Monday, June 1, 2020

His Name was George Floyd

George Floyd - image from the NYT
Summer of 2016 in Baltimore at a protest decrying the death of Freddie Gray

His name was George Floyd. His name was Eric Garner. Her name was Breonna Taylor. His name was Freddie Gray. All died at the hands of those entrusted to protect and serve. The police are not a single collective entity. Instead they are representatives of the will of the power of their local communities and constituencies. The best police agencies are about engagement and interaction viewing all people in their community as human beings. The worst are about enforcement and punishment, viewing select members of their community as the enemy. However, in both cases, police act according to what is expected of them by their leadership. 

Many agencies are working to change this. They are training in concepts like implicit bias and working on fostering relationships to build trust through accountability. However, in places like Minneapolis and so many other towns and cities, like with Derek Chauvin, there is almost no accountability as the man had eighteen! complaints filed against him. All too often, for communities of color, they don’t call the police because they are afraid they will end up arrested themselves or worse, dead. This is part of what privilege means. I know I can call the police in any circumstance and they will come and protect me. I am so grateful to the men and women in blue, and I appreciate tremendously that they put their lives on the line every day to protect me and my family and keep us safe. At the same time, I also know that this is not the experience of too many Americans. Both can be true, and both are true. 

African-American men and women are not the enemy. They’ve been shouting to the heavens for the powers that be to do something, anything. There is inherent racism in policing. There is inherent racism in the economy, in medicine, in education, in the community, and in the country. We just haven’t wanted to hear it. Worse, we haven’t wanted to believe it. 

Not too long ago, I gave a High Holy Day sermon on the power and curse of symbols. When I spoke about Colin Kaepernick and his silent protest, some listened, others were offended at his perceived desecration of the American flag, a symbol of military sacrifice. Now those same voices are decrying the riots and the protests with words like: why don’t they just protest peacefully? It’s enough to make one want to scream, which is hard to do if one cannot breathe. 

Jewish communities had and continues to have an imperfect relationship with our African-American neighbors. Two minority groups often in close proximity and often at odds with each other over scarce resources. There is certainly hate and distrust on both sides, and all too often we get into the who has suffered more Olympics; as if one’s pain and suffering negates the other. 

The rise in antisemitism does not diminish nor offset the pain and suffering caused by systemic racism. Both can be true at the same time. I for one, have done a poor job in fostering relationships with my African-American neighbors. I cannot recall the last time I could even call one a friend. Yes I have participated in interfaith services and MLK services, but that has for the most part been the length and breadth of my involvement. In this time of quarantine, I pledge to spend more time not just on reflection, but also on studying and listening and learning as to what more I can do as a flawed ally. 

The protests both non-violent and violent will eventually die down. The world will return to a sense of relative calm during these incredibly strange and difficult times. It is at this moment we need to remember the teachings of our tradition, “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” and “he/she who saves a single life, it is as if they save the world.” 

In the meantime, my heart continues to break. Yet, as I sat with my family and watched the Space X launch, I was reminded of what we as humanity can accomplish if we set our mind to it. If we can send people safely to space, a technological wonder, surely we have the capacity to finally end the scourge of systemic racism and bias. Bad policing is just a symptom of the greater disease, and until we cure it, more people like George Floyd will continue to suffer and die at the knees of those who have decided to take the law into their own hands, even if they are the law.

Below are a list of recommendations of just some ways we can act

Friday, February 28, 2020

I Stand With Israel



I, for one, rarely wade in the rough waters of politics. This is in part because politics today are a sport with teams and winners and losers rather than an engagement about the cultivation and use of power for positive change. 

That being said, given one candidate, Bernie Sanders, choice to decline the invitation to speak at AIPAC by declaring that, ““I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend their conference.”

I, for one, cannot abide this gross misrepresentation not only of AIPAC, but also of both history and modern circumstances. What Sanders is stating is that Israel is solely responsible for the plight of the Palestinians, and that the Palestinian people are suffering because of bigotry.

If there is one lesson that history has taught us as was demonstrated by our President’s abandonment of the Kurds is that without political and military sovereignty, we Jews are at the capricious whims of foreign governments. I refuse to trust it the world to look after the Jews. The world has failed to do so time and again, with the Shoah, the Holocaust representing the absolute success of antisemitism. Israel exists because the Jewish people willed it to be so, in part, as a way of protecting us from this 2,000-year-old hatred. As Jews, like the Kurds, we are entitled to determine our own fate, for the world cannot be trusted to look after us. To this end, we created our own state out of historical, religious, and autonomous desires and needs. Israel is not a racist or bigoted endeavor, but it was certainly born out of the fight against hatred. Israel should never apologize for its existence.

From the beginning of the modern state of Israel, Palestinians were offered time and again their own homeland. They rejected in in 1948 by instead entering into a war against Israel. They rejected it under President George H.W. Bush with the Madrid Peace Conference, with the Oslo Accords under President Clinton, under direct talks between Prime Ministers Olmert and Abbas, with the Obama administration and most recently the rejection of the plan offered by the Trump administration. They rejected it because of a vision of the destruction of the Jewish State. Peace cannot exist as long as Israel exists, is the prominent argument by anti-Zionists.

Because of this, the leadership of the Palestinians have failed their people time and again. Instead of building a homeland for themselves where the desert blooms, they keep their people in impoverished conditions because it suits their narrative. In addition, the Arab world has used the ‘suffering’ of the Palestinians as a justification to oppress their own people by blaming an external force in the Zionist endeavor and the United States. If there is anyone who is bigoted or racist, it’s the Arab world for again and again enabling Palestinian suffering in their own lands. And by the way, Mr. Sanders, the Arab world is almost entirely judenrein (Jew-free), because of the bigotry of the Arab world. They expelled almost all of their Jewish residents. Thankfully Israel existed for this ingathering of 850,000 Jews. Where is your condemnation of the Arab world’s racist and antisemitic policies?! 

I, for one, refuse to buy into the myth that Israel has sole responsibility for the suffering for the Palestinian people. As Prime Minister Golda Meir famously said, "Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us." 

Israel, like the United States, is a thriving and flawed democracy. I will continue to be critical and challenge Israel when it comes to issues related to pluralism and the acceptance of all flavors of Jewish life and Jewish living. What I will not do is be critical of Israel for defending herself or for being the Jewish homeland. As long as the world continues to attack Jews intellectually and physically, we will never truly be safe. And I thank God every day that there is a place that will always take me in even if the rest of the world rejects me. 

It is time to stop apologizing for the existence of the State of Israel, a modern and historic miracle, and instead start to hold Palestinians and the Arab world accountable for their own actions and choices. Despite all their wealth and all their power, they have chosen to make a people, the Palestinian people, into victims because it suits their narrative. They have rejected peace time and again. Their aim is the destruction of the Jewish State, and this can never be allowed to happen. 

To you Mr. Sanders I say you have betrayed the Jewish people, you have betrayed democracy and you have betrayed history. If you are truly a man of honor that you proclaim yourself to be, you will reject anti-Zionism as the antisemitic endeavor it truly is. But until that day, I, for one, will stand against you and any other of our elected officials who espouse your ideology, for I am a proud progressive American and Zionist Jew.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Say it Ain't So, Altuve


I firmly believe that sports are not a way of life but instead a form of both entertainment and community building. I have been a die-hard Astros fan since the early 80s and their run at the World Series with Mike Scott at the helm along with Nolan Ryan. It was devastating to watch them lose in ’86 to the Mets in 16 innings especially knowing Scott was going to be on the mound for game 7. My hope was renewed with the Killer B’s with Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman. I thrilled at the defensive acumen of Ken Caminiti (z”l), and I enjoyed watching them finally slay the beast in the dreaded Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals before being swept by the White Sox in the 2005 World Series. 

And then came the rebuilding. I went to an Astros vs. Orioles game in Camden Yards where the only name I recognized on the Astros roster was traded to the Orioles the night before. It was a tough time to be a fan, and I found my interest waning. 
But then came 2015. This young, plucky team based on analytics and fearlessness pushed the eventual World Series Champs (Royals) to the brink before losing in 5 in the division series. But we knew our turn was coming soon.

Then came the magic of 2017. The Astros along with their newly acquired last minute ace in Verlander brought out the hopes and dreams of a city devastated by Hurricane Harvey. I celebrated and jumped for joy (quietly as everyone else was asleep) at nearly 1am EST! The Astros had finally done it. Like the Rockets before them, they finally brought a major league crown to my hometown. And more than that, my congregation made up of huge Mets and Yankees fans cheered alongside me, wishing me nothing but the best. My team were champions! I only knew this feeling with the Rockets and with the Longhorns. But never with a team that I followed since I was a child. 

The World Series year was followed by the injuries and disappointments of the 2018 season before the Astros came within just a few outs of winning the World Series in October of 2019, which itself was tainted by the whole Taubman misogynist debacle. 

Then came the revelation, the Astros are cheaters. I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to condemn the words of Mike Fiers, but deep down I knew it must be true. But I awaited the commissioner’s report. While grocery shopping a friend texted me to tell me that the findings and punishments were released. After months of investigation, the Astros stood guilty of systemic cheating. As an aside, I for one am grateful to Mike Fiers and also whistleblowers. They risk everything to do what is right and are almost always condemned for their actions. 

Are the Astros the only team that cheated? Of course not. As of the writing of this, the Red Sox are currently under investigation. The Yankees had already been punished for using technology to steal signs. And there are rumors swirling around other teams. But just because other teams have cheated does not defend the actions of my beloved Astros. 

Now I could go on and on about how baseball has a technology problem that it is trying to sweep under the rug. I could go on and on that the MLB turned a blind eye to the steroid epidemic that both plagued and saved baseball whose repercussions reverberate to this very day or about the amphetamines so prevalent especially in the 70s and early 80s. But this does not justify what my team did. 

Did they win in 2017 because they cheated, no one can say for sure, which is a huge part of the problem. Sports are supposed to be about hard work, determination, talent and drive: the best matching up against the best. Yes, all sports are flawed, and in some ways, they are reflective of the world in which we live. But they are also supposed to be aspirational, we see talented people do things we could never dream of doing. Cheating should never have been a part of the equation.

At this moment, I as a fan, am at a crossroads. Do I continue to root for a team that betrayed baseball and betrayed my trust as a fan? Do I find another team to root for? Or to I take a break from baseball altogether. And more importantly, how do I explain my decision to one of my children who has become as rabid a fan as I could hope for. It was amazing to share the experience of watching Verlander throw a no-hitter with my child, just like I enjoyed watching Mike Scott do so many years ago, when I was my child’s age. And now I have to talk to him about what it means to root for cheaters.

I have taken down my 2017 Championship sign. I will no longer wear my 2017 jersey, and it may be a long time before I purchase any more Astros paraphernalia, if ever. 

Yes, the Astros as an organization and a team apologized today. But they have a lot of teshuva to do. Their actions hurt a lot of people and they are going to be paying a heavy price this season and probably for years to come. And rightfully so. 

I still love my Astros and I wish them the best this season and I hope they play the right way. I have a lot of faith in Dusty Baker as a man of integrity, and that would be a start. But right now, I am hurt and angry. And if I ultimately decide to root for another team (I hear there is a pretty good team near me with a former Astros ace at the helm), I know I am not betraying my loyalty to the Astros. Instead they were the ones who betrayed me. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Yom Kippur Morning 5780: Confronting Antisemitism


As some of you know, I grew up in Spring, Texas a northwestern suburb of Houston. It was not exactly the mecca of Jewish life. I heard the taunts of Jews killed Jesus. I was asked about my horns. I would have to fight every year to be able to take off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not face academic penalties for taking the day. And I would occasionally get into very powerful arguments at football games because I would not stand for a prayer that was offered up at a public high school in the name of a person I did not worship. I had to develop a very thick Jewish skin. 
This is probably part of the reason why I have made some of the career choices we have made including coming here to Rockland County. Rockland, as I learned in my research, has the largest Jewish population by percentage of any county in the nation. As a result, schools are closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Black and white cookies are abundant, and there are delis around just about every corner. There was even a local Jewish Day school they could attend, a blessed memory. What more could a parent want for their Jewish children?
Perhaps my children, in this multi-cultural society, and in a diversely Jewish county could escape much of the antisemitism I grew up with… Nope.
But before we dive into some of the issues of antisemitism in the county, let’s talks about antisemitism in general. 
This past June we were blessed to welcome one of the preeminent scholars on the Holocaust, Holocaust denial and antisemitism in Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Dr. Lipstadt was brought in as a speaker by our Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education to share her thoughts related to her new book: Antisemitism: Here and Now.
In her book, Dr. Lipstadt helps of define antisemitism first by answering the question of “why antisemitism?” According to Dr. Lipstadt, antisemitism is not merely just the hatred of Jews, but it is the world’s oldest conspiracy theory, and this is why it is such, in her words, “it is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional, and absurd. That is the nature of conspiracy theories … Think about it. Why do some people insist that the moon landing took place on a stage set someplace in the American West? Despite the existence of reams of scientific and personal evidence to the contrary, they believe this because they subscribe to the notion that the government and other powerful entities are engaged in vast conspiracies to fool the public…”[1]
I had never thought of antisemitism this way. It thought it merely to be a baseless hatred that could be abolished through education. But sadly education cannot eradicate what the mind convinces itself to be true. This is why it is so pernicious, ever-evolving, and not easy to define.
So rather than defining it, perhaps it is useful to look to our own U.S. State Department which lists contemporary examples of the expression of antisemitism.[2] Here are just a few:
1.     Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
2.     Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
3.     Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
4.     Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
5.     Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
6.     Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
There are more and I encourage you to go to their website because the list is both real and disconcerting. To continue, let’s look more closely at these tropes. The first being “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.” This was both the basis for Charlottesville and Pittsburgh both areas of violence perpetrated by white nationalists.
As we know, almost one year ago on October 27, 2018, a man walked into Tree of Life Synagogue, “armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns.”[3] Shouting, “All Jews must die,” he murdered in cold-blood, 11 Jews and wounded 7 others. This act of extreme violence sent shock waves through the Jewish community and the country.
We ask, what where his motivations? In this assailant’s delusional mind, he murdered 11 of our landsmen based on the conspiracy theory that Jews are working with minorities and immigrants to replace the white race. We are the ones behind the so-called ‘white-genocide.’ This is because one of the congregations in Pittsburgh, like us, have allied themselves with the mission and vision of HIAS, the Hebrew immigrant aid society, which provides aid and assistance to immigrants to this great nation of ours.
What is also bizarre is that according to this conspiracy theory is that black people and brown people are not capable of organizing and fighting for themselves, so whenever they do, they must be funded and controlled by some nefarious group seeking to destroy the white foundations of the United States. This is why the name George Soros is thrown around so much. For, in their minds, we Jews are the ones behind all evil societal change in one way or another. We are conniving and power hungry and will use others to our own end. Therefore, we must be stopped including by shooting up innocent people whose only crime was to gather together to worship and celebrate a bris.
Sadly, this trope is not the only one prevalent in today’s world. There is also the effort to institutionalize antisemitism by claiming that Zionism is a racist endeavor. This antisemitic trope is especially prominent on many of our college campuses and in the fight for some progressive causes like the Women’s March. In an editorial for Tablet Magazine by Andrew Pessin and Doron Ben-Atar, they wrote, “While some may see in Israel a prosperous (if flawed) liberal democracy facing unprecedented security challenges, the growing campus orthodoxy sees only an “apartheid regime” founded upon “racism,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “colonialist imperialism.” Zionism, anti-Israelists believe, can be neither defended nor corrected, both because the very idea of a Jewish state in that region depends on dispossession of others and because the concept of Jewish democracy is an offensive oxymoron. Israel, and Zionism, are thus cast as illegitimate, incorrigible abominations. The problem isn’t Israel’s alleged “crimes,” then, but its sinful essence. “A crime,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “is met with punishment; a vice can only be exterminated.”
A vice cannot be engaged. Evil cannot partake in a scholarly debate. You must under no circumstances “normalize” your relations with it. Anti-Israelists don’t want to hear what the other side says at all, nor let anyone else hear it, because to them there simply is no other side: they seek not to study or understand the lone Jewish state in the world (as scholars might do) but to destroy it. Painting it as an abomination is a crucial part of that strategy. They exchange the mantle of scholarship for activism, or use the mantle of scholarship as a cover for activism.”[4] 
Thus, if you are a true progressive, you cannot also be pro-Israel. Or to put it another way, intersectionality is a slippery slope to antisemitism. Hence the banning of the rainbow-colored Israeli flag at the Dyke March in D.C. under the rubric of not allowing ‘nationalist symbols’ while allowing the Palestinian flag to fly freely.[5] For they may say it’s only about Israel, but really, it’s all about the Jews. 
This too, sadly is classic antisemitism a slight derivation, what we might call leftist antisemitism. “As Jonathan Freedland aptly described, “When Jews call out something as antisemitic, leftist non-Jews feel curiously entitled to tell Jews they’re wrong, that they are exaggerating or lying or using it as a decoy tactic – and to then treat them to a long lecture on what anti-Jewish racism really is. The left would call it misogynist “mansplaining” if a man talked that way to a woman. They’d be mortified if they were caught doing that to LGBT people or Muslims. But to Jews, they feel no such restraint.”[6]
Both antisemitism on the right and on the left are huge problems. However, there is another emergent challenge threatening to undermine our fight against hate, and that is the politicization of antisemitism. Or as some argue, “join my side because your side is the antisemitic one.”
This way of thinking is inherently wrong, as Lipstadt wrote, “we must make people aware that antisemitism is not solely a problem of the Right or the Left, but that it exists in both arenas. It might be more institutionalized on the left, but we are also seeing it as an element in the rise of right-wing nationalism both in the United States and abroad. We cannot let those on the left – progressive people who are dedicated to righting long-standing wrongs – blind themselves to the antisemitism that has tragically insinuated itself into some areas of the political left. 
Similarly, we must forthrightly acknowledge those on the right who say they are merely trying to protect “European culture” as the Antisemites and racists that they are.”[7] Antisemitism is not a left issue or a right issue, it is a human issue!
As I wrote in a note to the congregation following the production of that hateful video, “A Storm is Brewing in Rockland,” Sadly, antisemitism is becoming an increasingly partisan issue, while being excused if one supports the politician or party of the person spewing the hate. Antisemitism is antisemitism, and it must be called out and condemned regardless of who is speaking it. To all politicians I say, stop using Jews and/or Israel to further your political ambitions. Your use of us, only further endangers us from those who would seek us harm.”[8] 
Which brings us back to Rockland. As many of you undoubtedly know, Rockland is home to not one but two types of antisemitism: the more generalized one we have been speaking about, and also a very specific anti-Hasidic version. Now I will readily admit, I am no expert on Rockland, as I have only lived in the county a little over three years and hence, I am not privy to all of the ins and outs. What I do know is that my some of my neighbors mentioned to me how thrilled they were to discover that when we bought the house, I was not ‘that’ kind of a rabbi.
Therefore I would like to borrow from a recent High Holiday sermon from Rabbi Dan Pernick, one of my local colleagues who has thirty years in the county under his belt who said, “And lest any of us sit smugly and say, well, it is their ox which is being gored, not mine, let us remember that for those who hate, there is little to no difference between Hasidic Jews and us. 
Even for those who do not hate, there is a serious lack of knowledge. A large segment of the non-Jewish community and even a significant segment of the Jewish community do not understand the difference between Hasidic Jews and modern Orthodox Jews, between an Orthodox rabbi wearing a kippah and a Reform rabbi wearing a kippah, between a Hasidic Jew and you. For all too many, a Jew is a Jew.
For over thirty years, (Rabbi Pernick has) listened to students in Orangetown, Clarkstown and Bergen counties complain about the anti-Semitic taunts and insults they have had to endure in the public schools. Virtually all of them, as well as their parents, didn’t want anything done because they didn’t want to stand out. 
While such an attitude is understandable, it means that we have also been enabling this type of attitude to develop. The problem, my friends, is that far too many of us do not want to confront the forces of hatred.”[9]
This is not to say there are not real challenges in the county. Many of you know these better than I. I am not here to dismiss your worries or fears or to denigrate them in any way. There has been real damage done to this county and the issues of corruption and over development are real issues. However, in the words of Rabbi Pernick, “Yes, we have a messy and uncomfortable situation in Ramapo. The local Hasidic communities played a role in this, but so did local political leaders. 
The answer is not to vilify the religious identity of some of the residents, but rather to deal with the very real issues that are the problem, including the corruption which sent Ramapo’s non-Jewish, Town Supervisor to prison.”[10] Simply blaming the Hasidic community for all of Rockland’s problems ignores many of its larger structural, organizational, and political issues. Do some in the Hasidic community have a role to play, absolutely. But they are not the only ones at fault including some of our statewide officials and politicians. It is incumbent upon us to fight for Rockland County, but what we cannot do is let the fight turn into an antisemitic narrative.
Thus “there are ways to challenge frustrating developments in Rockland County without putting a target on the back of Jews writ large. It is one thing to challenge the actions of a person or persons. It is another to indict a whole community. Anger towards Jews leads to violence towards all Jews. For as we know, when one Jew is assaulted simply for being Jewish, we all become targets to be assaulted. Lest we forget, the communities that were attacked in Pittsburgh and Poway were not ultra-Orthodox communities.” To an anti-Semite, we are all the same.
So what can we do in the face of increasing antisemitism both here and in the nation? For one, we have to acknowledge it and call it out wherever it rears its ugly head, no matter the person or persons speaking it. Secondly, we have to work harder to bring ourselves closer to one another. Maybe this means joining a synagogue or committing to support a Holocaust Museum or the ADL. Or ideally, all three. No one else is going to take on the battle of fighting antisemitism if we do not lead. Third, we have to stop turning on each other. We may have different political beliefs, but we are all either Jews or people who have chosen to bind ourselves to the fate of our people. Thus confronting antisemitism is something we all must do. 
We also need to find allies. This means we need to work on building connections and relationships with other religious communities, communities of color, and the like. We need to work to make their causes our causes and help them understand why our cause is their cause. But what we cannot do is let them fall into the traps of casual or deliberate antisemitism. 
We need to support Israel. In the words of NYT writer Bari Weiss, who will be coming to speak here in Rockland in the spring, as she wrote in her book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, “Supporting Israel does not mean – I cannot believe I have to say this – never criticizing it. On the contrary, it means demanding that Israel live up to its ideals. But it is also important to hold in tension Israel’s flaws with the fact that it is a political and historical miracle.”[11]
Thankfully we also live in a time and in a place where our local elected officials and authorities, for the most part are on our side. Unlike the recent and not so recent past, it is our police who rushed into the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It is our local Clarkstown police who are not only present during our High Holy Day services but have also helped us work to make our building and you safer and more secure. To them and to our off-duty police officers whose presence here today, we are tremendously grateful. 
And there are so many other ways as well to fight antisemitism. But more than that, we also cannot, we must not give into despair. As Dr. Lipstadt argues, we need to reject the victimhood of Judaism, we need to not focus on the oy, but instead find the joy in Judaism. After Pittsburgh, we held a rally of solidarity at the JCC. It was standing room only. Elected leaders and officials and Jews of all denominations gathered in the gym to mourn, to share our fears, and to embrace one another. And following that, we held a Shabbat of solidarity here with our friends at Congregation Sons of Israel along with other faith leaders from our community. We may have grieved together, but we also celebrated Shabbat together. 
Antisemitism may be the world’s oldest conspiracy theory. It may be impossible to eradicate. But you know what, we Jews have been around for a pretty long time too. And we are not going anywhere either. On this Yom Kippur, this most solemn and somber day of the Jewish Year, let us recommit ourselves to standing strong, standing up in the face of hate and intolerance, and standing proud as the Jewish people. We stand with each other. We stand with Israel, and we stand strong in the face of hate. Or in the words we tell ourselves at all times in good and in bad, Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish People Live! And no matter what the world throws at us, we will not be afraid. 
In the words of Bari Weiss, “There are many forces in our world insisting, again, that all Jews must die. But there is a force far, far greater than that. And that is the force of who we are. We are a people descended from slaves who brought the world ideas that change the course of history. One God. Human dignity. The sanctity of life. Freedom itself. 
That is our inheritance. That is our legacy. We are the people commanded to bring light into this world. 
Do we believe in our own story? Can we make it real once again? I believe that we can. And that we must.”[12]
Am Yisrael Chai!
L’shana Tova

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[1] Liptstadt, Deborah, Antisemitism Here and Now, New York, Schocken Books, 2019, pg. 7
[2] https://www.state.gov/defining-anti-semitism/
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html
[4] https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/257840/the-silencing-of-pro-israel-students-on-campus
[5] https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/d-c-dyke-march-barred-jewish-pride-flag-lgbtq-space-ncna1015786
[6] Liptstadt, Deborah, Antisemitism Here and Now, New York, Schocken Books, 2019, pg. 201
[7] Liptstadt, Deborah, Antisemitism Here and Now, New York, Schocken Books, 2019, pg. 220-221
[8] https://rhythmguitarrabbi.blogspot.com/2019/08/a-storm-is-brewing-but-not-one-as.html
[9] https://www.facebook.com/RocklandisOne/posts/736647930096530
[10] https://www.facebook.com/RocklandisOne/posts/736647930096530
[11] Weiss, Bari, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, New York, Crown, 2019, pg. 193
[12] Weiss, Bari, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, New York, Crown, 2019, pg. 206

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Wolves of Kol Nidre


Famed soccer player Abby Wambach, at the 2018 Commencement of Bernard College, told the following story, “in 1995, wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park after being absent for seventy years. In those years, the number of deer had skyrocketed because they were unchallenged, alone at the top of the food chain. They grazed away and reduced the vegetation, so much that the river banks were eroding.
Once the wolves arrived, they thinned out the deer through hunting. But more significantly, their presence changed the behavior of the deer. Wisely, the deer started avoiding the valleys, and the vegetation in those places regenerated. Trees quintupled in just six years. Birds and beavers started moving in. The river dams the beavers built provided habitats for otters and ducks and fish. The animal ecosystem regenerated. But that wasn’t all. The rivers actually changed as well. The plant regeneration stabilized the river banks so they stopped collapsing. The rivers steadied—all because of the wolves’ presence.
See what happened here?
The wolves, who were feared as a threat to the system, turned out to be its salvation.”[1]
Since reading Wambach’s words, I’ve been thinking a lot about soccer, change, and wolves. Now please bear with me (no pun intended). Wolves often get a bad rap in culture. For example, there is the metaphor of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is the boy who cried wolf. There is the story of little red riding hood and the big bad wolf, which Wambach mentioned. There was even the recent Scorsese movie, the Wolves of Wall Street, which was all about unscrupulous stockbrokers. In each example, the wolf is a character either taking advantage of a situation or seeking to do harm for their own benefit. The wolf is a predator that must be feared. But can it also be respected?
To find out we have to dig a little deeper into history. There is the story of the demigods Romulus and Remus whose father Numitor was displaced by his brother Amulius. Fearing for their lives, their mother Rhea Silvia hid them in a cave where they were suckled by a she-wolf. This she-wolf nurtured the twins until they could come into their own. Eventually Romulus went on to found the city of Rome, according to ancient lore. 
The image of the wolf even appears in our tradition. For example, the wolf is the symbol for the tribe of Benjamin. This is because in his blessings / curses of his twelve sons, Jacob/Israel blesses his son Benjamin with the following words, “Benjamin is a wolf (Benyaim Z’ev) that rends in the morning devouring the booty, in the evening, dividing the spoil.”[2]
As the Plaut Torah Commentary goes on to explain regarding Benyaim Z’ev, “Benjamin’s warlike temperament is here characterized. Two famous warriors, Ehud the Judge and Saul the King, were of this tribe. Based on this verse, many Jews have been named Binyamin Z’ev, among them, Theodor Herzl, the Zionist leader.”[3]
Thus, there is a juxtaposition between the wolf as predator and the wolf as a force for good and a force for survival. But what if the wolf is, metaphorically speaking, something else entirely?
Writing for Tablet Magazine, famed Jewish writer Dara Horn retold the story of “The Wolf”[4] (by Yiddish Poet Leyvik Halpern. Halpern wrote around the turn of the 20th Century about his experiences growing up in Belarus and his time in Siberia during the pogroms) … [The poem] opens with a solitary figure, known only as “the Rov” (rabbi), awakening from unconsciousness on a mound of ashes to discover that he is the only person left alive in his destroyed town. He wanders the smoldering landscape searching for other survivors, then for perpetrators, then for corpses, and then even for body parts to bury. But the victors have left, all human remains have been torched, and, as the poem keeps repeating in a haunting chorus, “the Rov did not know what to do.”
The Rov finally removes his shoes and begins to recite Hebrew laments traditionally sung to commemorate the Temple’s destruction, a central ritual of communal Jewish mourning, but “he had forgotten the words of the laments.” He then attempts to recite the daily prayers, but “he had forgotten the words of the prayers.” As night falls, he flees barefoot into the “forty-mile forest” surrounding the town.
That’s where things get interesting. Caught in a snarl of barbed wire in the woods, the Rov somehow loses his clothes and falls onto all fours, and his transformation begins. Naked and struggling, his body sprouts hair, his fingers fuse and grow claws, his neck and shoulders merge, his teeth grow sharp, his lips droop, his eyes glitter, and he howls out his pain. When this Jewish werewolf emerges from the forest, things get even worse.
Back in the destroyed town, Jews expelled from other areas move in and rebuild. Dedicating their repaired synagogue, they are celebrating their renewed life in this desolate place when they hear “a long drawn-out howl of a beast” in the distance: “At first, angry and roaring, as in a moment of devouring prey, / Then thin and desperate, as the wailing / Of a dog baring his heart to the moon, / And finally, quieter and quieter and whining, / Like the cry of a human being.”
The nighttime howling terrifies them, but more horrifying is the appearance of a stranger the next morning in a rabbinical coat and fur hat. At first they hurry to greet him, hoping he will replace their own murdered Rov. But soon they see that he is bare-chested and bloody beneath his coat, his feet bare and his face sunken. He enters the synagogue and takes the Rov’s seat beside the eastern wall. And then he speaks, railing at them for rebuilding the ruins. Soon he falls at their feet, begging them to kill him. They crowd around him in sympathy. That’s when he bites someone’s hand. The congregants flee.
Each night, the howling continues, until suddenly, on the eve of Yom Kippur, it ceases, without anyone connecting the sound to the Rov. The congregation rejoices, relieved. But at the very end of Yom Kippur, at the shofar’s final blast, the “wolf” enters the synagogue and attacks the prayer leader. At that, one congregant takes a wooden lectern and smashes his skull. The entire congregation then pummels him until he lies dead on the floor—“And the congregation burst into great weeping / For on the floor, tortured, in a river of blood / Lay not a wolf but a Jew in a rabbinical fur hat.”
As Dara Horn[5] went on to write, “When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was riveted by the Rov, whom I understood as a person disfigured by trauma. The poem, I thought, was a call for empathy for survivors, and a warning about how “hurt people hurt people”—though the latter idea in this context felt false to me even then, a cheap After School Special idea about “prejudice” that was untrue to the survivors I knew, and also untrue to the poem itself (where only the Rov winds up dead).
But after the Pittsburgh massacre, I read this poem differently—and, I suspect, in a way much closer to how American readers in 1920 may have read it. Insert here all the insultingly obvious caveats about how a lone gunman murdering 11 people in no way resembles 50,000 dead. Those caveats don’t matter for this poem, because this poem isn’t about history. It is about fear.
The poem, as I now understand it, isn’t really about the Rov, whose point of view hardly figures in the work. It’s about the other Jews, whose shared emotions are intimately described—and all too familiar. These Jews rejoice in their survival, but they are also haunted by the horrific fact that other Jews have been murdered while they have randomly been spared—the defining fact of post-Holocaust American Jewish identity. The wolf’s presence in their midst is an embodiment of that haunting, the deep awareness of total vulnerability that lurks just beneath the surface of their daily lives.”
We live in a time of growing uncertainty and fear, embodied by an ever-increasing sense of vulnerability as articulated by Horn in her interpretation of Leyvik. A lot of it has to do with the growing incidents of antisemitism, which we will discuss more tomorrow. However, even with the rising levels of hatred, we are also living at a moment of opportunity. Do we live with fear or do we live despite our fears? Are we Rov’s wolf or are we Wambach’s wolf? Are we wolves whose transformational story inspires us? Or are we the wolves symbolizing the great fear in the world.
The answer is most likely both. We stand here this evening on Kol Nidre, entering into the most sacred, the most somber day of the Jewish calendar. According to traditional theology, we are on a knife’s edge, awaiting judgment and praying for mercy. We call these days the Yamim Noraiim, the Days of Awe. However, Noraiim doesn’t exactly mean ‘awe.’ It can also mean ‘fear.’ Fear that if we don’t get it right, we may not be sealed into the Sefer Chayim, the book of life. 
With all of this focus on fear, are there ways we can overcome it? With Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur our tradition is providing us with a model to help us manage our fears. If I can get through this fast and this challenging time of introspection, I can and must face any challenges that lie ahead during this coming year. Or as Nelson Mandela famously said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
To do this, we need strength. But with so much anger and hate in the world, where can we find the inspiration to draw the power needed to overcome our fears? We can certainly find it in God and in our tradition. But perhaps there is another source of strength so close at hand that we often overlook it. To borrow from our overstretched metaphor, we can look to the wolves in our midst: our children, for they are truly the ones working to transform the world.
There is Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate change activist. Her great fear is the world she stands to inherit. When faced with the potential devastation caused by global warming, she is unafraid to speak truth to those in power by speaking just a few short weeks ago at the United Nations. True fear has made her unafraid. 
There is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman simply for the crime of getting an education. She survived and became one of the most prominent activists for the right to education, even receiving the Nobel Prize for her efforts. After almost being assassinated, Malala knows true fear and stands unafraid.
And there is our own Jadyn Turner, who is part of what some has described as the massacre generation. Whether it was her cousin, who was killed in Parkland, or the multitude of children killed by gun violence while in their schools, Jadyn works tirelessly, along with many of our teens, to fight for the prevention of gun violence here in the State of New York, often speaking to the most powerful people in the legislature and not backing down. When you fear to go to school every day, speaking to someone standing in your way of safety and security becomes is nothing to be afraid of. True fear has made her unafraid.
Wolves, often misunderstood, are object of derision, but they are the ones who can change the course of nature. Maybe we can learn a lot from them, but more importantly we can and should learn even more from our children. They are the ones who can teach us and remind us of what it means to know fear and stand unafraid. By incorporating this lesson, we can then stand side by side with them, speaking truth to power, and working with them to solve the endemic problems in this world that make so many afraid.
On this 5780, we have the choice, do we wish to become the wolves and face our fears. Or do we wish to be symbolized by the wolves and give into our fears? This is an hour of change; do we draw back or do we cross over? To we give into our fears, or do we triumph over them? The choice is ours. 
As Wambach concluded her words so too shall we by paraphrasing them, “And who you are - on this Yom Kippur - are the wolves. Surrounding you today is your wolf pack. Look around. Don’t lose each other. Leave this sacred ground united, storm the valleys together, and like our children, be our salvation.”[6]
L’shana Tova


[1] https://barnard.edu/commencement/archives/2018/abby-wambach-remarks
[2] Genesis 49:27
[3] Plaut, Gunther W., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, URJ Press, New York, 2005, pg. 313
[4] https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/278149/message-from-a-yiddish-werewolf
[5] Ibid.
[6] https://barnard.edu/commencement/archives/2018/abby-wambach-remarks