I grew up in Los Angeles, a city of perennial sunshine and smog. I didn’t see snowfall until the year I spent in Jerusalem in rabbinical school. I received an outstanding Jewish education and a wonderful experience at my hometown synagogue in the San Fernando Valley. There I learned to love Judaism, became a proficient service leader and Torah reader, and soaked up every minute of Religious School.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I also experienced anti-Semitism firsthand. I have distinct memories of being harassed by bullies while as a young teenager I walked to and from synagogue wearing a kippah and dressed for Shabbat services. Some of the tough kids on our street who knew my family was Jewish would try to prevent me and my siblings from entering the elementary school we attended, blocking the entrance and yelling “kikes don’t belong here.” During the week of Chanukkah, when my father would hang a Star of David ringed by blue and white lights over our garage door, our house was routinely egged by hoodlums who specifically targeted our Magen David.
While my parents told me to be proud that I am a Jew, and she probably called the school principal to clear the way for us to enter the building, there was never any meaningful discussion of anti-Semitism among the members of my family, at the public school I attended, or even at my synagogue. Looking back at those years, it seems to me now that nobody wanted to talk about anti-Semitic hatred, harassment of Jews, vandalism directed at Jewish families or even anti-Jewish violence, no matter how mild. The attitude seemed to be one of “ignore it and it will go away.”
Still, none of these incidents affected my interest in being Jewish. I happily attended the Los Angeles Hebrew High School, enrolled in undergraduate courses at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), spent six summers at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California and plowed ahead with my plans to enter Rabbinical School and become a rabbi. The anti-Semitism I had grown used to in my childhood and teen years did nothing to question my commitment to Judaism or dissuade me from living a Jewish life.
My childhood experience was the product of the times and community in which I was raised, as well as of my parents’ reluctance to rock the boat of acceptance they likely felt they were working hard to navigate. But it is not a model for how to address anti-Semitism in the United States or anywhere else in the world. We are facing a brewing crisis and we must be pro-active in our response to the anti-Jewish sentiments and actions we see around us. This is the message of the landmark new study of anti-Semitism just released by the American Jewish Community. The study coincides with the first anniversary of the horrific murders of 11 Jews praying on a Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October. It is the largest and most comprehensive study of American Jewish attitudes on anti-Semitism to date.
The survey indicates that American Jews are deeply concerned about anti-Semitism and believe it is getting worse. Nearly 88% of American Jews (88%) believe anti-Semitism is a problem in this country. More than a third of respondents say they have personally been the targets of anti-Semitism, in person, by mail or by phone. Young people are significantly more likely to have been victims of anti-Semitism. Nearly a third of American Jews say they have avoided publicly wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jewish, while 25% of respondents say they avoid certain places, events or situations out of concern for their safety or comfort as Jews at least some of the time. American Jews resoundingly view efforts and statements against the state of Israel as being tainted by anti-Semitism. For example, the statement that “Israel has no right to exist” is viewed by a large majority of respondents as anti-Semitic.
Surveys define problems and issues, but we require action and solutions. What should we do? As I said in my Rosh Hashana sermon, we need to be proactive and vigilant in our response, which should include at least three elements: knowledge, pride, and partnership.
We need to be knowledgeable about the threats we face as Jews. I ask you to attend the ADL’s Never Is Now Summit on anti-Semitism and hatred sponsored by the ADL on November 21 at the Jacob Javits Center. Oheb Shalom is part of the ADL’s Signature Synagogue program, and any of our members who register will receive an 18% discount on the cost of registration. And this Friday, come to Oheb Shalom to hear Fred Bloch, Senior Vice-President at the ADL, speak about “The Four Corners of Anti-Semitism.” Fred will address our congregation after a brief Shabbat service.
We need to express pride in our Jewish identity. This is not a time to hide our Jewishness out of fear or conspicuousness. As I said on Rosh Hashana, if the goal of anti-Semitism is to intimidate Jews and eliminate Judaism, then we must resist by fully embracing our way of life and our heritage. We must support, with resources of time and money, synagogues, our Jewish Federation, Jewish Day Schools and summer camps and the State of Israel. It is the responsibility of each generation to ensure that Judaism grows and does not diminish.
And we need to build and sustain partnerships with all those who oppose hatred and anti-Semitism, not merely for our own sake but because we need a united front of good and decent people to oppose all forms of bigotry and oppression. That is why this Shabbat Oheb Shalom is participating in Show Up for Shabbat, a project initiated by the AJC. Launched last year right after the Tree of Life massacre to banish fear and nurture solidarity among ALL peace-love and hate-rejecting people—not only Jews—this moment is happening again. By participating, we are sending the message that our services this Friday are open to all those who want to stand together in opposition to anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, racism, and bigotry.
Knowledge, pride, and partnership…these are the keys to standing up and standing strong to combat the scourge of anti-Semitism and hate. We must take this threat seriously, not out of fear or anger, but out of a strong desire to build a world of decency and peace.