Alissa Thomas-Newborn

Being a Jew in Teaneck right now

Picture taken by author. Jewish residents gather in prayer outside of Teaneck Municipal Building.

“Yosef recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him.” וַיַּכֵּ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו וְהֵ֖ם לֹ֥א הִכִּרֻֽהוּ, How can this be?

Chazal and almost all of the meforshim teach that the reason they couldn’t recognize Yosef was because he now had a beard, whereas before he did not: שֶׁיָּצָא מֵאֶצְלָם בְּלֹא חֲתִימַת זָקָן, וְעַכְשָׁו בָּא בַחֲתִימַת זָקָן (Rashi, etc). This pasuk fascinatingly becomes a proof text that it is in fact possible to not recognize our relatives. For example, in Masechet Bava Metzia there’s a case where a man shows up claiming to be Mari bar Isak’s brother and says he has property rights to their father’s land. Mari bar Isak says he doesn’t recognize the supposed brother. In debating the outcome, Rav Chisda uses our pasuk as proof that it is possible to not recognize one’s own brother. And indeed the man does turn out to be Mari bar Isak’s real brother. 

In a very different interpretation of our pasuk, the Vilna Gaon’s teachings (codified in Kol HaTor), explain our story is not just about Yosef’s brothers, but instead a spiritual inability to recognize goodness and redemption right in front of us. ולא רק בדורו כי אם בכל דור ודור אשר הוא משיח בן יוסף מכיר את אחיו והם לא מכירים אותו: Meaning that Mashiach ben Yosef stands in front of us all of the time– representing redemption– recognizing us and our need for redemption. But we often don’t recognize that goodness and possibility. For the Vilna Gaon, it’s not so much a physical change like a beard that leads to a lack of recognition, but a spiritual block that gets in the way of seeing the potential– the “Yosef”– in front of us. 

The year when I read our pasuk, I am struck by how much it feels like the reality we are living. What must it have felt like for Yosef to stand before people he thought he knew and to feel them stare right through him? To look past him. Not seeing him or his suffering. Instead, he stands there unrecognized, and silenced – even gaslit. What unfolds after is a very confusing series of emotions and actions from Yosef himself, which I am not going to try to explain right now. But the harriedness of his response seems to point to how he is shaken to his core by not being seen for who he is and what he is feeling. וַיַּכֵּ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו וְהֵ֖ם לֹ֥א הִכִּרֻֽהוּ. 

Over the past few months– in the world, but shockingly most especially in Teaneck– we have seen neighbors and friends who built bridges and broke bread suddenly seeing each other as strangers. Asking ourselves, “How is this really happening?” “Is this person not who I thought she was?” “How can he not see the truth of what is really going on?” The experience of seeing our truth and suffering so excruciatingly clearly, and then to stand in front of someone who doesn’t recognize our lived experience at all but rather stares blankly, or worse denies our pain, is nothing short of maddening. Is it possible that we are Yosef, looking at our lives before October 7th, recognizing the same streets and buildings and leaders– only to be met with strangeness, strangers and blank stares?

Those who deny or do not recognize our suffering, that antisemitism is anti-Zionism, that we did not choose this war, that moral equivalencies and double standards become more egregious by the day– can be the bystanders who do nothing– or they can be the perpetrators of ongoing suffering. 

And so, being Jewish in Teaneck right now is scary. Exhausting. Demoralizing. Painful. When Superintendent Spencer’s letter described the horrors of Hamas as an “incident in the cycle of violence”, we were cast into Yosef’s shoes. Facing a familiar system that at best doesn’t see us at all, and at worst discards us and our children into a dangerous pit.

At the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday evening this past week, as at other meetings over the last few months, we heard abhorrent antisemitic rhetoric– and applause for such vitriol. We have seen the ugly reality that there is hatred and a dangerous lack of education– each fueling the other. And we have asked ourselves if we recognize our township anymore– or if maybe we are finally fully recognizing what was there all along. 

A chasm exists between Jewish and Muslim residents. The painful trigger words and phrases chanted by high school students are seen as innocuous to parents and educators. It is clear that there is a need for education on the history of the Middle East. And it is clear that steps must be taken to ensure the safety and security of Jewish students and residents. Our elected officials have much work ahead…which we will support.

And yet somehow, amidst the hurt, we are called to be like Yosef– continuing to engage and live face to face with those who are not recognizing us. Nevertheless leading with faith and trust in God. In this way, I would offer that being Jewish in Teaneck (and anywhere, frankly) is, was, and will continue to be a blessing. In Teaneck specifically, we have such a profound Jewish infrastructure, with representatives in the Town Council, Board of Education, and TeachNJ. And we have seen unparalleled achdut in fighting antisemitism, as well as moral clarity among our Jewish leadership. 

And we have allies in unexpected places. A story: My Catholic dental hygenist told me she had lived in Teaneck for 40 years and attended the recent protests in our area to support Israel and the Jews. Some protestors had spit at her and called her a “Jew-lover”. She held her ground and was proud. But she said there was a moment when for the first time, she realized how Germans living in Germany during the Holocaust could have been silent. She said she had never felt such fear in her hometown before. But she proudly still showed up and supported us and will continue to do so because she knows it is the right thing to do. The daughter of a German man who left Germany in the ’20s because of the horrible treatment of Jews at the time, she felt compelled to carry that legacy forward. There are many stories like this. Mashiach ben Yosefs, if you will, in our midst. Sources of light and hope that we must not only recognize, but draw strength from. 

As the incoming president of Neshama Association of Jewish Chaplains, I initiated a taskforce with board ceritifying chaplaincy organizations of all faiths to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim bias. In a recent meeting, a Muslim chaplain reflected on how many had tried to do things publicly or in larger ways to bring people together. But they found that wasn’t working. What was working was connecting individually. And so that’s where she felt she could start. Admittedly, I wished that public work could be more effective. But there is wisdom in beginning with the individual. 

וַיַּכֵּ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו וְהֵ֖ם לֹ֥א הִכִּרֻֽהוּ. Ibn Ezra says at first Yosef recognized his brothers as his brothers. ואחר הסתכל בכל אחד והכירו וזהו ויכר יוסף את אחיו, and afterward he looked at each one of them individually. For sometimes it is through seeing the individual that we are able to reconnect– to see and be seen. As we learn from our parsha, this is tough and even painful work. And it is our historical calling as Jews in service of God.

May we speedily know safety for our children, educated dialogue, and a rebuilding of local bridges. May we see an end of antisemitism, return of the hostages, and the success and safety of Medinat Yisrael and Am Yisrael. May we be empowered to use the official avenues of civil leadership to make change– each being a “Mashiach ben Yosef”– a source of goodness and redemption. 

And in doing so, may being Jewish in Teaneck right now be a blessing.

The above was originally delivered as a drasha at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ on December 16th.

About the Author
Rabbanit Alissa is the Rabbanit at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and the president of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. She is a hospital chaplain in New York City and a past JOFA Devorah Scholar.
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