From “Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” to “Never Is Now”

I am pleased to post the sermon I offered our congregation on the first day of Rosh Hashana.

My Friends,

This morning, I want to share the story of a small, quiet town in Austria that was little known across Europe.  Jews had lived in the town from the middle of the 16th century, which they called Oshpitzin, a name derived from the Aramaic word “ushpizin,” which means honored and welcome guests.  In 1804, one of the town’s residents, a man named Jakob Haberfeld, established the Jakob Haberfeld Steam Vodka and Liquor Factory.   By the end of the 19th century, it was the largest business in town, producing a wide range of liquors famous throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and beyond.  By the late 1930s, Jakob Haberfeld’s grandson Alfons had taken over the business.  He and his wife Felicia were highly respected citizens in Oshpitzin, which had a very large Jewish population.  The Jewish community had a good reputation among Jewish peddlers and business travelers who regularly passed through.  Pious groups that were more insular and focused on old traditions found a home there, as did newer groups of younger Jews who were interested in more spiritual matters.  Oshpitzin was well known as the westernmost outpost of Hasidism.  Remarkably, the Jews of Oshpitzin, especially people like Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld, enjoyed a good and peaceful relationship with the surrounding Christian community.  The Haberfelds were wealthy and lived in a 40-room mansion but they used their wealth to support the town’s needy.  Felicia was especially known for her charitable work and for establishing and supporting soup kitchens and food pantries that served all the poor of the town, not only the Jews.  She even received a citation from the town’s mayor for her acts of charity.

Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld had global ambitions for their liquor factory and in July of 1939, they traveled to the United States to represent their distillery at the New York World’s Fair.  They left their 2-year old daughter Francziska in the care of Felicia’s mother, Helena Spierer.  But they never returned to Oshpitzin.  As they were preparing to board the ship for the trip from New York back to Europe, Alfons and Felicia learned that Germany had invaded Poland.  Their ship was diverted to Scotland and the couple was unable to return home.  You see, after World War I Oshpitzin had become part of independent Poland and the town became known by its Polish name- Oswiecim.  After the Germans conquered Poland, it was called by a name that is probably more familiar- Auschwitz.  In 1940, dormitories that had been constructed in the town years earlier to provide shelter for seasonal laborers were confiscated by the SS and Rudolph Hoss, the newly appointed commandant, expanded them into the infamous death camp that has become synonymous with hate and genocide.

I encountered the story of Alfons and Felicia Haberfeld and the fate of Oshpitzin at an exhibition called “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” that is at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan through January 3.  The exhibition tells the story of the Holocaust in broad terms and includes stories about the history of Judaism, the rise of the Nazi party and the destruction of European Jewry.  But the exhibition’s primary purpose is to tell the history of Auschwitz and what life was like there for its prisoners and even for the Germans who worked there.

The exhibition is absorbing and fascinating, and I am especially drawn to its title: “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away.”  What it was meant to convey, I’m sure, is that while the death camp known as Auschwitz may be on the other side of the world from those of us who live here in the New York metropolitan area, a place like Auschwitz is not far away from our lives.  And while we may want to think that what took place in Auschwitz, and the thousands of other death camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were an aberration from an era gone by, that’s not really the case.  Antisemitism and hate-induced killing are not relics of a past age.  They’re alive and well in the here and now.

In Warsaw, in the past few days, anti-Semitic posters have been put up all over the capital ahead of the country’s national elections.  The posters include images of former and current Israeli diplomats as well as prominent Jewish figures along with the slogan “Beware of parasites” and call for an end of restitution to Jewish owners and their heirs of property that was seized during the Holocaust, saying it is a “mafia” program, and demand that Poland “Stop the Jewish occupation” of the country.  In France, gravestones were defaced with swastikas after “yellow vest” protesters hurled insults and threats at a prominent Jewish intellectual at a Paris rally.  In Britain, the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn are nothing if not a platform for anti-Semites, prompting former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to brand Corbyn a dangerous anti-Semite who wants to kill Jews and remove Israel from the world map, as well as other leading British rabbis to speak openly about Jews leaving Britain.   In Belgium, a carnival float featured puppets that portrayed scowling ultra-Orthodox Jews with giant noses and bags of money at their feet.  Throughout Europe, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated, and synagogues and Jewish sites are patrolled by armed guards 24 hours a day.  Here in the United States, we need look no further for evidence of anti-Semitism than the “Unite the Right” rally held two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia with its haunting scenes of Nazi-sympathizers thrusting their arms upward in a Hitler salute while carrying torches and shouting in unison “Sieg Heil” and “Jews will not replace us.”  The murder of 11 Jews on a Shabbat morning at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh just one year ago, and the murder of a member of a Chabad shul outside of San Diego, has frightened Jews across this country and sparked efforts in synagogues across the country, including this one, to dramatically ramp up security measures.  And it seems that every day brings a new story of harassment and violence committed against Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.  If you’re the type of person that is persuaded by statistics, the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent report shows that in the U.S. anti-Semitic acts have surged by more than 60%.

Why does the world hate the Jews?  That’s not a question that can be answered in a single sermon, but here are some short answers that you may find appealing.  One is that we are the early warning for all other expressions and acts of hatred in the world.  We are the “canary in the coal mine” meant to tip off the rest of the world that there are haters on the prowl.  That’s not a role we auditioned for, but if you read the Torah carefully, it’s a role that God assigned to us when he told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.”  Who would want to curse Abraham?  That was God hinting that part of our people’s role in the world would be to smoke out bigots and haters.

Another theory is posited by my mentor, Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote that many European intellectuals, embarrassed by what educated Europeans did in the Holocaust, are desperately eager to exaggerate Jewish behavior because it lets them say, “You see, they’re no better than we are.  We can stop feeling guilty about what we did to them.”

As a good friend of mine likes to say, enough admiring the problem.  We can only get so far analyzing the reasons for anti-Semitic behavior.  Now that we know it’s a persistent, dangerous problem, what should we do about it?  I have a few simple but important ideas to share with you that are within our grasp to embrace.

The first, and perhaps simplest, is to live proudly and openly as a Jew.  If the goal of anti-Semitism is to intimidate Jews and eliminate Judaism, then Jews must fiercely resist by fully embracing our way of life and our heritage.  Lend your support, both personal and financial, to synagogues, especially Oheb Shalom, to the Jewish Federation, to Jewish Day Schools, to Jewish summer camps, to Hillel, and to the State of Israel.  It is the sacred responsibility of each generation, especially we who live in the decades immediately following the Holocaust and the near destruction of European Jewry, to ensure that Jews and Judaism grow, not decrease from the face of the earth.

Next, I turn to David Harris, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Jewish Committee, who has said that anti-Semitism must be called out in all its forms.  That means we must take a strong stand against not only the Unite the Right Rally but also against harassment of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Rockland County, against anti-Semitic tropes when they are used by anyone from co-workers to freshman Congresswomen to the President of the United States.  Not all manifestations of anti-Semitism fit into the narrative of White Supremacy.  One Jew beaten while walking home from shul on a Friday night in Crown Heights is also a victim of anti-Semitic rage.  To use Harris’ phrase, we need to be “swivel-headed” in calling out anti-Semitism.

Next, we need to seize opportunities to build bridges with as many partners as possible, and not only in times of crisis when we feel vulnerable and not only when we are victims.  When more than 50 Muslims were murdered in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand last March, I immediately called my colleague and friend who is the Imam at the National Islamic Center in Newark and arranged to attend their Friday prayer service to express condolences and show support.  And when there was a vigil in town to protest the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue a year ago, the Imam was there to express his horror at what had happened.  This past Shavuot eve, I invited the pastor of the local Methodist Church and the Imam from the mosque to bring their members to Oheb Shalom for an extraordinary evening of learning in celebration of our holiday.  Over 100 people attended and learned how the three Abrahamic religions interpret the scriptural lessons of Abraham and Sarah.  The Imam asked if his congregation could recite their evening prayer in Founders’ Hall while I led Ma’ariv in the chapel.  I will never forget the sounds of their prayers mingling with our melodies, and the sheer beauty of Jews and Muslims praying near one another according to their own traditions.  We need those partnerships not only when we are under direct threat but always.  We need to achieve mutual understanding.

Next, we need to be educated about the causes and manifestations of anti-Semitism.  It is not adequate to shrug our shoulders and concede that there are people who hate Jews.  We need to be up to date about trends and catalysts of anti-Semitic behavior, and how to react and respond when we encounter it.  One of the best ways to do that is to attend the “Never is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism and Hate sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League this November 21 at the Jacob Javitz Center.  I’m proud that our own Amy Blumkin is the ADL’s Vice-President of Brand and Marketing and Andy Neusner is the ADL’s E-mail Marketing Manager.  Because we are a part of the ADL’s Signature Synagogue Program, any one of our members who register for the conference will receive an 18% discount.  I would like to see at least 25 Oheb members attend the conference.  For more information, link to www.neverisnow.org.

Finally, one cannot talk about sources of antisemitism without talking about Zionism and Israel.  I believe and accept that there are times we must criticize Israel, just as we must at times criticize the United States.  Not everything Israel does is praiseworthy and defensible.  But I also believe that there is a difference between criticizing Israel and opposing Zionism.  Zionism is the legitimate aspiration of the Jewish People to live in the land of our birth, safe from threats of harm and annihilation.  As David Harris said, if we can’t defend Zionism then we can’t be successful defenders of Jews against anti-Semitism.  If we can’t speak of Israel with pride and admiration, even if we have objections to some of the statements and actions of whatever government happens to be in power, then we can’t fully and completely defend Jews.  I believe that with all my heart and will always speak out in defense of the Jewish people’s right to live safely in the Land of Israel.

My friends, in one of the key passages of our High Holiday prayers, we look forward to a year in which tzadikim yiru ve-yismachu viyesharim ya’alozu…a year in which good people will have reason to rejoice and honest people will have cause to be glad, a year in which the mouth of the wicked will be shut and hate-filled evil will disappear like smoke.  Of all our prayers, may God grant that one, for the world has seen enough hatred and violence.  May it be a year in which we move from “Not long ago, not far away” to “Never is now.”  Kein Yehi Ratzon…may that be God’s will, and ours.

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