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What I Learned from Janie

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Rosh Hashanah Day 1

Before I speak about anything else in this new year, what I need to and what I want to talk about most, as you can imagine, is Janie. More than anything or anyone else, Janie fills my head and my heart.

The Sunday afternoon that Janie died suddenly and unexpectedly… all kinds of thoughts swirled in my head. I can’t do the High Holy Days this year, I thought. How can I stand up and talk about the issues that usually concern me deeply. They have no meaning for me now. The saddest thought of all was “I am all alone now. Without Janie, I am all alone”

Two days later, hundreds attended Janie’s funeral service. I did not feel alone. During the week of Shivah my home was filled with you, congregants, friends, colleagues. I didn’t feel alone. Periodically, our little grandson Parker would walk in the room, knock something over and seeing his beautiful face and boundless energy, I couldn’t feel alone. In reading every card that was sent, in receiving each name of the hundreds who donated to Janie’s Memorial Fund, trees planted in Janie’s memory, I felt lovingly embraced….. not alone.

After the week of Shivah, we continued with evening Minyans in the synagogue. The first night, I drove into the parking lot and wondered what else was going on that summer night. I walked into the chapel a few minutes before the Minyan would begin as I normally do throughout the year and the chapel was already full as it is normally not throughout the year. I was not alone. Comfort came in many ways and each way touched my heart.

To be honest, all of that comfort added together could not come close to equaling another day with Janie. We loved being alone together. But it was and remains a true comfort.

I learned from an insightful rabbi some years ago “love is wanting to give more than you every hope to receive in return.” I tell this to just about every couple who sits in my study before their wedding. Our usual concept of love is ‘what he does for me’, ‘how she makes me feel.’ A greater love is what I do for her, how I make him feel, what I give is the truest expression of love. Of course no one wants to be in a relationship of unrequited love. It’s got to be a two way street but the truest love is still wanting to give more than you ever hope to receive in return.”

That was Janie. Janie gave me so much over all the years including these past years until the very end. So very much! Her very being made my life so much richer and brighter.

Janie gave so much to us. She made an indelible impact on our community in many ways.

As we were falling in love, we would talk for hours and hours each night. One discussion we never had was whether I would move to New York were we to get married. Janie had spent her entire life in the same zip code growing up and living as an adult on the upper East side of Manhattan and four years at Barnard College just above the Upper West Side. Her whole life and the girls’ lives were in New York. As Janie came to spend time here, in Pennsylvania as she called it, Janie saw how much I love this community and synagogue and she came to love both as well.

This was a foreign world for the three girls. The first time they visited, they ranged from first to ninth grade. I told this story some twenty two years ago. Janie and the girls came to Bucks County during Passover. One day we went for a long walk and at one point, Samara, the youngest was tired and said “Can we call a cab?” We weren’t that far from Tanners at that point. I said we can call a cow but we can’t call a cab. That describes the culture shock from Manhattan to Richboro.

Janie quickly came to love our community too. Loving always meant giving for Janie and so she gave. She gave to the community as a whole and she gave quietly to so many individuals in our congregation.

It happened often that Janie and I would visit a Shivah house together. When we were leaving, the mourner would say goodbye and thank me politely and give Janie a great hug and thank her for all she had given them in that relatively brief period of time. I never said out loud “What am I chopped liver?” On the way to the car, I would say to Janie “I know that person for fifteen years and in fifteen minutes you developed a bond and gave such comfort that amazes me.” It was part of Janie’s magic.

In 1997 we began a project to write a new Torah. It was one of the most spiritual experiences we have ever had. We engaged a scribe in Israel by the name of Goldstein, who we visited during our first trip to Israel together. Hundreds of our members stood next to the scribe as he wrote a letter of their name in the Torah. We had a parade down Second Street Pike when we dedicated the Torah with hundreds of us led by a band, under a Huppah and joined by Christian clergy in the community. We raised a sizable endowment for Adult Education and we’ve been benefiting from that fund for the past 20 years. This was all Janie’s idea.

For the past twenty years, our Sisterhood has been doing an incredible Shaloch Manos for Purim that touches every member of our synagogue. That was Janie’s idea.

The heart of our annual Yom HaShoah Holocaust Memorial service is a candle light procession of those who lost relatives in the Shoah as Janie did or have relatives who survived that darkest time in human history as Janie did being a daughter of a survivor of Auschwitz. Janie brought that procession here from New York City.

Janie together with Roberta Gordon founded a women’s Torah study group with such a firm foundation, it continues to function and flourish to the present time.

These past years, Janie was deprived of so much. You were all deprived of what else Janie could have given to our community over the past decade.

I said to Jordana during the week of Shivah that I needed to speak about Mom during the holidays. I don’t think I can talk about anything else before Janie but I don’t want it to be overly maudlin.

Jordana recommended that I might talk about the things I learned from Janie. I think Jordana recommended that for me knowing how much she and her sisters learned from their mommy.

I learned about trust from Janie in many ways. Some years ago, I gave a High Holy Day sermon based on the book and movie Seabisquit, that unexpected champion horse. I mentioned to Janie that I could use a Jewish joke about a horse though Jews and horses don’t necessarily go together. Janie went upstairs and within minutes came back down with a joke she had printed out. I read it and reluctantly said “Janie, this isn’t funny at all.” We went back and forth and finally, Janie said, “it’ll be funny, if you tell it right.” It came the day of the sermon and how much I wanted to be proven wrong. I began the sermon with this joke. Janie was sitting to my right as always. I delivered the punch line and the laughter was tremendous. I looked over at Janie somewhat sheepishly as the laughter continued and grew louder. The laughter was loud but I heard a quiet voice inside simply saying “it’s about trust.”

I learned how to play a hand in cards from Janie. Janie would refer to herself as a survivor’s daughter. This had great meaning for her. If her father Oscar Trencher could survive two years in the camps, she could deal with whatever life would throw at her. She not only talked the talk, she walked the walk. There is a well worn platitude: “we can’t controll the cards we are dealt but we can control how we play them”. This was no platitude for Janie. This phrase was her guiding light. Janie played one of the worst hands possible as well as anyone possibly could.

I learned from Janie about living as fully as possible in spite of it all. There is an expression in Hebrew למרות הכל in spite of it all. I have always been amazed by those who have led rich and loving lives in spite of it all. In spite of surviving the Holocaust, in spite of abuse as a child, in spite of terrible losses in life. Janie lived in spite of all the limitations this disease imposed on her. Janie worked hard going to physical therapy two times a week and doing yoga at home with her yoga instructor each week. למרות הכל in spite of it all, Janie never gave up.

Janie could no longer cook but she loved watching the cooking channel. Janie could hardly move but Dancing with the Stars was one of her favorite shows. Janie took delight in watching others excel in things she could no longer do. She didn’t resent others because of her limitations. She lived with an amazing sense of equanimity in spite of it all.

Many of you have spoken to me about Janie’s courage and how you have been inspired by her. I hope you might continue to think of Janie and continue to find inspiration from how she went on למרות הכל in spite of it all.

I learned about a deeper faith in G-d from Janie. Janie also had a profound belief in the world to come, a spiritual afterlife. I explored this topic repeatedly on my own in rabbinical school and taught classes on it over the years. Janie believed this with all of her heart and soul. I was privileged to share life with Janie these past two decades.

High Holy Day sermons usually develop over the course of some weeks even months. This is not really a sermon. It is more reflections of a love story that developed over the course of twenty three years since we met in the summer of 1996.

I want to conclude with a word of thanks to you who met Janie twenty three years ago. For twenty years before that, I was an unmarried rabbi as unusual as that is. Many of my waking hours were devoted to the synagogue. And then Janie came into my life. It could have been far different, but from her first visit, Janie felt embraced by everyone she met. There was no exception. Though Janie spent much of her professional life with Jewish communities, I don’t think she ever came upon a community like ours. There are very few like ours.

In spite of all of Janie’s limitations and in spite of however difficult moving was, whenever there was something special in the synagogue, Janie wanted to be here. Patti knew how much it meant to Janie, Patti fashioned her own schedule around Janie being able to be here whatever day or time that was. You gave Janie so very much. I am forever grateful.

To be honest, I don’t know how to end this. Maybe because there is no ending. What I learned from Janie, how much I loved Janie has no ending. For me that story continues, even without Janie physically present, that story continues.

Words Matter

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5780

      I would begin this morning with, of all things,  a question of  physiology. The question is what is the strongest muscle in the human  body? Many people would say the tongue. Well, the tongue is actually comprised of not one but eight muscles, four intrinsic and four extrinsic and strong it is. If you think about all the things a tongue can do, its nothing short of amazing. It is necessary for speech, taste and cleaning your teeth with the aid of some saliva. It is also necessary for swallowing and it  manipulates food for mastication. Did you ever think about that?  Did you ever hear someone say, I can’t eat another bite, my tongue has had it?  Or has anyone stopped talking because they have to give their tongue a rest? The tongue is the muscle that never tires. You all know what a tongue depresser is but the tongue itself never gets depressed. It’s always ready to work and happy to do so.

      The tongue is so amazingly strong but alas, it is not truly the  strongest muscle of the body or is it.  From an often quoted phrase in the Hebrew Bible, one might well deduce that it is indeed the strongest. It reads חיים ומות ביד הלשון   Life and Death is in the Power of the tongue. That is about as powerful a muscle as you can get.  As a note, in Hebrew the word לשון which means tongue also means language and of course a language is comprised with words.

      Words matter. Look at my t-shirt exhibit A. Language matters.Words matter.  What we say matters. How we say what we say matters. How we tweet what we tweet. How much does it matter? Life and Death are in the power of the tongue.

      From strong muscles to powerful prayers.

      For me, one of the most powerful  prayers comes at the end of the Amidah, the prayer recited in a whisper only you can hear.

At the end of the Amidah, whether it is the weekday, Shabbat, Festival, evening or morning or Minchah every Amidah ends exactly the same way. It is a transition from quiet contemplation to the world of speech.

      We say:

O Lord, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from fraud.

The prayer goes on to say ולמקללי  נפשי  תדום and to those who speak ill of me, may my soul be silent. Or give me the wisdom to know when to defend myself  and when to maintain my dignity by not responding to everyone and everything.

The prayer ends with the words:

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך ד’ צורי וגואלי May the words I speak reflect Your will as well as the thoughts in my heart, my Rock and my Redeemer.  And only after reciting these words dealing with my thought and speech can I conclude the Amidah by saying: עושה שלום במרומיו

May the One Who makes peace in the high places grant peace to us, all of Israel and all  humanity.  For you see,  if I violate all the rules of human decency in my speech, I can’t pray to G-d to then bring peace into this broken world because I am braking it into irreparable pieces myself.

      But one might say, its only words. As kids, remember what  we would say?  Sticks and stones can brake my bones but names can never hurt me. That was a pithy retort but so terribly wrong. Words can puncture and  injure and  kill. חיים ומות ביד הלשון  Life and death is in the power of the tongue.

      Words are very precious to me. They’re my bread and butter so to speak. I have no other instruments to do my work. I can’t use a stethoscope or a scalpel, a baseball bat or a guitar. I only have words, words to write, words to speak, words to teach, words to comfort and words to hear.  There is a time to speak words and a time to be silent and listen to another’s words. There are words that hurt and there are words that heal. We carry a pretty powerful instrument inside of us. We can crush someone’s self image and we can raise someone’s spirit just with our words.

      I am saddened by what is happening to words these days. On the one hand its nothing new. As King Solomon once said “There is nothing new under the heavens” and yet it feels to me that it is far worse than usual and we are on a downward slide.

      What I hold so dear  has come to be used so noxiously today. Noxiously. We all know the word obnoxious. Noxious 1.“harmful or injurious to health or physical well being” 2. “morally harmful, corrupting, pernicious.”  Yes, one who uses noxious words  is indeed obnoxious “highly objectionable or offensive, odious.”  Of course, it is only objectionable if we object and we make our objection loud and clear.

      Again, words that are tweeted,  words on Facebook,  words in the political  arena, words used to mock and insult are not only  noxious. They are also contagious. We need to be so very careful not to catch this noxious disease.

      I read an article just last week entitled “Politicians and pundits used to refrain from publicly attacking kids. Not anymore.”

High School students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass in  Parkland, Florida  spoke out after seeing their friends and classmates murdered in another mass shooting and barely escaped  with their own lives. A candidate for for public office called Emma Gonzolez, one of the students a “skinhead lesbian”.  The wife of a Supreme Court Justice called a young man David Hoggs “a special kind of stupid.”  Harvard University must be a special kind of stupid school for accepting this young. A talking head this past week called Greta Thunberg, the young lady who is dedicated to saving the planet for herself and her generation “mentally ill.”  She may be a  little rough around the edges like a Shofar blast and we would do well to take heed of her words before it’s too late. I remember reading the book Souls on Fire in High School. The author said “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”  Those who denigrate kids and fellow adults are part of the problem. We need to be part of the solution.

      Yes, Judaism believes in a heaven and even a hell. Not just anyone can get into hell however. You have to do some pretty bad stuff. It’s saved for the worst of the worst  but here’s one way to get in even without a ticket.

      In rabbinic literature we find the words

המלבין את פני חברו בפרהסיה אין לו חלק בעולם הבא

One who shames someone publicly, has no place in the world to come, no place in heaven. Literally, the words mean, one who causes another’s face to whiten in public; embarrasses  him so fully  that the blood has drained from his face, that person has no place in the world to come. Is this said somewhat hyperbolically? It surely expresses  Judaism’s concern with language, how we speak to others  and what we say about others.  Words matter.

      If anything has characterized the months since we gathered last year at this time it has been the repeated tragedy of shootings and mass shootings. They have happened throughout the country. In synagogues. We were shaken and from a distance we mourned with families who had lost loved ones. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States. The shooter used a weapon of war, a Colt AR -15 style semi automatic rifle which, military personnel will tell you  has no place outside of the military. The weapons were the proximate instruments of murder but it was ugly, hateful words that radicalized the shooter  and motivated him to kill these Jews  and it was  words  that the shooter  wrote to inspire other sick minds to follow his lead.  When he entered the synagogue, the shooter was killing and shouting epithets about Jews. He told the police. “I just want to kill Jews. They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” Those are words that kill.


Let me read this side of the t-shirt and then show you the other side.  It was printed after the  tragedy at  the Tree of Life Synagogue with the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Inscription WORDS MATTER NEVER FORGET October 27, 2018. I got this with a donation to the  Light congregation which is one of the three synagogue communities that are housed in the Tree of Life building.

 As  we never forget the pain, the hurt,  the death that words can bring, we are half way there. The other half, equally important is the life, the healing that our words can bring. With our words we can uplift, we can inspire, we can love, we can thank, we can admire, we can forgive, we can help to make the world a better place as we make our small corner of the world a better place. There is life in the power of our words. We can provide the antidote of the noxious language that emanates from Washington and surrounds us by language that brings life and love into the world.

 How often do we say I love you?  Non-verbal communication is as powerful as words. How often do we hug and kiss to express our love? Do we tell those who we admire, those we respect, those we love, what they mean to us? Do they know or are they left guessing? A simple rule of thumb is you can never say I love you too often.

 How do we repair the environment of division, polarization, hatred, tribalism in which we find ourselves today? Some despair that there is no way back. I would rather be hopeful while realizing the magnitude of our challenge. 


How many times did your parents tell you growing up “Just tell the truth.” How many times did you tell your children, “Just tell the truth.” The psalmist speaks of the person who דֹבר אמת בלבבו who speaks the truth in his heart. Is it that hard to be that person? Can each of us be that person? Do we have the right to expect that of others?

 The tongue may not be the most powerful muscle in the body

but in that little pinkish protrusion with the little white dots that can curl and go in and out, there is life and death. It’s a very powerful instrument. We should use it carefully, and wisely and truthfully.

Let us each be that person the psalmist describes in psalm 34.

 Who is the person who desires life, who loves the days to see the good. Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking fraudulently. Turn from good and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

Rabbis and Robots

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Kol Nidre 5780

I had a moment of profound relief this past spring and I want to share that special moment with you tonight. I was reading an article regarding robots and mechanization and the type of jobs they will be able to perform perfectly as time goes on. You remember going into an elevator back in the day when there was a gentleman standing in the corner or sitting on a stool in a pressed uniform and cap? You would tell him what floor you wanted and he would close the metal gate and move some wheel and tell you when you arrived at your floor. The job itself, to be honest, had its ups and downs but except for the fanciest of buildings, you won’t find a professional elevator operator anymore. It’s been mechanized.

There used to be more toll takers on the turnpike which to be honest took its toll on the drivers. Today, we are happy to zip by with e-zpass in the express lanes. It’s been mechanized. On the new Scudder Falls bridge, there are no toll booths and no toll takers. Many workers on the factory floor especially in manufacturing are no longer needed because a robot can do the same job without a lunch break, without days off and without health insurance. How can a human compete? If we are going to be concerned with anyone infringing on our turf and taking our jobs, it is not real human beings with hearts and souls searching for a new life. It is mechanization and robotics, artificial intelligence that’s taking over.

Back to the article about robots and my profound relief. As I got to the end of the article, I read a list of occupations that were immune to the robotic takeover. Just about at the end of the list, there it was… clergy, impervious to the onslaught of these mechanical beings. Thank G-d. A person of the cloth could not be replaced by an amalgam of metal and software. That was my moment of profound relief. I’m safe, yes, I’m safe…..but am I|? It would be too easy to just feel perfectly at ease and not my nature.

I couldn’t help but continue to wonder, why not a robot rabbi or simply Rabbi Robot. It would have the artificial intelligence to give the perfect sermon every time in exactly the amount of time you programmed. Isn’t that what you always hoped for? There would be a special setting on sermons for short and sweet. You couldn’t go wrong. But people don’t want to hear words of the spirit from a mechanical device or do they. Look at a group of four or five people sitting together making no eye contact with each other and exchanging no words. They each much prefer to look into their own little screen and have a relationship with megabytes of memory they can softly cradle in the palm of their hand. Does that person really want a human being standing in front of them or would they feel more comfortable with a talking screen.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to feel that I and my successors can be totally replaceable and reading the following didn’t help at all.

It must be some thirty years ago that young Jews were feeling that they were not finding sufficient spirituality in the synagogue so some of our best young people found their way to the ashrams in the east and in embracing some great wisdom of the Buddhist tradition took on the moniker JewBus.

You’ll therefore understand that I couldn’t help but be especially alarmed when I saw another article about a robotic Buddhist priest called Mindar, an android robotic priest that preaches in a 400 year old Japanese Temple. This is for real, today in Japan. Mindar’s claim to fame is that it channels ancient wisdom through the technology of the future. Priest Mindar is not even the first of its kind. For some years, there has been a humanoid robot available for hire at Japanese funerals where it chants sutras and taps a drum in the tradition of a Buddhist priest. Its creator and developer is quoted as saying “with artificial intelligence, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome the most difficult trouble.” Really, how could I compete?

To be honest, if a robot really wants to be a rabbi, as Mel Brooks, said in the Frisco Kid…..”Lozen Gayin” I wish him or her or it all the best.

In reality, I have the whole question totally backwards. The real question is not about robots becoming human. Its about we humans just being robots. Its about humans living life robotically. Its about humans not being fully human.

If you look up robot in my on line dictionary pronounced robuht or robot number 2 definition is “a person who acts and responds in a mechanical, routine manner: automaton.

The real question to be asked is am I just a robot?

As we begin this holiest day of the year, will I go through this day like a robot, in a mechanical routine manner, like an automaton or can I get to a more meaningful place. Can I feel more deeply while I am here? A robot can’t feel. We can. Can I dream of how I can be different and better during this coming year or am I trapped into being the product of how I’ve been programmed just like a robot? Can I pray with my heart and soul with Kavanah as they say, with intention, with focus, with mindfulness. Can I find real spirituality here without traveling to the east where I might just come face to face with Priest Mindar.

In my every day life on the other 364 days of the year, in this world of creeping technology, how truly human am I? How much do I just go through the motions of living.
How can I become more human and less robotic.

The noted Rabbi Jack Reimer writes a letter to his soon to be born first great grandchild. “Dear whatever your name is going to be” he writes, “welcome to the world – a world that is very different than the one we were born into. There are lots of inventions that you will take for granted that did not even exist when we were born. Know that no matter how much the technology may change, some things will never change. Love, kindness, justice, honesty and holiness – these things will be as important in your generation as they have been in all the previous generations.”

To be truly human is to cherish these qualities; love, kindness, justice, honesty and holiness. I know that I will never perform a ceremony of holy matrimony of two robots. They know nothing of love but we do. We can.

And robots know nothing of any kind of feelings. Feelings make us human. Experience the panorama of human feelings: Happiness, celebration, caring, empathy, sadness, grief, laughter. I just received a little tin filled with candy and written on the tin it says “A day without laughter is a wasted day.” Charlie Chaplan. Don’t waste a day being a robot. Laughter most often takes place within the context of human interaction, not in the middle of a tweet.

Long before the invention of a robot, Aristotle once said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The truly human is self aware. The truly human makes mistakes and knows that he/she makes mistakes, sins but looks inside, acknowledges these errors and wants to be better, vows to do better. Today is all about self awareness and examining our lives.

To be human is to live a life of values. Unlike the robot, we have the freedom to choose how we will live our lives. To use that freedom is to be truly human. To surrender that freedom is to be robotic.
We can choose to be honest or we can be corrupt.
We can choose to be ethical or we can be immoral.
We can choose be faithful or we can be rotten.
We can choose be generous or we can be stingy.
We can choose to pursue justice or we can be indifferent.
We are human. We can choose how we want to be.

The reality is that the ongoing development of robotics is inevitable and inexorable and that is not a bad thing at all. Some jobs will be eliminated and humans can retrain and become something new and different. The coal miner can in fact learn a new skill in a green industry and live a healthier life for himself and for all of us. Easier sad than done but possible for sure. Artificial intelligence can be and in many ways is a blessing. I just read that the Technion in Israel is doing ground breaking work using AI in the treatment of breast cancer. We can be sure there will be better and smarter generations of robots to come.

The challenge is for us to be better and smarter.
And we can, if we choose to be more and more human, less and less robotic. Laughing more and experiencing the panorama of emotions only humans can know. Living the examined life that this day represents. Choosing how we will live, choosing the values by which we will live. And cherishing what Rabbi Reimer hopes most for his yet unborn great grandson.
Know that no matter how much the technology may change, some things will never change. Love, kindness, justice, honesty and holiness – these things will be as important in your generation as they have been in all the previous generations.”

Could IT Happen in America?

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Yom Kippur 5780

For some reason, we Jews have a natural proclivity to talk about ant-Semitism and anti-Semitic events that have happened in our lives. Men who have served in the armed forces tell the story of clashes they had in basic training in the south or about the guy who came over to feel the little horns on their head slyly covered by their hair. Some guys tell the story of how, as kids, they had to fight their way to school and their way home as well. Unfortunately, I still hear stories of kids today who have pennies thrown at their feet or are insulted by anti-Semitic slurs or so called jokes.

I am disturbed by each story I hear but I have to admit, I have experienced almost none of this myself. There was very little anti-Semitism in rabbinical school. I grew up in a fairly Jewish enclave in the North East. The anti-Semitism I knew was the anti-Semitism I read about in books as the age old story of the Jewish people. That in itself disturbed me terribly. In response to the suffering, I wanted to be part of this people who contributed so much and suffered so deeply. I was moved to live a more and more committed Jewish life.

While I read the history, I always felt protected from all of the hatred of Jews throughout the many centuries of our sojourn. I was a Jew in America. I am an American Jew and America is different from any other epoch in Jewish history. America is not a continuation of our long suffering story. America is a new story all its own. My response to the question “could IT ever happen here?” has always been a resounding NO! so let’s change the topic. I have always been much more interested in how we can live rich and fulfilling Jewish lives today than discussing anti-Semitism on American soil.

Anti-Semitism here thankfully has always paled in comparison to the anti-Semitism of our history. In America, Jews have never been persecuted. No pogrom has ever been carried out in this country. American Jews have never been forcibly converted. Synagogues have never been burned. Jews have never had to flee en mass.

I have never been an alarmist when it comes to anti-Semitism in America. But today, I must say, I am alarmed. Could it happen in America? I am no longer so quick to say NO!

I was alarmed two summers ago when we saw the ugly marches in Charlottesville with Neo-Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us.” I was alarmed again by the tepid response we heard.

I was alarmed when I read the Anti Defamation League report of the incredible increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in this country over the past couple of years. No other group in America has experienced the number of incidents directed against them as much as we Jews. That is an incredibly disturbing statement.

I was alarmed when the leadership of the Womens March would not permit Jewish women to be part of their inner circle at the most recent march because some of the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic organizers claimed Jews are too white. To the far right, we’re not white enough, to the far left, we are too white. They brand us the white colonialists who invaded Palestine and took the land from its indigenous population.

Just a moment for terribly brief lesson to respond to these anti-Israel and anti-Semitic haters. The Jews who returned to Israel were anything but white colonialists. They were Jews fleeing pogroms in Czarist Russia and persecution in Europe and then survivors of the ghettos and camps which wiped out 6,000,000 Jewish lives. No one else wanted us so we went home. Then, after the founding of the State of Israel, almost a million Jews were expelled from Arab lands and came home to Israel. They were darker than their Ashkenazi cousins, not white at all. And then Jews living in Ethiopia, cut off from mainstream Jewry for thousands of years were airlifted and brought home to Israel. They never lost their yearning to return home. These Ethiopian Jews, like the Jews from Arab countries, like the Jews fleeing European hatred were no colonialists. They came with nothing. They lived in tents and absorption centers and built a new life.

I am alarmed by elected members of congress who spew anti-Israel and anti-Semitic canards who are, make no mistake about it, committed to Israel’s ultimate destruction.

I am also alarmed when we Jews are used as a wedge issue and told that we are not loyal. The far right hears in those words support for their virulent hatred of Jews.

All of this crystallized almost one full year ago, when a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and mowed down eleven Jewish lives. His weapon was a weapon of war. His ammunition was a raging hatred of Jews. To put an exclamation point on this, there was the shooting and killing in the synagogue in Poway California.

Where does this lead us now? Will there be another and another alarming and tragic event or is America sufficiently alarmed that we, everyone of us here will find a way to come together and move America away from the precipice.

An associate editor and columnist for the New York Times, Bari Weiss grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was in Arizona the morning of the killings in her home town. When she learned of the tragedy, she immediately called home. She knew her father periodically attended that synagogue. Her father was fine but others she knew had been killed. She immediately flew home to Pittsburgh. She began work on a book which just appeared a couple of weeks ago, How To Fight Anti-Semitism. We would all do well to read it. There is much to learn from Bari Weiss but their is one thing in this book that I find most remarkable and that is her courage. We need more courage in our country today. I have heard her described as a conservative and maybe that’s because she takes on the far left. She takes no refuge in the right because she takes on the far right as well. She is a partisan of no group in particular but thinks clearly and critically for herself. I value these kind of thinkers and writers.

After a brief history of anti-Semitism, she takes on the Right in chapter 3, the Left in chapter 4 and radical Islam in chapter 5. The final chapter is called How to Fight.

How do we fight anti-Semitism today? I appreciate Bari Weiss’s approach here. She writes that we are not fighting anti-Semitism effectively by being defensive. The way to fight anti-Semitism is to live committed, maximalist, proud, Jewish lives. The way to fight anti-Semitism here and any place in the world is to do Jewish more and more and live with a pride in being Jewish.

She quotes a Ze’ev Meghen who fought anti-Semitism at Columbia University in his student days. In spite of Columbia’s significant Jewish population, it has been a hotbed for Anti-Israel, anti-Semitic activity for some years. He writes: “Why are we still here? Surely none of you will tell me that for four millennia and through the wrenching vicissitudes and savage depredations of exile, it was our appeals, protests and screams for equitable treatment that sustained us, kept us in life and brought us to this season. No, my friends, our history teaches us a different lesson; that those who rather than appealing and screaming, choose to build, to educate toward cultural and national revival, to defy anti-Semitism, not with Jewish please but with Jewish learning, Jewish observance, Jewish strength, and Jewish achievement – such are those who bring our people survival, salvation, a future.” And then Bari Weiss writes “Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites. They sustained it because they knew who they were and why they were. The were lit up not by fires from without but by the fires in their souls.”

Later in the chapter, she has a section she calls Notice Your enemies. But even more notice your friends.”
The night after the Pittsburgh tragedy some seven hundred people gathered here at Ohev Shalom from all parts of the county. With us were civic and political leaders. Caring for our safety was our Northampton Police. With us were Christians and Christian clergy. With us were Muslims and Muslim leaders in the community. The longest and loudest applause of the evening was for the presence and the stirring words of a Muslim community leader. They came as our friends.

A few months later, Cantor Annelise and I went on a Friday afternoon to the newly built Mosque in Yardley just after the tragic killing of fifty one individuals at the Al-Noor Mosque in ChristChurch New Zealand. We wanted them to know they have friends as well. They are not alone. That is how we respond to hatred.

Yes, America is different. In my grandfather’s town in Ukraine, Proskorif, the authorities never interfered with the pogroms killing hundreds of Jews. Jews had no friends who would stand with them. They were alone. That is our long and lonely story but America is different. America is the greatest democracy the world has every known. Our grandparents and great grandparents were welcomed by Lady Liberty with the inscription of the Jewish poetess Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Our prayer is that America remain different. That America be the land where IT can not possibly happen here is our responsibility to protect to defend and to preserve. Let those on the extremes take their hatred and go back in hiding where they belong while we meet in the center, live together, work together, and pray together. That is our prayer for this New Year. Amen

Categories Rabbi Perlstein | Tags: | Posted on December 1, 2016

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