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The Intolerance That Is Intolerable

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Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati Hit with Swastika

This past Tuesday morning, a swastika was spray-painted on a sign at the entrance of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College. Here is the notice that was sent to the HUC-JIR community by President Aaron Panken. A photo of the sign, as it appeared on the Facebook page of a colleague of mine who serves a congregation in Cincinnati, appears below Rabbi Panken’s message.

Dear friends,

This morning, the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was vandalized. The sign at the entrance to our Cincinnati Campus was defaced with a swastika. The paint was easily removed and the sign quickly repaired. The incident is under investigation by local police.

For more than 140 years, HUC-JIR has been devoted to the values of pluralism, open dialogue, and the pursuit of knowledge. We pride ourselves on being a vital and engaged part of the Cincinnati community. Our academic institution of Jewish higher education lives, teaches, and brings the values of diversity and tolerance to the community, the nation, and the larger world. Our faculty, students, staff, and alumni, proudly representing all faiths and backgrounds, work together to build a just and humane world.

We will not let this act of hate alter our important work. We are indebted to the people of Cincinnati who have stood by us for generations and who have offered their support again today. Tomorrow, a new day will dawn and the values we hold dear will continue to light the way.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.
President

It is not known at this point who perpetrated this act of hateful vandalism. I’m not accusing our incoming president of instigating or condoning this particular act. Nevertheless, the reality is that hateful sentiments were stirred up during the many months of the U.S. Presidential campaign, and those inclined to express personal bigotry were emboldened by a good deal of the rhetoric and mayhem that occurred. It’s as though the social norms of decency that tried to drown out the echoes of racism and intolerance were stripped away with total impunity.

We New Yorkers are accustomed to living in a highly pluralistic atmosphere, with HUC-JIR as one of numerous Jewish institutions in our midst. For those of us, however, who may not be familiar with the Cincinnati community, I can say that HUC-JIR occupies a position of great prominence in the history and contemporary life of the community, and has occupied a significant place in the acculturation of the Jewish community in that city from the beginning. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise, the “father” of American Reform Judaism. The Jewish Institute of Religion was founded in New York in 1922 by Rabbi Dr. Stephen Samuel Wise – no relation to Isaac Mayer Wise. HUC merged with JIR in 1950. HUC-JIR is the professional training ground for the rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service workers of the Reform Movement. In addition to the campuses in Cincinnati and New York, there are campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. This brazen act on Tuesday is particularly shocking and insulting, not only to HUC-JIR, but also to the entire Cincinnati community, which has accorded great friendship and respect to the institution, and to the Jewish community, from the very beginning.

Those of us who are alumni and supporters of HUC-JIR are outraged and saddened by this act. Union Temple has had an ongoing relationship with the College-Institute through the rabbis, cantors and educators who have served, and are serving the congregation, and also through the support of our Sisterhood, by way of the Women of Reform Judaism, and Brotherhood, through the Men of Reform Judaism. In addition, our former Rabbi Emeritus, Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, z”l, served on the HUC-JIR faculty in New York for a number of years. We echo President Panken’s assertion of “the values of diversity and tolerance,” which we will continue to promote, now, and in the years to come. It is clear that America is entering a new reality. But the values we espouse as American Jews are very old, and are as strong now as they were in the beginning. The responsibility for their perpetuation now rests squarely on our shoulders.

That’s How the Light Gets In

Leonard Cohen singing "Anthem."

Leonard Cohen singing “Anthem.”

Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.

The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.

This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.

Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.

Tower of Arrogance

pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_tower_of_babel_vienna_-_google_art_project_-_edited

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.1563

A number of Biblical stories are intended to provide an etiology of how certain things came to be. Within Parashat Noach is such an etiology in the story of the Tower of Babel. We may wonder why it is that there is a profusion of languages within the human family. The story of the Tower of Babel provides a response which, even if fantasy-driven, is nonetheless compelling.

Genesis, Chapter 11

1] All the earth had the same language and the same words. 2] As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3] Then people said to one another: “Come, let us make bricks and fire them hard.” So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. 4] Then they said, “Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” 5] Then the Eternal came down to look at the city and tower and people had built, 6] and the Eternal One said, “Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! 7] Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.” 8] So it came about that the Eternal scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9] That is why it was called Babel, because there the Eternal confused the speech of all the earth; and from there the Eternal scattered them over the face of the earth.

The fundamental implication of the story is that, left to our own devices, we humans all too easily fall prey to our own worst instincts – arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, the narrative suggests, if we humans were prevented from understanding one another, our arrogance and self-aggrandizement would be thwarted.

Thus the story of the Tower of Babel provides an etiology for the profusion of languages. But if we were to stretch that notion a bit, we might also find in it an explanation of ethnic and cultural diversity in general, offering the commentary that this diversity is a good thing. When we are all the same, whether it is through language or anything else, we humans are prone to arrogance. Recognizing the benefits of diversity, however, will help us to acquire humility, as we recognize that other languages, ethnic backgrounds, and cultural surroundings, though different from our own, are equally as interesting, and need to be understood and celebrated.

To state the obvious, this is a time of profound concern and anxiety for us, as we face a national election of monumental consequence. One of the issues that has been discussed often during this campaign is diversity. One side has made significant efforts at celebrating our diversity as Americans, and as members of the human family. The other has portrayed our diversity as a threat to America. But the reality of our country is that it is not the same country as it used to be. The picture of a white Christian majority in America is no longer an accurate reflection of America. But, one might surmise, many of those who latch onto the slogan of making America “great” again are actually very much afraid that they will be left out of the new, more diverse America that already is our reality. This, of course, completely ignores the reality of all those people and groups who were left out before! But the fault in this thinking is the belief that the realization of the American dream has to be a zero-sum game. If we widen our tent to include other people, why does that have to mean that we lose our own place in the tent?

We can delude ourselves by building towers of self-aggrandizement. Or, we can plant our feet firmly on the ground, and work to create a fairer, more compassionate, more inclusive society in our own midst. But, as we all know, whatever our perspective on the direction our country ought to take, we won’t have any part in the decision making if we don’t get out on Tuesday and vote – and encourage everyone we know to vote as well. As Americans, we dare not squander this sacred right.