When I looked at my messages after this past Sabbath (I don’t use my phone on the Sabbath), the first several notes of support and condolences that I received were from my Christian clergy friends. In fact, two weeks ago, I was a guest teacher at a church in St. Paul. My friend and colleague, Reverend Blair Pogue, rector at Saint Matthew’s, had invited me to speak to a group of her congregants. I was grateful to receive and accept this invitation. Sure, I was busy with family and business travel. But when pausing to consider Jewish history, I thought about how amazing it is to live in a country where many church members and leaders know that having an open heart also means keeping an open mind.
Reverend Pogue had asked me to speak about the covenant or conditions that God stipulated with Abraham and Sarah, the first two individuals to adopt a revolutionary set of beliefs that evolved over centuries into what became Judaism. Her congregants were curious about the difference between that covenant or pact and how it was different from the one made with the Biblical Noah. I designed our study to be interactive but needed a few minutes to set the context about the interconnectedness of all human beings. So, my first question to this wonderful group of congregants was, “What religion did Adam and Eve, the first two human beings mentioned in the Biblical creation story, practice?” The answer: “None!” And that was meant as a reminder that every human being possesses equal inherent dignity. Religious or secular, atheist or agnostic – every person’s life is of immeasurable value.
True, the Jewish people were once divided into twelve tribes, named after one the sons of Jacob. But before then and continuing through today, we’ve also been a part of the much larger tribe of humanity. Having our roots in one particular tribe, that began with Abraham and Sarah, was never meant to suggest that our roots aren’t also intertwined with our larger human family.
There’s an ancient Jewish teaching that captures the pain that Jews across the United States and throughout the world are feeling now. In describing how the condition of one Jewish person affects the feelings of another, this teaching makes an analogy: “This (reality of mutual caring) may be compared to the case of passengers on a ship, one of whom took a drill and began boring beneath his own place. His travel mates said to him: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He answered, ‘Why is it your business? Aren’t I only drilling under my seat?’ They responded, “It matters because the water will enter through (underneath your seat) but submerge all of us.’” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6).
The agony that American Jews are experiencing today isn’t imaginary. Less than two weeks ago, there were back-to-back attacks in Brooklyn against Orthodox Jewish men From 2015 to 2016, the number of anti-Semitic acts in the United States increased from 942 to 1,266 (a 34% increase) and dramatically rose again in 2017 to 1,986 incidents (a 56% increase). The Anti-Defamation League, which works closely with law enforcement authorities in monitoring these incidents which include physical assaults, vandalism, and attacks against Jewish institutions, states that this is, “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.” In this same report, it added that “The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.”
My parents, who are in there upper 80’s, told me stories of the routine anti-Semitism they experienced when they were children. Occasionally, I’ve received hate mail (now it’s digitally delivered) and looked someone in the eyes who uttered anti-Semitic slurs against me. But those occasions were so infrequent that I never feared for my safety because of my religion and I haven’t given a second thought to publicly wearing a kippah, a traditional Jewish head covering. Trying to hide who you are is generally a poor long-term strategy for safety. It only empowers and feeds the malicious intent that some people have against those who look or act differently from a majority.
But for the first time in several generations, Jewish school children and college students are becoming fearful about how public they can be about their Judaism. And while we don’t have a monopoly on feeling targeted by vicious people, we have a history of anti-Jewish hatred that extends for thousands of years that more recently includes a partially successful effort at Jewish genocide under the Nazi regime, which murdered one of every three European Jews, the rise of anti-Semitism in much of Europe again within the lifetime of remaining Holocaust survivors, and calls from Iranian clerics, and their terrorist proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, to wipe Israel off the map. We have reasons to take anti-Semitic threats and acts of violence seriously.
At the same time, I’m still rooting for the many decent Americans I know who are disgusted with hate speech against immigrants, a disproportionate rate of incarcerations of people of color, mass shootings in schools and houses of worship, men who abuse their power against women and are paid to quietly go away, and discrimination against LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) individuals. They know that we are all in the same boat.
I’m all for sermons, community vigils, and gatherings of good people to demonstrate against violent speech that always ends in violent actions. But we can do more:
1. When one house of worship is attacked, even more people from different faith communities need to support one another, as they have increasingly been doing. In fact, even if you practice no faith and are equally indifferent to all religions, it’s your time to show up at these gatherings because they’re an attack on your freedom to be an atheist.
2. I don’t own a gun, but I live in a state where owning a gun for sport is a way of life for some people. When I first moved to Minnesota in 1985 I didn’t get it but I do now. But responsible gun owners have a special obligation to speak out and work toward banning assault weapons and prohibiting those who are mentally ill from owning a gun. We need your credibility to educate others that owning a gun can be done responsibly.
3. First responders, police, emergency personnel—start thanking them if you haven’t, and keep thanking them if you do. I’m not dismissing racial inequality and police brutality against people of color. It exists, it’s unacceptable, and we desperately need reforms. But just because some clergy members unforgivably victimize others, not all members of the clergy are abusers. By analogy, because some police officers abuse their power, that doesn’t make all of them guilty. Nearly 130 law enforcement officers were killed while on duty in 2017. I honestly can’t imagine what it means to have a job where you’re required to train your subconscious to ignore the possibility that you may be injured or killed whenever you’re on the job.
4. Don’t diss the “mainstream” media. Their work strengthens democracy. You don’t have to love journalists, but they’re not the villains in the unraveling of our democracy.
5. Finally, it doesn’t take an act of Congress to reach out to a stranger in your neighborhood and introduce yourself. You have little to lose and much to gain. Change happens one person at a time, on the local level, and every individual can make a difference by turning an “other” into a sister or brother. It’s not complicated.
In some futile efforts to “harden our schools “and “houses of worship” I’m afraid we’re going to permanently harden our hearts. Making America great again begins with making America kind again. America has been feared for its military power but admired for its compassion and generosity. Kindness and empathy will make America great again and that’s something that we can control.