Don’t Lose Sight of Who You Are

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. Please know you always have a place here at Bet Shira Congregation.

Where were you the morning of October 27, 2018? I will never forget that date, just like I will never forget September 11, 2001, and just like many here will never forget November 22, 1963.

On October 27, I was in California, interviewing for a position. I was with Karina, 30 weeks pregnant, and our daughter Ariela. I drove into the synagogue parking lot at 9:45 am PST, or 12:45 pm EST. I was greeted by the Search Committee Chair and three committee members. The Search Chair asked me, “Did you hear what happened in Pittsburgh?” “No,” was my reply. I had been to Pittsburgh once, for the Forensics Nationals in Student Congress. I loved exploring the city via light rail with one of my best friends but did not know it other than that sole experience.

The Search Chair said, “Let’s go into another room.” I was brought into a separate room and told that someone had gone into Etz Chaim, Tree of Life Synagogue, and shot what at that time was known to be 8 people.

I had 5 minutes to come up with an address to the congregation, to a Past President from Pittsburgh who did not know if his friends from Tree of Life were alive. It was Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You Are Completely Prepared. Words Fail, Words Fail, There is Nothing I Can Say.[1] On one foot, I did the best I could to respond to this unprecedented event at the start of services. I was in shock, unable to believe that such an atrocity had occurred. I was told that my words were well-received but to be honest I have forgotten what I said. I only reviewed the livestream record once since, 6 months later. What I will never forget is what I felt: anger. How dare someone come into a house of worship and murder people! My daughter Ariela loves the synagogue and can’t wait to come up and say Eyn Keloheinu. How dare someone, who if I wasn’t in synagogue, I’d have some choice words for, violate this sacred space!

Later on I learned that I knew the Rabbi/Cantor of the synagogue from a professional development course I took. I also learned that my rabbinical school roommate had grown up at New Light Synagogue, one of the three synagogues which had space in the Tree of Life complex, as his father was the rabbi there.

Six months later my mother-in-law is visiting from San Diego at the end of Passover. My phone is on in part because I have a panic button app that when pressed would put this call at the top of the list. We are enjoying lunch when I see a news alert about a shooting at Chabad of Poway-25 minutes away from where my mother-in-law lives. At afternoon services to conclude Passover I go up to a congregant who has a home in Poway and ask, “Did you hear what happened in Poway?” “No,” was her response. I go with her into a separate room and tell her. I make the mistake of not having her sit and she falls forward, my hands helping prevent her from hitting the ground. With tears in her eyes, she tells me about a friend who goes to Chabad of Poway-what if she was the one shot?

This past year we have witnessed a shooting at the Young Israel of Bal Harbour, a short drive from here. We saw graffiti on a synagogue in Racine, 45 minutes from where I grew up. We saw a synagogue in Duluth burnt to the ground and antisemitic attacks in Brooklyn. We also saw an abhorrent cartoon of Netanyahu and Trump printed in the international edition of the New York Times, a hooked-nose Jew sign at a university in Belgium as well as hearing a US representative make the comments “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” and “Israel has hypnotized the world.” These incidents reveal an inconvenient truth: antisemitism is rearing its ugly head stronger and stronger within the public sphere.

At Bet Shira we offered two active shooter workshops, one for the Board and leaders, the other for the entire congregation, so that we can be prepared if G-d forbid an attack strikes us.

I want to read you a poem I wrote after the shooting at Tree of Life, published in the book Holding Fast edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. This poem is entitled “A Tree of Life.”

As I look in my newborn daughter’s eyes

I recognize the preciousness of her life.

She did not arrive when we planned

That only intensified the light she brought us.

 

We are a people who value life

Life is always stronger than death.

Life is not an accident to be squandered

Rather it is G-d’s most precious gift.

 

Those who take the lives of others

Will not see their designs bear fruit.

Our Torah is a Tree of Life

Bringing vitality to all who hold fast to it.

 

As I look into my newborn daughter’s eyes

I see the gift of new life

She has already brought so much light and vitality

A Hanukkah blessing for our entire family.

 

I know that while her body is fragile

She has an inner strength.

We are fragile after Pittsburgh

Yet we have an inner strength.

 

Our love for Judaism only deepens

After someone tries to scare us.

My love for my daughter only increased

After being scared by her early birth.

 

Let us always remember

Love is stronger than hate.

Those who seek to destroy who we are

Will only make us stronger.[2]

 

Conclusion Similar to What I Said Wednesday: How do we fight antisemitism? Bari Weiss has an excellent book with this title. I encourage you to read it. For today I want to end the High Holy Days where I started: with my grandmother, Lucille Frenkel z”l. My grandmother never knew a word of Hebrew, ironic since she was married to an Israeli. She always came to Shabbat morning services 15 minutes early, at 8:45 am, a habit I am still working on emulating. She read word by word in the English, often not finishing the Preliminary Service. I would tell her, “Grandma, there’s more parts of the service” yet she would only read from the beginning word by word, the essence of Kavanah.

My grandmother and I were talking one day. I was either comparing myself to another, or kvetching/complaining. She turned to me and said, “You don’t know who you are.” Harsh but in retrospect true. I did not know who I was and have since worked hard to figure out the person I am meant to be.

That’s the lesson I want each of us to take from the antisemitism occurring. They are trying to scare us, to get us to abandon our way of life, to make us afraid to go into a synagogue. As Elphaba in Wicked said, “Don’t lose sight of who you are.” Don’t let them win by changing who you are. Be proud to be Jewish, however you personally demonstrate that in your life. We fight antisemitism by being steadfast and unyielding in who we are.

         

Conclusion Written Before Wednesday: What can we do in the face of rising antisemitism? Bari Weiss, in her book How to Fight Antisemitism, writes “we are living in an era in which the lunatic fringe has gone mainstream,”[3] and she means it for both those on the left and on the right. She gives over 20 ways in which to fight antisemitism. I am just going to just mention 9 of them. First Weiss says to Tell the truth. Rather than looking for rationalizations to explain away the hatred, we need to call a spade a spade. As Weiss says, we need to “call it out, especially when it’s hard.”[4] When things are difficult, when those around us spew hateful rhetoric, that’s when we need to be sure to call it out rather than ignoring it. We need to respond directly and in the moment. Antisemitism is not some abstract concept ‘out there’; it is in the here-and-now and must be addressed.

The second test of Weiss’ is to Trust Your Discomfort. If something does not seem right, we need to ask questions. This occurred to me a few weeks ago when a gentleman with a backpack was on the balcony. While it turned out to be the A/C guy, I did not know and so it behooved me to ask questions rather than assume that everything was alright. Weiss writes “most of us actually underplay the discomfort we deal with, eager to put on a good face, to blend in with our neighbors, keen not to play the victim. This rule is a simple one: Don’t wait.”[5]

A third principle of Weiss’ that I chose to discuss is Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews.[6] When Jews are accused of being disloyal for being affiliated with a particular political party, this comes into question.  We always need to be wary of trusting people, in particular trying to assess their motivations, or if there are ‘strings attached.’

This would not be a Yom Kippur sermon if we did not end on a positive note. Weiss has three positive precepts I want to mention: Allow for the possibility of change (“teshuvah”); Notice your enemies, but more importantly notice your friends; Praise those who do the right thing (what we call positive-reinforcement); Expect solidarity; Stop blaming yourself; and Choose life.

Rabbi Angela Buchdal of Central Synagogue, said the following in her Rosh Hashanah sermon last year:

Journalist Yair Rosenberg, recently said to me, “Fight antisemitism

where you are. Not just when it’s politically expedient. It’s more credible– and more effective.”
To fight antisemitism, we must also resist our understandable desire to leave when we feel we are not wanted. It is not easy to sit at the table or engage when we feel under attack–
but we must stay in it

So let us stand up for ourselves, let us stand against hatred of all kinds, and let us stand for the human capacity to change. This is who we are.[7]

The word Yizkor from the word “Zachor” means to remember. We need to remember those who came before us, their lives and their legacies, and internalize in some way their life’s teachings. Many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as many people in this very room, endured pogroms and that shonda known as the Shoah, the Holocaust. Many here have endured antisemitic attacks at the workplace or on the streets. I’ll never forget the handful of times antisemitic comments were made to me in Milwaukee as well as the thinly veiled antisemitism I encountered in New York. Yet those who came before us had an unabashed pride in who they are. They did not let the bullies and the haters change them. They remained proud members of our people.

Yom Kippur, the day on which we focus on the spiritual, is the perfect day to connect with those who are no longer physically present; remembering their touch, their words and actions of kindness, all that they sought to achieve in life. We seek to observe our lives in the way that they taught us: with integrity, honesty, kindness, confidence, pride in who we are, perseverance through life’s challenges and having the strength of our convictions. Through reconnecting with our loved ones today, we set the stage for living life to the fullest, giving our all to make our parents, our grandparents, our spouses, our siblings proud of our accomplishments.

 

As we prepare for another Yizkor, I pray that each of us takes a moment to deeply connect with those who are no longer physically present in our lives, to remember their touch, their smile, their words of inspiration, the memories shared over the years. I hope that more than anything we will internalize the pride in who they were and for what they did for us in order to enable us to reach this day, and that we will pass the pride we feel in our heritage onto the next generation. Through Yizkor on this holiest day of the year, we rekindle their spirit and reunite with them-keeping their presence with us. This is not meant to be easy to achieve-there may be tears, frustration or sadness upon recalling one taken before his/her time or when we hoped for so many more special moments together. However, on Yom Kippur we have an opportunity to get as close as possible to the ones who came before us, who taught us values and ethics, who modeled for us how to live our lives. Let’s take a moment during Yizkor to close our eyes, taking a deep breath, letting our thoughts go, and deeply connect with our loved ones. I encourage everyone to stay in for Yizkor, even if you have not lost a parent, so that we

I will conclude with Bari Weiss’ words at the end of an article she wrote for the New York Times.

Our neighbors understood that an attack on the Jewish community was an attack on them, too. That the entire community recited the Mourners Kaddish — and that The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran the words in Hebrew on the front page — was further evidence that what was being protected by our fellow Americans, wasn’t simply our right to exist. It was our right to lead unashamed, full Jewish lives. Which meant that they could do the same.[8]

[1] Dear Evan Hansen, “Words Fail”

[2] Holding Fast

[3] Bari Weiss, How To Fight Antisemitism (New York: Crown, 2019), pg. 23.

[4] Ibid, 171.

[5] Ibid, 170.

[6] Weiss, 174.

[7] Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdal, “Yom Teruah: Sounding the Alarm for Antisemitism,” Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018, Central Synagogue

 

[8] Bari Weiss, “To Fight Anti-Semitism, Be a Proud Jew,” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/anti-semitism.html?searchResultPosition=1

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s