This week as our P’nai Tikvah online prayer group collected our thoughts, one of the undertones was the growing fear that the American Jewish community is under attack, that the times are changing, and that we need to take action to defend ourselves. Many of us are asking “Is this what the Jews of Germany felt like as things began to change?’ “How will I know when it is time to go?” “Are these acts a sign of things to come?” and most importantly, “Can I do anything about it?” These concerns were in my mind as I pondered what I would say tonight. The words of my former colleague and a spiritual mentor, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, reminded me that long ago, I had found an answer to the question of why not to just give up hope and walk away.
As a young man, Donniel’s family made aliyah settling in Jerusalem in 1971 where his father founded the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Hartman Institute’s mission is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling for good in the 21st century. In 1982, Donniel’s father, Rabbi Prof David Hartman, wrote a groundbreaking essay Auschwitz or Sinai? which explored the paradigm under which the State of Israel, and by extrapolations, the American Jewish community would operate. Referring to his father’s essay, Donniel wrote “The principle lesson of Auschwitz is ‘Never Again’. The principle lesson of Sinai is the challenge to become a holy people. We need to fight anti-Semitism wherever it appears but fighting anti-Semitism must not exhaust or define the purpose of Jewish life. Our responsibility is to protect and ensure the survival of the Jewish people, but our mission is to create a people guided by a tradition which challenges us to live lives of meaning and value and which can be a light both to ourselves and others.”
As a young person in the 1970’s, I don’t remember much about the specifics of our reform Sunday school curriculum other that we focused on the Holocaust – A LOT. As an 11-year old in the 6th grade we were shown horrible films of what happened in the camps… There were survivors in our congregation with numbers tattooed on their arms… they came to our middle school youth group and shared their stories. We were taught to never forget. We were links in a chain thousands of years old and thus had a responsibility to remain Jewish and not be the ones who broke that continuous chain. Quoting Emil Fackenheim, “continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th commandment.” All of this traumatized me. It taught me that danger was lurking behind every corner and to feel like the “other” much of the time.
The only times I didn’t feel like the “other” was when I was at synagogue, Camp Swig, or some kind of Jewish activity. I certainly wasn’t going to be the broken link in the chain and so much of my teens and 20’s I was an identified “super Jew.” President of my youth group, camp counselor, Israel trip leader, president of the Jewish Student Union for several years, moving to Israel… and on and on… And through all of this, I was a song-leaderI. I played the guitar and I sang my way through… It gave me joy to belt out “Modah ani L’fanecha,” even if I didn’t really understand the context or the meaning. It gave me joy… And over time, I heard myself saying to people “I want to be a part of living Judaism, not a dying Judaism.” The Judaism of my childhood was dying Judaism. Not that it was slowly dying out, but with its focus on never forget, and don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory, it was all about Jews as targets, about being a hated minority, and about fear, about never being blond and beautiful like the iconic American ideal, Marcia Brady, about never being good enough.
My song-leading led me away from dying Judaism. Like many others, I was highly influenced by Debbie Friedman who created music that spoke to the vibrancy of the times, that was accessible in English, and which gave me a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the mysterious prayers we said in a language I didn’t understand… As I played L’cha dodi and shabbat shalom and erev she shoshanim, I began to explore what the words meant, and the context in which they were written, what the rituals associated with the songs signified… Understanding what I was doing drew me further in and I found meaning and grounding and that led me to start to lighting Shabbat candles weekly, to carving out time for friends and family on Shabbat… to understanding the 2nd paragraph of the Shema which teaches us that our actions have consequences that ripple out and affect the wider community; to bowing in humility when I recite the Aleynu, aware that I am a part of something divine, that I have a role to play in the world.
As Hanukah has just finished, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that “the Maccabees are a symbol of Jewish activism, of refusing to live in fear. As a symbol of this, the original custom was to light Hanukkah lights outside the from door of the house, or in a window facing the street, to publicize the miracle. Today, we see the lighting of giant menorahs in the most prominent of public places in cities throughout the world. Hanukkah tells us. Not to curse the darkness, but instead to bring light to the world. To fight back, and to not be afraid.”
Another thing to remember is that we are not alone. We have friends and allies who stand with us. Tonight we are blessed to be joined by Pastor Char and the board of Indigo Valley Church who, as Pastor Char said quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel “are praying with their feet” by joining our Shabbat services and standing with us in solidarity.
And so tonight, as we grapple with what we each can do as individuals to protect our community and fight antisemitism, besides taking prudent security measures and raising our voices and exercising our political power, I suggest that we do more to lead lives of meaning. I suggest that we bring Living Judaism to life, that we light shabbat candles, that we sing our hearts out, that we build community, that we treat each other fairly and with compassion… that we “Ivdu et haShem b’simcha”, that we serve God with joy… by living lives of meaning, by being a light unto ourselves and to others. This is how we will build a strong Jewish community, a community of meaning, that will not stand alone as we stand up to whatever will come.