As I powered up my phone after Shabbat three weeks ago, much to my surprise I found an email from the White House inviting me to the United We Stand Summit.
Dr. Susan Rice, who leads the Domestic Policy Council, shared that this first of its kind event aimed “to counter the corrosive effects of hate-fueled violence on our democracy and public safety, highlight the response of the Biden-Harris administration and communities nationwide to these dangers, and put forward a shared, bipartisan vision for a more united America.”
I do not believe in coincidences, but found it a bit ironic to read (and read again three times) the White House email after spending Shabbat learning new elements of Shoftim. The Parshah speaks of the creation of a judicial system as well as local law enforcement. It contains the famous directive “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
On Thursday, September 15th, I spent the day in the East Wing of the White House at a conference with law enforcement and diverse leaders pursuing a more just society. During a break in the conference, looking through the window at a particularly unique view of the Washington Monument, I could not help but think of the nation’s first President.
Some of my earliest memories as a boy are walks to shul with my father. Other fond memories are road trips to his home state of Rhode Island. Before I ever visited Washington, DC, I had already visited Rhode Island multiple times to see my late grandparents who had lived for generations in the state.
Combining a love for Judaism and American history, my father shared more than once on those walks – particularly the humid ones in August – the story of President George Washington visiting Newport, Rhode Island.
The smallest state was also the most diverse. Engrained in its founding as a colony was a commitment to religious pluralism. It was a goodwill tour in August 1790 after the ratification of the Constitution. Rhode Island was the last of the states to ratify. More than elsewhere in the original 13 states, Newport had a disproportionately large Jewish community (roughly 500).
In famous correspondence with the community’s leader, President Washington laid forth a vision. “The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Our nation’s 46th President spoke in the afternoon using many of themes in the famous Newport letter that our first President penned. Indeed, the 18th Century letter was and is the foundation stone of American religious liberty. As the Constitution marks its 235th birthday this month, the letter further codifies the uniquely American principle of separation of church and state.
President Biden spoke forcefully recognizing that Jews across all 50 states will be marking Rosh Hashana painfully aware that the violent antisemitic attack in Pittsburgh in 2018 was followed the next year by deadly attacks in Poway, California; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Monsey, New York. Earlier in the day, we heard the gripping testimony from a young Jewish New Yorker violently assaulted for wearing a kippah and supporting America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel.
At ease wearing my black kippah sruga, sitting next to Muslim, Sikh, Latino and Asian participants, listening to the President and other speakers, I left the White House energized and hopeful for the year ahead.
Sitting in traffic heading home, I pulled up the text to recall the exact closing words of President Washington’s letter. “May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths.”
The following week, a week of repentance and asking for mercy, selihot, I was aghast to find fellow Jewish community members “scatter darkness” on this historic and innovative conference.
John Adams, Washington’s Vice President and our nation’s second President, once wrote, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
The fact is that hate is hate.
The fact is antisemitism is on the rise.
The fact is vile attacks come from both the hard left and the extreme right.
Attacks have been perpetrated by men and women. Attackers have been white, but they have also been Black and brown.
These facts were and are acknowledged by law enforcement, policymakers and other stakeholders convened by the White House.
The White House made sure to include Democratic and Republican elected officials. More importantly, it brought everyday diverse Americans who have been painfully touched by hate and are working to combat future hate crimes and boldly build bridges. This most certainly included diverse members of the Jewish community. Indeed, this included Orthodox Jews like myself who were honored to attend.
Far too often, Orthodox Jews on the streets of New York have been verbally harassed and physically assaulted. In and around Boston, recently, our congregations, our schools and community centers have been nefariously “mapped” online. In Los Angeles, diners at a kosher restaurant were attacked last year.
This was and is recognized by the Biden-Harris Administration and was a large part of the genesis of the historic convening.
This week before the Jewish New Year is a time of teshuva – repentance. I learned in grade school that there are two elements of repenting. First there is remorse and then a commitment to act differently in the future.
Rosh Hashana is also a time of hope and cautious optimism. I am hopeful that with the momentum from the summit of innovative interagency coordination that this will be a year filled with less hate-fueled violence. My hope for the new year is that Orthodox Jews, those less visibly Jewish and all diverse Americans will be able to uphold President Washington’s vision.
In the new year, I am also cautiously optimistic that misguided voices in our community will remember another stubborn fact throughout history – united Jews stand and divided our community falls.