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Drown Out the Hate

Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman, a UT member and Mindy Sherry, UT’s Director of Youth and Family Engagement at a recent Purim celebration.

Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman, a UT member and Mindy Sherry, UT’s Director of Youth and Family Engagement at a recent Purim celebration.

This Shabbat before the celebration of Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. As you know, this year Purim is Saturday night and Sunday, and our celebration at Union Temple will take place this Sunday, 12:30-2:30 PM. It will be an intergenerational celebration, with drinks, food, costumes, the Reading of the Megillah, groggers, prizes, games, music, and an opportunity for all of us to give ourselves two hours of joy. As Americans, we have very serious problems with which to concern ourselves at this troubling time. But, whatever generation you identify with, I hope you will come to the temple on Sunday, and take the opportunity that Judaism gives us to release some tension, even if only for two hours on a Sunday afternoon.

We associate Purim with costumes, hamantaschen, and lots of drinking – and I don’t mean just club soda, assuming we are of age! But perhaps the most recognizable custom is twirling our groggers to blot out the name of Haman, the evil Persian governor who had hatched the plan to annihilate the Jews of Persia. Haman represents not only himself, but in fact, all the evil power grabbers who have focused upon the Jewish people and directed venomous hatred toward us in one form or another throughout our history.

Swastikas on Jewish property, bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and institutions, gunshots through synagogue windows, skinheads and Neo-Nazi fervor. These and more are not merely remnants of days gone by, before America had matured beyond the anti-Semitism and bigotry that were undercurrents within our society. These are the new reality of today – right now – in America.

It is particularly ironic that one of the latest bomb scares came to the ADL in New York – the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL was founded in 1913 as an organization dedicated to stopping the defamation of the Jewish people, and securing justice and fair treatment for all people, and fighting against prejudice in all forms, for the benefit of all who would ever be subjected to it.

nmajhThis year, we can look at all the noisemaking on Purim with an added significance. We can blot out the name of Haman, of course. But we can also symbolically blot out all hatred and bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, which are blights upon our nation, and which threaten our dream of freedom, democracy, security and respect for all people.

We took a congregational trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History. The message of the museum is clear. Virtually from our arrival on these shores, Jews have been in the forefront of every movement of social, political, and cultural change in this country. America without the Jews, and Jews without America, are both unthinkable equations. This is our country, and will not let hate mongers and bigots take it away. On Purim this year, we will stand up, we will dance, we will shout, twirl our groggers, and eat as many hamantaschen as we can stand, in our ongoing defiance of hatred, and our ongoing quest for justice and right.

Our Sanctuary in America

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Hundreds of headstones vandalized in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Wissinoming section of Philadelphia.

This coming Shabbat is “Shabbat Across America.” Every year the National Jewish Outreach Program assigns the first Shabbat in March as “Shabbat Across America.” The idea is to encourage all the Jews in our country to symbolically join hands and celebrate Shabbat together, at least on this one Shabbat during the year.

This year the notion of joining hands with our Jewish sisters and brothers seems particularly critical, in light of the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the country – something we thought we had long left behind. In recent weeks, Jewish community centers all across our country, including a number in New York and New Jersey, have received bomb threats, striking fear in the hearts of all those who have had to evacuate these centers at a moment’s notice. In addition, swastikas have been spray-painted on Jewish property and in Jewish neighborhoods, including Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and just this week, a fence in South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, NJ, in the neighborhood where Steve and I lived for several years when Steve was at B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. All this, of course, is in addition to the cowardly and hateful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, just in the past week. And in Evansville, IN, my colleague Rabbi Gary Mazo discovered a bullet hole on Monday morning in the window of a classroom at his congregation, Temple Adath B’nai Israel.

I place the blame for this at the door of the White House. The rhetoric of intolerance and hate-mongering all year long has been outrageous and out of control, and those miscreants who would be inclined to carry out hateful acts of this nature have interpreted this rhetoric as a permission slip to act upon their evil inclinations. Mr. Trump and his surrogates have been spewing forth inflammatory hate speech all year long, and it took fully six weeks into his presidency for him to denounce it, finally, in his address to Congress on Tuesday night. But it was long overdue.

The rabbinic community of Brownstone Brooklyn is in the process of formulating a response of solidarity in the near future, against these, and all acts of bigotry and threats of violence. I will keep you apprised of our progress.

In our Torah portion for this Shabbat, God instructs Moses to direct the people: “Make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” In principle, America has stood as a sanctuary against the forces of hatred and violence that were unleashed upon Jews throughout the centuries, particularly across Europe, but elsewhere as well. While our country has not been immune from the scourge of anti-Semitism, as Americans we have tried to rise above it and purge it from our midst. Sadly, it would seem as though we still have work to do on this front. I applaud Governor Cuomo’s announcement this week of his authorization of $25 million for increased protection of religious schools and day care centers throughout New York. If indeed we are “one nation under God,” we cannot tolerate the re-emergence of such bigotry now, or ever again.

On this Shabbat Across America, we will join hands as Jewish Americans with pride, and in peace, as we reassert our American ideals and make a true sanctuary of our beloved country.

Unwilling Immigrant

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Joseph Attacked by His Brothers by Marc Chagall 1957

This week we begin the Joseph cycle within the Genesis narrative. Since his younger brother Benjamin has not been born as yet, Joseph is still the youngest of the sons of Jacob, the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and, as the text tells us, “the son of his old age.” And, he was his father’s favorite. In defiance of convention, Jacob designates Joseph as the one who will inherit his estate and the leadership of his people. Joseph’s brothers are understandably infuriated. When the opportunity presents itself, they throw Joseph into a pit, and then sell him to the Midianites, who take him off to Egypt. Once there, he is thrown into the dungeon as a slave.

Can we even try to imagine the gripping fear that Joseph must have experienced – the dislocation of leaving his homeland and his family, and everything that was familiar and comforting to him? Ultimately Joseph became assimilated into Egyptian society; changed his name, his appearance, his language, and rose to great political heights. We might identify Joseph’s experience as paradigmatic of the immigrant experience. Of course, this one turned out well. But as we know, in reality, there are no guarantees.

Whatever our political persuasions may be, there can be no denying the stark reality of Jewish teaching, tradition, and historical experience. Beginning in the 4th century of the Common Era, the notion that Jews not only rejected Jesus but actually were responsible for his crucifixion and death, became a central theme of Christian dogma, and the raison d’être of Jew hatred and persecution, to this day. And the litany is long and sad. 11th century, the Crusades. 12th century, the first blood libel. 13th century, the Expulsion from England. 14th century, the Expulsion from France. 15th century, the Expulsion from Spain. 16th century, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation brought a new level of anti-Jewish policies and rhetoric to Europe. 17th century, the Chelmnicki Massacres in Poland. 18th century, ghettoization and exclusion in Russia. 19th century, legal and economic ostracism in Germany, and vicious pogroms in Russia, that sent so many of our grandparents and great-grandparents running for their lives to America, the “Goldene Medina.” 20th century, the Shoah. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, over a million Jews were expelled from surrounding Arab countries: Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere, and they sought refuge in Israel. Some 15,000 Jews were rescued from Ethiopia and brought to Israel. Over a million Jews from the Former Soviet Union sought refuge in Israel, and many others in the United States.

“You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than 36 times our Torah admonishes us regarding our obligations to refugees and strangers in our midst. This is Jewish teaching. This is the Jewish way. As Americans, we have the right and the prerogative to support the candidate(s) of our choice with as much energy as we can muster. Our support ought to come as well with our demands of our candidates that they support policies that honor our sensitivities as Jewish Americans. As our political process unfolds during this rather extraordinary presidential campaign, it behooves us to keep this in mind, whatever our personal political positions may be.