Reaching In

I was surrounded by rabbis these past few days – lots of rabbis. Over 500 Reform rabbis to be exact. Our annual convention was in Atlanta this year, and, as always, I try to attend. It’s important for me to keep up with the current zeitgeist amongst my fellow professionals. I want to get a sense of what they’re thinking about, what they’re writing about, how they’re responding to the challenges of the new administration, what they’re struggling with, and so forth. I also love to catch up with old friends and colleagues; we share family stories, work stories, look at each others’ pictures of kids and grandkids, and we look about incredulously at all of the young rabbis in the room. It’s great to see so many youthful faces. And it’s just a little sobering to remember that we used to be the young ones.

Despite the joy in seeing old friends and the unique thrill of adult study with scholars on a variety of disparate topics, the tenor of the conference was troubled. The challenges of being a religious movement with a history of social justice in a time of Islamophobia, the retrenchment of voting rights, and the catastrophe of mass incarceration, to name just a few major American crises, are daunting.

We heard from many African American leaders, as one might expect in Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement. They reminded us of past coalitions between Jews and black folk. They remembered the bravery of Jewish freedom riders. They praised the resolve of The Temple, which on October 12, 1958, was devastated by fifty sticks of dynamite, but whose members refused to be cowed into submission. Rev. Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church inspired us to think about justice in a new way. Cornell Brooks, head of the NAACP explicitly invited the Reform community to enter into a new coalition, a new covenant with the African-American churches, to right wrongs that are inimical to a thriving democracy.

The driving force that created this new reevaluation of the relationship between the black community and the Jewish community is antisemitism. The fact is, American Jews are not used to feeling so vulnerable. The sense of being at risk is not anything we’ve had to handle over the past 30 years. Our black brothers and sisters could empathize with our plight, and we are gaining an appreciation for the ongoing vulnerability of the black community, a la Black Lives Matter.

So what happens when one of the major manifestations of antisemitism during this period, the bomb scares to JCCs all over the country, turn out to be perpetrated, not by a rabid antisemite, but rather by a mentally ill Israeli Jew?  Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the suspect allegedly placed dozens of threatening phone calls to public venues, synagogues and community buildings in the US, New Zealand and Australia. He also made a threat to Delta Airlines, causing a flight in February 2015 to make an emergency landing. The unnamed teen made over 100 hoax bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the US and elsewhere. He reportedly began making the calls after the army refused to accept him for military service, apparently on medical grounds.

When I heard this news while packing my things to return home just yesterday, I felt many things at once. I felt relieved that there was not some large and sinister antisemitic conspiracy out to get us. I felt embarrassment that the culprit behind all of this nefarious behavior was not some alt right bottom feeder, but was in fact ‘one of us.’

And I wondered if, once the sting of antisemitism subsides, once the truth sets in, if we will feel less urgency to come to the aid of those who feel ostracized and vulnerable. Will the words of Cornell Brooks inspire us less as our paths diverge? I hope not. I hope that as Passover approaches, the teaching that, “None of us are free until all of us are free,” inspires us to stand for freedom. It should not take the experience of being actively threatened as Jews to reintroduce us to the concept that right now there are people in our country who are threatened.

If there is anything to learn in the aftermath of the arrest of this Israeli teen, it is that being endangered feels awful and disempowering. The only true response to feeling vulnerable is not to curl up into a fetal position but rather to reach out, unafraid, and look for the helping hand of another. Following the arrest of this sick kid, we feel less vulnerable; we are not reaching out. But others are. We need to reach back.

Shabbat Shalom










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