Arnold D. Samlan
Jewish Educational Leader, South Florida

The End of the Innocence for American Jews

Since the mass murder at Shabbat services at Tree of Life (and no, the irony of the name and the events isn’t lost on me), the thought that keeps rising in my head is: The innocence of the American Jewish community died last week.

Having worked in Jewish organizations for my entire career, I have generally felt removed from anti-Semitism. Sure, there was always that stray person who would ask me “where are your horns?”, but they were few and far between. I felt far enough removed, as an American, from the world in which people believed the accusations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to occasionally joke about Jews controlling the media. After all, nobody actually believes that crap anymore, right? And the Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist colleagues I interacted with were of the mentsch variety. None of them wanted to see me or my beloved Israel eliminated.  Most (not all) did not seem to worry about my eternal soul being damned because of being a Jew.

I live in a country in which even most of the holdouts that wouldn’t allow Jews to live in their communities (file under Kenilworth, IL) had given up and now have their Jewish peeps. And while I had marched against the American Nazi Party in Skokie decades ago, the memory of swastikas in Chicago was a faded enough memory for me to feel exceedingly safe.

When I moved to South Florida, I was shocked at the level of security around the Jewish Federation in which I used to work, the local JCC’s and our synagogues. There was incredibly limited access to the buildings and armed security guards. When I asked it was explained as part of the picture because so many of our Jewish community members had previously lived in countries like Argentina and Venezuela, which had experienced anti-Semitic or political violence, and because of my security-conscious Israeli neighbors. There was no reason at that time, five years ago, to imagine that an American Jewish community would need strict security were it not for the mindset of those who had come from more threatened communities.

The scene  for the Pittsburgh attack and for our loss of innocence was being set for a few years before we got to last Shabbat. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents was the sharpest annual increase ever.  And of course, we had once again seen protesters marching while carrying flags with swastikas on them. But we continued, for the most part, to ignore the warning signals.

Then eleven individuals were murdered in a synagogue sanctuary and nobody could ignore the situation any longer. The anti-Semites, along with bigots of every make and model, have crawled out from under the rocks. And to blame any one politician or political party misses the point: Anti-semitism and its cousin – racism – has been there all along. But at long as we as Jews were able to get into the exclusive clubs and neighborhoods, we felt safe.

The attack on Tree of Life shattered our innocence. In hindsight, we should have known better. We had seen comments about Jews controlling (fill in the blank with: media, Congress, weather) things. Some of those comments were made by elected officials. Holocaust deniers and individuals who would deny the right of a secure Jewish homeland in our world have been there. And now we see them. In plain sight. And even on tomorrow’s ballots.

The innocent age of American Jewry died. And we have work to do. I am not in any way the expert on what we, as American Jews, do now. But, as a simple Jew, I’d like to invite you to create a dialogue on our next steps. Here are my humble suggestions:

  1. Be prouder than ever to be Jewish. We brought ethical monotheism to the world. Our ethics and values, which have evolved throughout history, reflect the words of our prophet, Micah “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
  2. Learn about what it means to be Jewish. Find a class, take a Jewish trip, read a book about Judaism, learn to read Hebrew, visit Israel. Go deeper.
  3. Add to the broader societal conversations. Our deeply divided world needs the wisdom of our tradition. Bring your Jewish game to the table, add value to our society and make sure everyone knows that you’re making a difference because you’re Jewish and that’s what Jews do
  4. Show up for Jewish. The most powerful sermon I ever heard was as a child when a Hasidic rabbi made the bold statement on the High Holidays that people should be in synagogue, not because of ritual, but because that’s the place where Jewish people come to know what it is important to know as a community.  I’ll expand that. Important Jewish community conversations take place in the gym at the JCC, in Hebrew School carpool lines, and in (often non-Kosher) bagels places and delis. [Yes, this rabbi just encouraged you to be in the places where are people are to be found, Kosher or not].
  5. Give up the idea that Jews are just WASPS who don’t happen to believe in Jesus. We aren’t. We are an ethnic and religious minority. And many of the same people who hate one minority hate all minority groups. Stop running from it. Embrace it.
  6. Find and embrace allies. Over the past week, I’ve found empathy with religious leaders from the Black Christian, Moslem, Sikh and other communities. And I’ve witnessed good people reaching out to Jews in Pittsburgh and other Jewish communities with prayer, with flowers, with love.

The New Normal for American Jewry is here. What are YOU going to do about it?

About the Author
Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer of the Jewish Federation Broward County, Florida, Is a rabbi and Jewish educator whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. All blog posts are his personal opinions and are not meant to reflect viewpoints of the Jewish Federation.
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