By Rabbi Shoshanah Conover
I so enjoy reading and rereading books and poetry that I love. Sometimes, lines that I almost skipped over in the first reading seem to jump up off the page in a second or third reading. This often happens to me while reading and rereading Torah. And this is what happened to me while reading this week’s Haftarah from Isaiah Chapter 54. One line that I have read at least a dozen times, leapt off the page this week: ורב שלום בניך Abundant will be the peace of your children…
I remember when I was pregnant with Eli ten years ago, I was a constant flurry of activity, desperately working for a peaceful world—the world I wanted to be his inheritance. Ten years later, this is not the world I wanted him to inherit.
A week ago today I was interviewed by a Tablet Magazine journalist who is writing an article on the rise of anti-Zionism that creeps perilously toward anti-Semitism on the far left and the blatant anti-Semitism and racism on the far right. It was– as you can imagine– an emotionally involving, slightly harrowing and certainly unsettling conversation to say the least. Yet, her last question, put me at ease– I had a clear answer. She asked:
How do you comfort and instill hope in yourself and your congregation at this time?
Without missing a beat, I said, “Practicing a vocal vigilance, developing allies, and doubling down on our faith.”
But I said all of this before Charlotttesville…
And now these notions have been put to the test.
To give you a sense, of what people like you and I might have experienced were our lives in Charlottesville and not Chicago, I’ll share with you some thoughts from an active congregant of Charlottesville’s Reform Synagogue Congregation Beth Israel. She writes this:
…Saturday morning for us started out like a normal Saturday. The rally was scheduled to begin at noon, so we felt like we had plenty of time to get home from swimming and then plan out the rest of our day. …
As we made our way home through town on the roads that were still open, we did not know yet that the police had disbanded the nazis even before the designated time of the rally because tensions were escalating on both sides. Unexpectedly, while we were stopped at a traffic light, a group of white supremacists, carrying flags and shields and signs and weapons, walked next to our car on their way somewhere. [My son] yelled to me “What do we do?” I just told the kids not to even look at them, not to give them the pleasure of our attention. It was weird and unnerving and surreal to be sitting there in our car with the windows rolled up as these thugs walked by…
You’ve all seen the news footage of some of the horrific events that transpired (starting with Friday night when a group of UVA students stood in silent protest on campus and were inundated by a large group of white supremacists carrying torches and chanting “you will not replace us” and “blood and soil.” They encircled the students and the students held their ground.
You know a lot of what transpired on Saturday. African Americans kicked and beaten with batons, nazis hurling cement-filled cans, urine-filled bottles, rocks and whatever else they could, into the crowds. Weapons brandished… The car that drove through the crowd of anti-protesters, killing one (Heather Heyer) and injuring 19. The police helicopter that went down, killing both officers on board.
I found out last night that our rabbi had removed the Torahs from our synagogue a few days ago and stored them in a congregant’s home … after there had been a credible threat to burn down our synagogue… I also found out that during Saturday morning services, three armed white supremacists stood for an hour on the sidewalk outside our synagogue. The synagogue had hired private security…Several congregants joined the security guard outside the synagogue on Saturday morning just to be a presence. At one point, another faction of nazis appeared on the sidewalk, yelling “that’s the synagogue. Sieg heil!” Our rabbi reports that over the course of Saturday morning, maybe a dozen or so individual citizens offered to help guard the synagogue. At the conclusion of Saturday services, congregants were told to exit the back door instead of the front door, and to leave in groups…
Saturday night was largely quiet and uneventful around town. Remarkable, really…At the end of the day [on Monday], I went to an impromptu gathering at the African American Heritage Center… It was packed to the gills. Maybe 500 people… blacks and whites, Jews and non-Jews… From there, I went to a gathering at my synagogue. That’s where I got to fall apart…
So how do we find comfort? It feels almost ludicrous to look for hope after this. And, yet, as Jews, that’s what we do. As Rabbi Jonah Pesner– the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism wrote in his excellent blog post: “#BeTheLight: 6 Ways to Respond to Charlottesville: “It is in these moments of darkness that Jewish tradition compels us to be brave, to seek the light. We are, as we read in Zechariah 9:12, asirei hatikvah, prisoners of hope.”
And we know what it is to find comfort, reading as we do from the prophet Isaiah whose messages of hope fill the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
So, in our own times, where do we find comfort? Paradoxically– in vocal vigilance. As our Torah portion shifts from Shema—listening, to Re’eh—looking, we use all our senses. We listen and look carefully to discern what is happening in our country and then we speak out against this kind of bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism.
Shabbat had barely ended when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement which represents almost 2 million Jews, said in no uncertain terms:
Racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic views have no place in a society that cherishes freedom and liberty for all. The right to speak and to hold repugnant views is not a right to circumscribe the ability of others to live in peace and security. Torch-lit marches of hate evoke the KKK; the image of a heavily armed “militia” standing among the neo-Nazi protestors should send an alarm to every person of good conscience in our nation.
Once again hate has killed; we mourn the loss of life and those injured in the violence. We call on all, no matter what their views, to eschew violence and condemn in the strongest terms the car attack that killed and injured protestors.
I am proud that the Chicago Board of Rabbis representing Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox rabbis in the Chicago area put out a statement on Wednesday that concluded:
We must act in visible ways to show that our love for our neighbors demands we stand together in the face of bigotry and that we work to dismantle the vestiges of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry that still exist in our country. We expect our political leaders, including our President, to have the courage to call out bigotry and racism for the hateful and dangerous ideology that it is.
Later that same day, in an open letter to President Trump, David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee wrote this:
Mr. President, for many Americans, finding a path forward that narrows the differences and builds greater cohesion may seem like an impossible task. Yet as long as you are the occupant of the Oval Office, surely it needs to be among your foremost obligations, together with protecting our national security.
For the sake of us all, I can only hope that wise heads, who are determined to set us on that path, will prevail in the weeks and months to come. The national stakes couldn’t be higher.
It gives me comfort that great Jewish leaders bravely speak out against bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism. And these voices, joined by our own, have impact as it seems we have seen today.
And there is an element of this vocal vigilance that gives me hope. On Sunday, I was invited– though unable—to speak at a vigil for Charlottesville that evening in Chicago. The person who invited me? One of our seventeen year-old presidents of Temple Sholom’s youth group. She, like many others in her generation, had an immediate response to this atrocity– organize others to demonstrate visibly and publicly against hate. Intimidation and acquiescence are not on her agenda—strength, solidarity, and Jewish pride are.
In fact, another thing that brings me comfort is that for many of us, part of the pride we take in our Jewish identity is the responsibility it demands of us to honor the humanity in others. As Dr. Ari Berman of Yeshiva University points out, “Ben Azzai proclaimed that the most fundamental idea in all of Jewish thought is to be found in the Biblical verse, “in the divine image did God create humankind” (Genesis 5:1). For this verse introduced to human civilization the radical notion that each and every human being shares a common sacredness…Lest one think that the devaluation of human life died out with the ancient civilizations of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the shocking bigotry we witnessed in Charlottesville should disabuse one of that notion. The idea of the “divine image”—that most radical of Biblical propositions—is certainly as necessary as ever.”
Developing allies– which goes beyond coalition building, but gets more into developing deep relationships one on one across difference is one of the ways we do this today. And the Jewish Community Relations Council of Chicago is helping to nurture this. Months ago, they began planning a Dinner & Dialogue series that has brought together nearly 150 Chicagoans of all backgrounds for 10 intimate conversations that addressed many of the critical issues facing our city and country. Held at private homes, churches and community-based organizations throughout the city, the dinners served to further strengthen relationships between the Jewish community and partners in the African-American, Latino, LGBTQ, Christian and Muslim communities. Topics discussed ranged from community violence, to racism, anti-Semitism, and Jewish-Muslim relations. Little did they know that these dialogues would take place at this time when they feel so necessary. Last night, Damien and I co-hosted a dinner with our friends Ali and Jenan Mohajir. With six families– Jenan and Ali invited two of their family friends and Damien and I invited two of own. This was less of a formal dialogue than a deep discussion between fast friends. As the children played in the downstairs of their Kenwood home, the adults got to know each other with surprising depth for folks who didn’t know each other before. We opened by introducing ourselves and sharing what gives us hope. For me, at least as I think about it today, is that we already put our next gathering on our calendars– for Sukkot at my house. We know that we will develop these deep friendships in our homes and we will stand by each other in public when our communities need allies. We are in this together– across race and faith.
And speaking of faith– faith gets me through dark times like these. Next week will bring us a new Jewish month– the month of Elul. Each passing day of Elul brings us toward Rosh Hashanah– a sacred time of new beginning. We mark each day by reading Psalm 27. The psalm brings us through a crisis of faith for the author. He begins confident, with an unshakable trust in God. Then, his life progresses, darkness enters, he feels abandoned. Yet, in the waning stanza of the psalm, he turns toward a fuller faith, one that requires his own turning. He says, “Lulei He’emanti lirot be-tovah adonai b’eretz chayim.” Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of Adonai in the land of the living…” Not an arrogant declaration that God would show him goodness and a life of ease, but one that he, the author of the psalm had to turn into reality. Lulei– if only– if only I work to turn things around might I enjoy goodness in the land of the living. Lulei implies the need for action– for turning things around. And Lulei spelled backwards is Elul– the month of that we are about to enter– the one that requires that we turn toward the best within us to call out humanity for what it can be– to take on sacred acts of living with the vocal vigilance, deepening relationships across difference and the faith this world requires of us.
There is a story I recently stumbled upon while working with a bar mitzvah student. In it, a man stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. “Dear God,” he cried out, “look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in Your world. Why don’t you send help?”
God responded, “I did send help. I sent you.”
ורב שלום בניך
And your children shall know abundant peace
Now that my son Eli is 9 years old and his brother Ben is 7, I realize that I will not be able to create for them a perfect world of peace. Yet, the beginning of that verse is attainable: v’chol banaich limudei Adonai-– and your children shall be taught of Adonai. They, through the help of this extraordinary community, may come to understand that they were sent–along with rest of us– to help this world. We do not have to perfect this world for them. An easy peace is not our promise to them. Instead, we must model how to work for a world of peace, with our vigilance, our relationships across difference, and our faith.
By doing so, we will teach them Divine lessons so that future generations will continue to work for abundant peace for all.
Ken yehi ratzon— may this be God’s will and our own.