Trying to Breathe

The Holocaust has been a part of my consciousness as a Jew since I was 13 years old. Not a day goes by without some image or song or phrase evoking a Holocaust reference. I know – it sounds excessive, perhaps OCD. It is a wound, a scar that never goes away. This Holocaust-centric consciousness is a burden that darkens many private moments in my life. But it also daily inspires me to be an upstander, and not a bystander to world events.

As hyperconscious as I am about the Holocaust, I have always been among those who find any attempt to use the past as an indicator of the future to be facile and ultimately uninformed. History does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. It is true that given similar situations, similar outcomes often occur. But History is like a river. Always flowing and never the same.

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory, about whom the movie, Defiance was written, was just interviewed in the German weekly, Der Spiegel. She said, “What we fight today is not fascism — or maybe, not yet fascism. It is populism, from the right and from the left. I am wary of Nazi comparisons, but what I see is a kind of ugly populism whose hateful rhetoric reminds me of how the National Socialists in Germany came to power. It’s an ethnocentric populism, it feeds a dangerous mood, a sort of tyranny of the mob. Many Americans think Hitler came to power by a revolution, but he won elections. We should not forget that.”

And as Abraham Foxman, former head of the Anti Defamation League, said recently, “We used to say, you want to find out the level of democracy in a country? Ask the Jews. The Jews are the canary in the coal mine of democracy. But the reverse is also true. If you want to know how Jews are faring, take a look at the level of democracy.”

Antisemitism is certainly on the rise in Europe as well as in the United States. We know from our own experiences in Newton that even in our bubble there are people who hate Jews, drawing swastikas in public schools and writing offensive antisemitic graffiti. This is real.

But – this is not the beginning of the end. It is exactly the right time to reject apocalyptic thinking. instead, we must actively work in ways that will strengthen our local Jewish community, as well as the entire American Jewish community. Wringing our hands will not do us any good. Indulging in anxious fantasies about the bad guys and seeking to transform synagogues into armed high-security enclaves is self-defeating.

So you want to know what’s next…? Me, too. I want to know what’s going to happen out there. How will the American conscience respond to this antisemitic attack? How will the Jews of America respond? Will we be able to band together? Or will we be hopelessly out of synch and out of time like we usually are?

Yes, this is a time where cynicism can easily become the predominant way of seeing the world. It’s tempting to assume the worst. So, when we get spooked by a disaster such as Pittsburgh, it’s not just a function of our present fear, but a recognition of our cherished past. We’re shocked because something about Pittsburgh felt so un-American, so foreign.

It’s easy to forget all this while our ears are ringing with cries of a rise in anti-Semitism; … Anti-Semitism may still be alive and well and growing in dark corners, but let’s not overlook the enormous outpouring of love and concern for the Jews from across the country. This should serve as a reminder of how fully integrated we have become in American society.

I was heartened to read a powerful sermon by Rabbi Julia Appel, Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Rabbi for Hillel at the University of Toronto. She is a Beth Avodah alum. Her parents, Neal and Barbara Appel, are members. She writes: “I refuse to walk through this world afraid. I refuse to walk through this world responding to the violence done to my people with a closed tent or a closed fist. 4 Because that is how they win. I will live my one Jewish life to walking through this world with the values given me by our people, our traditions, our families: Love the stranger. Remember where you come from. Do what is right…”

Her words remind me of the prophet Micah, who taught us that God requires from us just 3 things: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) When we combine Micah’s words with Rabbi Appel’s words, we have a roadmap into the unknown. The heading on the map is pointing towards dignity and courage and justice. It points to voting. We will move forward together.

This Shabbat evening service is being called #Show up for Shabbat. We will use our evening to pray and contemplate quietly as will synagogues all over the USA. This will be an important service to attend.

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