught. We learn in our tradition, “those who sow in tears, reap in joy.” (Psalm 126:5) There is a connection between our emotional labor, and the growing pains that accompany it, and the growth and satisfaction that comes as a result. When we do the work of teshuva, or repentance for our sins, we can rejoice in renewed intimacy with God and our better selves. When we give thanks and acknowledge the sacrifice of others, we can offer fuller gratitude for our independence. Without reflection and repair of broken relationships, our joy will always be poorer and diminished. When we do the work of teshuva, the love we show for others and our God is all the more luminous and nourishing.
It also teaches us that there is always a way back.  In contemporary secular culture, we are quick to shame and exile without any mechanism for return to the community. Judaism does not allow for permanent scarlet letters or banishment without end.  Rather, the genius of religious faith is that there are not only mechanisms for punishment, but there is also always a path back to God and community. In this respect, secular society has a lot to learn from our communal religious past. Without hope for future communion, punishment remains nothing other than pain and cruelty. It is only when there is a path provided back to friendship, love, and joy, that punishment and pain can have educational value.  Let us take that message with us as we move from the 9th of Av to the 15th of Av and prepare for the coming Days of Awe.