This is a note I imagine writing to a student of mine.
I was pleased to get your email the other day. I particularly appreciated the details of your busy college career and the many exciting choices ahead of you. It is not always easy for a younger person to hear this from the adults who have been part of his or her life, but do know how proud of you I am, especially about the Jewish choices you have made. Since the day that you and your family started attending our synagogue, you have shown an excitement about all things Jewish, as have your parents. You have clearly made that love of Judaism and the Jewish people your own, especially since you returned from your gap year in Israel and began school.
I share your anxiety about the safety of Jews in Europe and around the world. The war in Gaza this past summer helped set up another convenient pretext for ant-Semitic hatred seething below the surface of the European street, as rallies became opportunities to harass Jews, repress free speech, and deface synagogues. The most recent atrocities in Paris at Charlie Hedbo and the Hyper Cacher kosher market only intensified our feelings of dread that we are under attack by a new fascism. It wears the mask of an Islamic extremism filled with murderous rage at Jews and at the West, and it has no central address for European nations to confront directly.
Because of this threat of violence, you are now contemplating not wearing your kippah in public anymore, out of concern for your safety and the safety of others around you. As I understand it, what specifically precipitated this concern is your encounter with harassment from anti-Israel groups on your campus. I remember the conversations we had before you left for Israel about your wearing your kippah all the time. I identified with that, because I began wearing my kippah at all times the summer that I first went to Israel, then when I returned to America for my senior year in high school. I know how valuable it is to wear one publicly as a statement of Jewish pride and commitment, in much the same way that a lot of people wear Jewish stars and Chai chains around their necks. For you, the kippah has become an added symbolic manifestation of who you are religiously, of your growing commitment to the values of the Torah that make the Jewish people who we are as God’s partners in the world. Sadly, the violence around us in the world is expanding, and one of its ugly effects is to make you think about contracting.
Remember that as important as wearing a kippah is religiously, it is not as important religiously as preserving safety and life. If you judged in any circumstance that by wearing it you would be endangering yourself, your safety would come first. Sakkanat nefashot, avoiding danger to life and limb, is a religious obligation of the highest order in Judaism, and nearly every commandment can be violated temporarily for the sake of personal safety. Thus, on rare occasions, I have removed or covered my kippah when walking the streets of European cities when I have been told that wearing one in public could be unsafe. For the same cogent reason our brothers and sisters in France and other parts of Europe are justifiably wary about openly identifying as Jewish.
However, removing our kippot on a case by case basis, I would argue, is different from making a philosophical decision not to wear them regularly, at least in America. I truly believe that, whatever anti-Semitism we face in America, it is of a different character altogether from what our fellow Jews face in Europe. Certainly, we have our bigots, racists, campus anti-Semites and extremists. 9/11 devastated our naïve complacency about being impervious to terrorism. However, America’s complex legacy as a nation of immigrants seeking individual freedom and economic prosperity has significantly blunted anti-Semitism in government and on the street. (If anything, we Jews have been too comfortably welcomed into America, which we have reason to worry is killing us with kindness.)
I want to suggest that wearing your kippah in public empowers you and the Jewish people, and it strengthens American democracy. It allows you, a well acculturated participant in American life, to say to others, “I am proud to be different from you at the same time that we are all participating in our great societal conversation. We have the opportunity to get to know each other as three dimensional people, not as two dimensional stereotypes. Sharing our differences in a spirit of civility – whether we wear a kippah, a cross or a kufi (a head covering often worn by Muslim men) – is what makes American culture distinctive.” Further, at the risk of voicing a polemical sound bite, I truly believe that, in a small but potent way, continuing to wear your kippah publicly is your statement that you will not allow extremists and bigots on or off campus to intimidate you as an openly identified member of the Jewish people.
However we identify publicly as Jews, we contribute something beautiful to the American legacy of freedom, which we must be proactive in protecting. Our vigilance in securing those freedoms ultimately contributes – howbeit in a small way – to the battle against anti-Semitism in Europe, to the protection of Israel’s right to exist in peace, and to the overall strengthening of democratic values and civil society. The stronger our model of democratic and civil society is, the more influence it has on the world.
Human beings live with an ongoing tension between what we are free to affect and what is beyond our control. Keeping yourself safe in the presence of real danger is imperative, yet so is giving yourself the room to live expansively and with dignity, even if it entails some possible risk. Ultimately, you will judge as to how best to balance these two aspects of your life, including when and where you identify publicly as a Jew. As you do this, I hope that you and your generation of young Jews will never feel like second class citizens who need to hide who you are.
For your sake and all our sakes, I hope that your kipppah stays on.