A Response to the Rise in Anti-Semitism

I grew up in a town called Oak Park, Michigan, which is a suburb of Detroit.  At the time, it was really the center of the Detroit Jewish Community.  My memory might not be 100% accurate, but I can count up six synagogues – Reform, Conservative and Orthodox – that were within about a mile of my family’s house.  And, of course, there were the Jewish stores, butchers, funeral homes, schools and other institutions that make up a Jewish community.

I went to two different Jewish pre-schools.  And then I went to a Jewish Day School.  I just assumed that we Jews comprised a majority of the world’s population.

In fact, I could not for the life of me understand why all three television networks – and yes, there were only three networks – insisted on showing Christmas specials each December instead Hanukkah specials.  It had to be anti-Semitism.  And, to be honest, that may have been the worst anti-Semitic experience of my childhood.

A few years ago, the Summit Interfaith Council did an exercise with a facilitator about privilege vs. prejudice.  One of my white male protestant colleagues noted that I reported experiencing the most privilege and least prejudice of any of the participants.

All joking aside, I was fortunate to grow up without any firsthand experience of anti-Semitism.  The only examples of anti-Semitism I knew of were from books.  If only I could still live in the bubble that was the Oak Park, Michigan, of my youth!

Unfortunately, you don’t have to be a trained researcher to know that anti-Semitism is on the rise all around the world.  There has been a noticeable spike in acts of anti-Semitism this past year.  Some of these acts have been perpetrated in the places that you might expect – such as the Muslim Middle East – forever at war with Israel – and Ukraine – the country which gave us the gift of the Cossacks.  However, we must also acknowledge that there has been a rise in anti-Semitism in more “enlightened” locales – places you wouldn’t expect.

In Sydney, Australia, a group of five teens boarded a bus with younger children from a Jewish private school and started chanting “Heil Hitler.”  In Brussels, four people were shot and killed at the Jewish Museum.  In Rome, Jewish shop windows were defiled with swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs.  In Toulouse, France, a participant in a pro-Palestinian demonstration threw three firebombs at a Jewish center.  In Paris, Jewish shops were set on fire and a synagogue was surrounded, trapping the worshippers inside.  And I could go on.

These attacks in Europe caused Newsweek to run a cover story entitled, “Exodus – Why Europe’s Jews are Fleeing Once Again.”  Wednesday morning, Erev Rosh Hashanah, the New York Times ran a front page article with the headline: “Europe’s Anti-Semitism Rises from the Shadows.”

These are scary times for many Jews.

As American Jews, we might say to ourselves, “But that’s Europe or even Australia.  That’s not America.”  Sadly, if we were to say that, we’d be wrong.

In Philadelphia, a kosher butcher shop and a synagogue were vandalized with swastikas.  In Miami, a rabbi was shot and killed while walking to the synagogue on Shabbat (though the police insist that it was neither a hate crime nor a robbery).  In New York City, 89 incidences of anti-Semitic hate crimes have been reported so far this year including a Jewish couple attacked on the streets of the Upper East Side by a group of men waving Palestinian flags from their car.  There were 64 reported crimes all of last year.  In addition, anyone who spends any time at all on-line reading news can testify to the amount of anti-Semitism in the comment sections of web sites.

So, what are we supposed to do?

Well, the truth is that anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon.  It’s something that we’ve had to deal with, well… for as long as there have been Jews.  There have been three major responses to anti-Semitism by those who have come before us.

The first possible response is to pick up and move to Israel.  There has definitely been an increase in the rate of Aliyah this past year.  The most noticeable spike has been French Jews moving to Israel.  And while I am glad to know that Israel has been strengthened by new arrivals and that Israel will always be there for me, I know that it’s not the solution for me.  So for those who don’t decide to pick and move in the face of anti-Semitism – which I surmise is most of us here today – there are two alternatives:  a turn inward or a turn outward.

Let me explain.

In response to the persecution of Jews throughout the Middle Ages, Jews mostly went down two paths – Chasidism or Enlightenment.  Chasidism was born with the rise of the charismatic Yisrael ben Eliezer – better known as the Baal Shem Tov – in the 1730’s. The Baal Shem Tov taught that solution to all problems was to get closer to God through song, story, deed and prayer.  He believed that every person could grow closer to God and the Torah – you didn’t need to be a scholar or a rich person.  He encouraged Jews to turn inward and keep the evils of the outside world where they belonged – outside.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there was the Enlightenment.  Enlightened Jews sought to engage with the outside world, bringing the best of the surrounding society into Judaism, showing the world how much we have in common.  The Enlightenment – or Haskallah – as it is called in Hebrew brought about the Reform and Conservative movements and the modernization of Jewish scholarship.  It encouraged the teaching of Hebrew over Yiddish.

Moses Mendelsohn – sometimes considered the father of the Haskallah – translated the Bible into German.  He did this NOT because Jews didn’t understand the Bible.  Quite the opposite, he did it as a way to teach German to Jews who knew the Bible, but did not speak proper German.  In short, the Haskallah made it possible for Jews to be French, German, British and eventually American – as opposed to being a separate people that just happened to live on French, German, British or American land.

So, some Jews made their way to Israel, some turned inward and some turned outward.  What are we supposed to do as American Jews in 2014?

Some historians have suggested that both responses – Hasidism and Enlightenment – were flawed.  Hasidim isolated themselves to the point that they were perceived as outsiders even in their native lands making them even more likely targets of anti-Semitism.  Maskilim – the disciples of the Enlightenment – went down a path of assimilation that led to their virtual disappearance as a unique religious or ethnic group.

So, the real answer is that we must learn from them both.

The truth is that most of us American Jews have got the modernization part down pretty well.  We feel fully American and fully Jewish.  We have shown our neighbors that we can be as loyally American as any other group of people.  We are politically active and achieved great success in any number of fields.  We are true heirs of the Enlightenment.  However, we are slower to learn from the Hasidim.

Now, I am not suggesting that all the men here go out at buy black hats and grow out their sidecurls.  Neither am I suggesting that the women all start covering their hair and stop participating fully in Jewish ritual life.  What I am suggesting is that we not forget to turn inward – toward God, toward the Torah, toward the community – when faced with a tumultuous, turbulent world.

Believe it or not, these are my 10th High Holidays here in Summit.  When people ask me about living in Summit or Berkeley Heights or New Providence or Chatham or Madison as opposed to Livingston or Short Hills or West Orange, I always give the same answer.  When you live in a heavily Jewish town – as I did in my youth – you can take it for granted that you and your kids will have Jewish experiences and meet other Jewish people.  When you live in a town with fewer Jews, you may not experience overt anti-Semitism, but you have to make those Jewish experiences happen.  With the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, I think we ALL have to do even more of that.

Now, I know that some of us are thinking that this anti-Semitism is somehow related to the violence in Israel and Gaza, that it’s really anti-Israeli-settlement-policy and not anti-Semitism.  Perhaps no one tried to make this argument more eloquently than Rev. Bruce Shipman – the former Episcopal Chaplain at Yale University.

In a letter to the editor of the New York Times – responding to an excellent op-ed by Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University about the rise of anti-Semitism called “Why Jews are Worried,” Rev. Shipman wrote:  “…the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”

In other words, it’s our fault that people don’t like us and do horrible things to us.  If we could just tell the Israeli government to behave the way these people want the Israelis to behave, we’d have nothing to worry about.  It’s obviously nonsense.  And it’s why Rev. Shipman is the former Episcopal Chaplain at Yale.  He was forced to resign after that drivel was published.

Keep in mind – protesters did not march on Israeli consulates or embassies.  They attacked Jewish centers, Jewish houses of worship and Jewish-owned businesses.  These were not political acts objecting to the policies of the Israeli government.  They were hate crimes directed at Jews.  Anti-Israelism is merely the justification for anti-Semitism.

Beginning a month ago on the first day of Elul, we have added a prayer to our service every morning and every evening.  That prayer is Psalm 27.  Most of the time we recite it individually, which usually means mumbling it or scanning the words without really thinking about what the words mean. Toward the end of this beautiful poem, we read the following words:  “Guide me on the right path, to confound those who mock me.  Deceivers have risen against me, people who breathe out violence.  Abandon me not to the will of my foes.”

As I have read these words this year, they have held special meaning for me given the rise in anti-Semitism this past year.  How do we do what the Psalm challenges us to do?  How do we confound those who mock us?  How do we turn inward to God, Torah and Community?

I think I found the answer in short little article by a colleague on a website called eJewishPhilanthropy.com.  Her name is Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz and her words to her congregation last High Holidays were: “Just show up.”

It’s simple really, but profound.

Even if you can only come for a few minutes, just show up.  Even if you are wearing jeans or workout clothes, just show up.  Even if only part of your family can make it, just show up.  Even if you only want to come for the Kiddush, just show up.  Even if you don’t know the words to sing along, just show up.  Even if none of your friends are planning on coming, just show up.  Even if you’re on the way to a soccer game, a movie or the mall, just show up.

The first step to really being a community is being here – showing up.  Then, we can start to know each other and be there for each other.  And then we know to whom we can turn in difficult times.  We know who will understand us when we feel like an outsider in our own town or school or work place.

Maybe we won’t experience overt anti-Semitic violence like our brothers and sisters in Europe – it might just be that test scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, that double-header scheduled for Yom Kippur or that all-day staff meeting on the day of the first Seder – but this is where you’ll find the people who have your back.

So, as we welcome in the new year of 5775, we can’t control what others will say about us or do to us.  However, we CAN build a modern and traditional community of support for ourselves in the face of rising anti-Semitism.

And the way we do that is to JUST SHOW UP.

Shanah Tovah,



Presented on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5775.


About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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