Monthly Archives: January 2017

Punching Nazis

Last Friday, after the inauguration, Richard Spencer, a self-described proponent of white supremacy (note: Jews aren’t white, at least according to Spencer), and founder of the alt-right, was being interviewed. He was describing a lapel pin he proudly wears. It’s an image of a frog named Pepe. According to Wikipedia, “Beginning in 2016, this image has increasingly been appropriated as a symbol of the controversial alt-right movement. Because of the use of Pepe by the alt-right, the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe the Frog to their database of hate symbols in 2016, adding that not all Pepe memes are racist…”
Spencer was opining in his usual smug style. He talks in code words and innuendoes. He doesn’t raise his arm in the fascist salute when he’s in a mixed crowd. He keeps his act very sanitized in front of the general public. But make no mistake, this guy is dangerous. He manipulates the press and attempts to make his racist, antisemitic ideology seem, well, not that bad… Unless you’re a Moslem or a Jew or a person of color.
As Spencer went on with his interview, an anarchist dressed in black (they love to dress in black), walked over and punched Spencer upside his head. Spencer staggered as his assailant ran off. The whole thing was over in 5 seconds.
A short video of Spencer’s interview captured the punch. As of Wednesday, over 21/2 million people have watched it on Youtube. It has spawned remixes, setting the punch sequence to music.
I will admit to you that I am one of the people who clicked on the video. A few times. And I will further admit to you that I had no small amount of satisfaction watching this purveyor of hate get nailed. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I know only too well the lessons of what happens when there is not a serious resistance to hatred. I know what can happen when people say things like, “Oh please: Spencer is an aberration, a goof ball. You can’t take him seriously.”
I take Spencer at this word. I have no doubt that he is earnest in his desire to further the cause of white supremacy. The alt-right movement is not to be taken lightly. We are one of their prime targets.
Which leads to the ultimate question: is it okay, is it kosher, to punch a hatemonger, neo-Nazi? The calm, rational answer is that of course it’s not okay to attack anyone. After all, if you want to feel safe on the streets, you depend on a social contract stipulating that you can do or say anything as long as you’re not trespassing on someone’s property or physically threatening them.
But then the less rational side of me emerges. I watch this self-congratulatory white man speaking as if we don’t know the subtext of his remarks. I see images of those who stood silent as my grandparents were paraded down the streets of Berlin to the trains bound for Auschwitz. I see white crowds standing around a tree in the South, staring at a lynched black man’s tortured body hangs from a branch. I see a Moslem lawyer who graduated from Harvard being spat on because she wears a hijab as a statement of her faith.
It can’t be okay to see a hatemonger and do nothing. So maybe physical violence is the wrong way to respond. I know that is true. And yet… if someone had punched Hitler a few times, maybe he would’ve thought twice before speaking as he did. Not that Spencer is Hitler… He is, however, the putrid spawn of Naziism.
In the end, I cannot condone vigilante justice. I cannot bear the thought of an escalation of this event, from one anarchist punching one alt-right agitator in the head, to showdowns in the streets between the forces of good versus the forces of evil.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying turn the other cheek or it will all blow over. I am suggesting that we remain vigilant. I am suggesting that the alt-right is more than a flash in the pan. They and their racism are very real. I am not suggesting that a Holocaust is coming. I am explicitly saying that the phrase “never again” has become way too relevant. We must pay attention and speak out loudly and clearly lest a punch become our only alternative.

Moving to Higher Ground

A long time ago, Amos said in the book that bears his name in the Bible, “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I’m a goat herder, and I grow sycamore figs.”  As for me, the same might be said: I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I don’t know what’s in store for our nation and its many diverse citizens and residents as our 45th president assumes office today.

The new president wasn’t my preferred candidate, but he’s the man. Donald Trump is the president of the United States. This makes him my president. His picture will soon be in Federal buildings. When I fly I’ll see his picture at Logan. When we need to mourn or celebrate as Americans, President Trump will be the face of our nation.

I can moan and express a good deal of anguish over this. Actually, I have moaned over this. A lot. But it clearly does me no good, other than to acknowledge how hard this period in American life has been for me and many others.  My experience with all of this is akin to being a steel ball in a pinball machine, bouncing off of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages of dealing with loss: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.

Of course, I know that some of you are very happy about today, and I’m glad you feel so confident. I don’t know if I can ever arrive at your place of being so certain about the future under this new president. But I don’t want to get stuck in anger. I don’t want to be like those last Japanese soldiers who kept fighting the Allies long after the war was lost. Is that acceptance? I think more aptly, its resignation.

I’m not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, and I don’t raise figs or goats. I’m a Reform rabbi, a part of a movement that has existed for close to 200 years. I’m responsible for lifting up the central tenets of our tradition, which includes being acutely attuned to the values of social justice. Healing the sick and clothing the naked are not just words spoken in our daily liturgy. They are integral values, part of an obligation that we, as Jews, take with the utmost seriousness: to not stand idly by while our neighbor suffers.

The poor and the dispossessed of this country must be able to look to others, including the American Jewish community, for support and succor. We Jews have lived through some of the darkest moments of human history. We know all about vulnerability and sorrow. We know what it feels like to fear that the world is indifferent to our plight. We were slaves to Pharaoh, strangers in a strange land.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I do know what must never happen. That’s what I will be dedicated to, regardless of the person or the party in the White House.


Shabbat Shalom,





Open the Door

A quinceañera is a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday.  This major life cycle event originated in Latin America but is now observed by many Hispanic families wherever they may be living. It is much more than a birthday party. It marks the transition from childhood to womanhood. This rite of passage should sound familiar. In many ways, it reflects the same values as a bat mitzvah. In addition to a big party and celebration, it includes a variety of different rituals that date back over 2000 years.
We are hosting a quinceañera at our temple soon. As it turns out, it is not for a temple family – at least not the way we traditionally define a ‘temple family.’ Rather it is an offering of love that we are co-hosting with The Second Step, an organization that fosters the safety, stability, and well-being of survivors of domestic violence. When our partners at The Second Step told us that a family with a 15-year-old daughter had to flee their home, that there was no way the mom could celebrate her girl’s quinceañera, then our role was clear. Our door is open, and the lights are shining.
When we began to explore what our work might be when we agreed to focus on social justice for victims of domestic violence, we imagined all kinds of activities and programs. We envisioned helping fleeing families by getting them the necessities of life: cookware, food, and clothing. We figured that we could get various gift cards from places like Target or Wal-Mart and then give them to victimized women. They would then have autonomy to choose the dish things they wanted without anyone demanding what they must buy, which is a hallmark of domestic violence perpetrators. We anticipated programming for our kids and our adults so that they would learn that domestic violence is as prevalent among the affluent as it is among the needy. Most of all we wanted to create a congregation willing to actively respond to the scourge of domestic violence – no bystanders allowed.
What we didn’t expect was a call to decorate the boardroom with pink ribbons and miniature Eiffel towers. What we didn’t anticipate was enabling a family of another faith and culture to find a safe, secure, loving place to mark a lifecycle event every bit as big as a bat mitzvah.
I imagine that 20 or 30 years ago we might not have so readily jumped to co-host this celebration. After all, it’s not Jewish. We’d help find a place. We’d donate some supplies. But such an event was not in our purview.
But the times, they are a changin’… When someone needs us, we are duty-bound to respond. We are not on earth to merely look out for our own. We are all connected, one to the other. Those who oppose such truth are always looking for how we are different rather than acknowledging how closely we are allied to the other. In the dialectical scrum between particularism vs. universalism, we postmodern Reform Jews are constantly trying to achieve a balance between the two. More and more, we seem to lean toward opening our arms and our hearts and the door of our temple. This does not diminish our Jewishness. In fact, I’d be willing to go to the mat for the claim that a quinceanera enhances our Judaism. We share our love with the other who then becomes a partner.
  Magda Trocmé, the wife of the local minister of a little French town, explained how it was that a French village saved over 3500 Jews during the Holocaust. She wrote, “Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done-nothing more complicated. It was not decided from one day to the next what we would have to do. There were many people in the village who needed help. How could we refuse them? A person doesn’t sit down and say I’m going to do this and this and that. We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help!”
In the months and years ahead, we will need to make all kinds of alliances with others, people whose culture and faith may diverge from ours, but whose values for diversity and plurality are like our own. We need each other: it’s as simple as that.
Madame Trocmé’s intention must be our credo: “Let us try to help.” A quinceañera at Temple Beth Avodah? Absolutely. If not now, when?