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!)