V’hei shamda l’avoteynu v’lanu. “You have stood with our ancestors and with us. (Evildoers) did not arise only singly and at one time to destroy us (but again and again). And the holy one blessed be he preserved us from their hands.” This song came to me, spontaneously, as I led a singalong, at the party my wife and I hosted on the seventh night of Hanukah. As we were singing out hearts out, a masked terrorist entered a shtiebel (small prayer space) in Monsey and stabbed five Jews. Though I did not learn of the attack until several hours later, it was no coincidence that Ve Hei Shamada was on my lips. Its an anxious time be an American Jew. Ten incidents of anti-Semitic violence have occurred in the New York area over the past month, bringing the total for 2019 to two hundred and twenty. Nationwide, according to the FBI, Jews are likelier to be targets of hate-crimes than any other religious or ethnic group. And that’s just the American situation. Worldwide, according to Tel Aviv’s Kantor Center’s “General Analysis of Antisemitism Worldwide”, “Antisemitism is no longer only a part of the activities of the triangle, made of the far Right, the extreme Left and radical Islam. It has mainstreamed and became a constant presence of reality.”
When I learned about the Monsey attack, I immediately thought of my beloved shul community in upper Manhattan. We too pray in a shtiebl, without armed guards or metal detectors, with a door that is always open, welcoming the many curious Jews who stop-by to experience our unique, upbeat spirituality. I had assumed our community was unlikely to be a target, reassuring myself that surely, violent extremists would aim for ‘high profile’ synagogues (which, please G-d, would have security precautions). The Monsey attack, on a little-known shtiebel, left me worrying that no shul is safe anymore, and that I, or someone I love, could be the next victim.
My Israeli friends were surprised by my surprise at the upsurge in antisemitic violence. While expressing their sympathy they were quick to remind me that (to quote one friend) ‘this is nothing new. We lived through five years of homicide bombings during the second intifada. Welcome to the Jewish people!”
If my late Zaida, David Goldberg, were still alive I can imagine that his response would be “Nu? Why are you so surprised? The world has never liked Jews. And it never will.” Was my Zaida right, I wonder? There is certainly ‘what to rely on’ to validate his perspective. I need look no farther than the fact that several of my cousins who live in smaller cities in the USA and Canada, have told me they feel compelled to hide their Jewish identities lest they be socially ostracized for being Jews or Zionists.
Call me naïve, but I never imagined it would come to this. Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, in the 1980s and 90s, I dismissed my Zaida’s warnings about the omnipresence of antisemitism as anxieties leftover from his youth. And who could blame him? Growing up in a tough working-class neighborhood in Winnipeg, Canada, during the 1920s, my grandfather lived with antisemitism, daily. Zaida often had to fight his way to school past antisemitic bullies. At home, Dave’s mother, raised him on stories of the pogroms she had survived in her Ukrainian shtetl. And as a contemporary of the Shoah (though he did not experience it, directly) Jewish vulnerability was never far from my grandfather’s mind.
My father Harvey voiced a different worldview. In discussions with his father about antisemitism, Harvey would argue that although antisemitism had not been fully eradicated it was no longer a major threat. Canada, in his mind, had become a liberal, multicultural democracy where civil liberties protected minorities – including Jews – from discrimination. Like, my Zaida, my father spoke from experience. Harvey served for twenty-five years in the Canadian Human Rights Commission where he was instrumental in developing policy to root-out systemic discrimination. He had witnessed the power of a liberal state to create a new, inclusive reality for its Jewish citizens.
My father’s worldview resonated for me because it embodied the reality I lived. Identifying openly as a Jew, in Canada, in the 1990s was a no-brainer for me. (I wore my kippah as easily as I wore my favorite t-shirt.) Antisemitism was something I encountered only in the history textbooks I read at my Jewish primary school, or, later, in sociology courses at the public high schools and universities I attended.
Today, I believe that my Zaida and my father were both right – to some extent. Each of their views is applicable to understanding the situation of Jews in America in 2020. Antisemitism has endured and, lately, resurged in a virulent new form. Chaim Weitzman, the great scientist and Zionist leader, was right when he compared antisemitism to a super-virus, like influenza, that may go dormant for a time but resurges whenever the “host” environment supports it. Contemporary America provides a hospitable host environment now that there is pervasive social dislocation and political extremism of the left and right has gone mainstream. But unlike previous eras of Jewish history where antisemitism existed unchecked by the societies hosting it, the contemporary United States is a setting where Jews have legislated protection against discrimination and where two thirds of the population report that they view Jews as contributing positively to the country. (According to a recent Anti-Defamation League study).
What to do? We can, I believe, take a model from how Yaakov aveynu (Jacob) prepared to meet his brother, and adversary, Esav. Bereshith, chapter 32, describes how Yaakov was pro-active in reaching out to Esav in brotherhood and how, at the same time, Yaakov safeguarded his community against the possibility of Esav’s violence. If Yaakov had been cynical about his brother, expecting only the worst from Esav, Yaakov would have foreclosed the possibility that they could live together (which is, in the end, what happened). If Yaakov had not safeguarded his family, he would have been an irresponsible fool. The same goes, I believe, for Jews in America in 2020: we must prioritize our safety and at the same time, we must be proactive in outreaching, as individuals and communities, to other religious and ethnic communities – especially those whose relations with the Jewish community are strained.
I believe in the possibility of everyday encounters between neighbors and even strangers to produce little changes in outlook that, in the aggregate, can make a difference. This was made vivid to me by experiences I had, over the past two years, as a social work graduate student at Hunter College.
Once or twice a semester, without fail, some fellow student would convey that American Jews have disproportionate economic and cultural influence (which is correct) and that they gained this influence unfairly (which is incorrect) and that something needed to be done to redress the situation. These antisemitic attitudes sickened me. Worse, was the fact that my classmates, decent people, committed to public service, believed them uncritically. Yet in holding this belief my classmates were not alone. According to Anti-defamation league statistics one in five Americans hold similar views.
Social work schools are privileged settings for dialogue. Students learn to actively listen, empathize and overcome their biases. Outfitted with these tools, I initiated dialogues with many of the students who had voiced antisemitic views. Chatting with these folks, I was upfront about how their statements hurt me, not least because they were fallacious. In all but one of these dialogues, my interlocutors reached an awareness that they needed to learn much more about antisemitism and had biases to overcome. I was left feeling hopeful that my classmates would grow toward a fuller, more empathetic understanding of Jews in America – just as I was growing, daily, in my awareness of sexual and ethnic minority groups, hitherto unknown to me and becoming their ally.
My hopefulness has its limits. How, I wondered, would the 60 million Americans who believe Jews have unfair influence ever come to rethink their biases (short of attending social work school)? What if they never did? Yes, the overwhelming majority of these people will never commit acts of violence. Even so, just through voicing their antisemitic views these people contribute to a hateful ‘host environment’ in which an angry, unbalanced person may feel validated in committing terror.
Sometimes when I consider the enormity of the problem, I feel powerless. Then I remember the power of the teaspoon. It’s a metaphor created by the late Israeli writer, Amos Oz, to signify the power of small gestures to collectively produce change.
In “the Order of the Teaspoon” Oz writes: I believe that if one person is watching a huge calamity, let’s say a conflagration, a fire, there are always three principle options.
- Run away, as far away and as fast as you can and let those who cannot run burn.
- Write a very angry letter to the editor of your paper demanding that the responsible people be removed from office with disgrace. Or, for that matter, launch a demonstration.
- Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire, and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon, everyone has a teaspoon. And yes, I know a teaspoon is little and the fire is huge but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon. ”
Teaspooning the fire of antisemitism, I believe, calls for Jewish Americans to be pro-active, in reaching out, day by day. By this I mean reaching out of our social bubbles where we spend time with people who share our cultural, educational and economic identities (whether they are Jewish, or not). Reaching out could involve connecting with a colleague who you tend to overlook, or the neighbor down the hall or even someone you meet randomly in an Uber. Connecting with these people, as a Jewish human being, may offer them the first meaningful encounter they have had with a Jew in a long time – or perhaps their first ever. The connection may come to nothing. Or it may offer the other person a much-needed chance to connect with a Jewish American and challenge their biases. It may spur them to be a voice against antisemitism in their community. It may allow you, as a Jew, to grow in your awareness of a community to which you haven’t been exposed. Only G-d can know what the ripple effect of an encounter will be.
When I start a conversation, I don’t begin with an agenda. I talk about my life, listen, and if the conversations flows, it will often turn to my Jewishness. This past week I was chatting with my upstairs neighbor, “Sonia”. We are very different, she and I, and we share little, on the surface, that connects us. “Sonia” is a recent immigrant from Albania who drives a school bus. Although bright, she’s not formally educated, and her English is so-so. Over the past year, Sonia and I have spoken at least once a week, whenever we cross paths in our building’s lobby, and I’ve enjoyed it.
Last week, Sonia and I chatted about my Hanukah experiences and Sonia (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) shared her memories of holidays in her home country. I expressed my sadness that the last day of Hanukah was marred by the violence in Monsey. Then in her heavily accented English, Sonia replied ‘I am sad to see how Jews got attacked only because they are Jews. I came to America to be free. Your people came here to be free. This is not good.”
“What do you do with that, Sonia”, I asked?
“I want to talk about it, tomorrow, in church, she replied, and say that we can’t just pray when other people of G-d are being stabbed. We must do something! I didn’t know there was such antisemitism in America. Now I know.”
I emerged feeling enriched by a connection with a fellow human being. It was not lost on me that Sonia and I come from religious groups whose relationship has historically been marred by antisemitism and mutual misunderstanding. Later, in the week I sent Sonia details about the “no hate, no fear” march which was organized in response to the recent antisemitic violence. Sonia shared the details with her church.
Together, Sonia and I poured a teaspoon on to the fire of antisemitism. Thanks to our encounter a person who had been ignorant of contemporary antisemitism felt moved to act. Our many mundane conversations, over the past year, about the weather, her dog or my cats developed a familiarity that allowed Sonia and I to eventually connect on the profoundest level.
I believe in the power of communal interfaith relationships. Interfaith dialogue, especially between Jewish and Christian clergy was an important part of my life in Canada during the 2000s and continues to play a role in my life, now, in New York City. That interfaith dialogue could support mutual spiritual growth was evident to me from the get-go. Yet it wasn’t until I moved to Israel in 2009 that its practical benefits became clear to me. When rocket attacks from Gaza shook the country, I witnessed delegations of Christian clergy visit Israel in solidarity. By showing up, they witnessed to the world that attacks on Israel are not only a Jewish problem – they are also a human problem and a problem especially for people of faith (as the rockets were being fired by Hamas, an Islamic extremist regime that abused religion). I saw similar outcomes when religious Christians and Muslims were at the forefront of the coalition supporting the Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh, last year, following the massacre there, and how they led city-wide efforts to ensure that all places of worship would be secured from violence. I saw it, again, on Sunday when New Yorkers of all faiths, including Muslims and African Americans, marched side by side with Jewish New Yorkers at the ‘No hate. No Fear’ march.
Such inter-class, inter-religious and inter-ethnic connections are all too rare in contemporary America. Our society has experienced a sharp decline in social capital – the shared sense of identity, interpersonal relationships, values and norms that allow societies to function in a climate of trust. In his seminal study “Bowling Alone – the Collapse and Revival of American Community”, Robert Putnam, used data from the General Social Survey to demonstrate how a pervasive “social dislocation” has taken hold in America.
The decline of American social capital has affected both bonding capital (the bonds within groups) and bridging capital (bonds between different ethnic groups). Among communities, Putnam further notes, active religious communities tend to have the highest levels of bonding capital, but bridging capital tends to be in short supply. Developing it requires proactive effort.
The Orthodox shuls in my neighborhood Jewish community are rich in bonding capital but lacking in bridging capital. Though we live in an upper-Manhattan neighborhood where three quarters of our neighbors are non-Jews from fellow ethnic minorities, we have no strong communal relationships with our local churches or mosques. In saying this I do not wish to judge my community. It takes enormous, sustained effort to develop and maintain the bonding capital we possess which allows us to support the emotional, spiritual and social needs of our members. But the times we are living in compel us to reach out.
Beyond the pragmatic consequences of bridging it is, I believe, what Judaism ultimately calls us to do as human beings created b’tzelem elokim (in the image of G-d). The Talmud teaches us that the concept of humanity’s creation b’tzelem elokim is a k’lal gadol b’torah – a foundational principle (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim, ch. 9, h. 4). All people are, in other words inter-related and ought to maintain a strong connection. Reflecting on what it means to internalize the principle of tzelem elokim, my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes in his essay “The Dignities of the Image of G-d” that tzelem elokim leads one person who encounters another to “feel love for this person (so that) you will want to rejoice with them, help them when they need help, treat them honorably, seek their welfare and well-being”. We are all in this, together.
Our interrelatedness with humankind co-exists, paradoxically, with the Jewish people being an “am levadad yishkon” – a nation that dwells apart (Bamidbar 23:9). As Jews, we are a unique people, with unique vulnerabilities and a unique mission to teach righteousness by our lived example. We dwell apart but we are also a part of G-d’s humanity. The primary responsibility for our security rests with us, but we would be wrong to ignore the other communities who understand that their wellbeing and ours are inter-dependent. In saying this I also recognize that within communities that have strained relationships with the Jewish community there are individuals who are fighting antisemitism and want to build bridges. We must be proactive in reaching out to them. We cannot eradicate the antisemitism in their communities – only they and their leaders can do that. But we can join with them as allies and draw strength from each other in the fight against antisemitism and all forms of prejudice.
Soon, my wife and I will be resettling in Washington DC. I want to be part of bridge building, there. While I am at, I intend to keep singing vhei shamada, in the soul-stirring melody by the Israeli singer Yonatan Razel. Singing it reminds me that the Jewish people have endured so many dark nights of hatred – and we will get through this one, too, b’ezrat hashem.