Refusing to Cower

January 1, 2020 in Rabbi Greg Harris

“Why do people want to hurt Jews?”  That was the question a group of 5th grade Religious School students asked me recently.

What a distressing question to hear children ask.  How discouraging that our efforts to protect their childhood have been pierced by acts of violence covered intensely by social media and news outlets.  Fear, anxiety, confusion, instability and insecurity are emotions being absorbed by adults’ and children’s psyche.

It might feel easier to retreat from the dangers in the world.  Even houses of worship are not pure sanctuaries.  Just this past week we heard about the horrific Chanukah stabbing attack in Monsey, NY and the church shooting in the town of White Settlement, TX.   The emotions of the psalmist who wrote 2,500 years ago resonate with me: God, confront those adversaries who confront me, give battle to my foes, take up shield and armor and come to my defense, ready the spear and javelin against my pursuers… (Ps 35:1-3)

There are dangers, perceived and real, which shape our communities and sense of self.  At Beth El, we have armed and unarmed security guards, we have locked doors, we drill responses for evacuating or ‘lock down’ in our schools and services.  This extracts an emotional and spiritual toll on all of us.

Children asking me why people want to hurt us is one heartbreaking example.

My response to the children was three fold:

The first is we will continue working closely with security professionals to assure the safety of all who come to Beth El.  The congregation continues to direct significant resources towards security.  They should not worry about being here.  Their synagogue is a place to help set your burdens down, not to cause new ones.

The second is antisemitism is real.  For no logical reason and with many historical precedents, people pour their blame, inadequacies and hatreds onto the Jewish People. Referring to antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt wrote in her book Antisemitism: Here and Now, “It is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional and absurd.  That is the nature of all conspiracy theories, of which antisemitism is just one.

Thus, my third response is that I refuse to cower in fear.  I am proud and fortunate to be Jewish. I feel lucky to be part of a People, a history and a faith that continues to offer moral guidance for my life and to the world more broadly.  I will be prudent… but I will not hide.

One of the morning blessings in the siddur says:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אוֹזֵר יִשְׁרָאֵל בִּגְבוּרָה

Praised are You, Ruler of the Universe, who strengthen the people Israel with courage.

We must have the courage to push against hatred from wherever it emanates.  We must speak against hate from the political Left and the political Right, push against seemingly innocuous comments at work or school, and stand in unity with other minority communities who also need to find courage.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Strength to Love: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 

I mourn the victims of the recent antisemitic attacks as well as assaults on other houses of worship.  I will not cower. I will be part of adding light to the world and shining it into darkness.  The lights of Chanukah and the lights of these souls should dedicate us all to share our pride in being Jewish more widely and more affirmatively.

Let me know (via the blog comments or in a separate email) what makes you proud to be Jewish.  Let’s remind ourselves and each other about the feelings of blessing for being part of the Jewish People – Am Yisrael Chai.