Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Try and take in the scene. On a dark, stormy night with the rain coming down hard, we watched a line of umbrellas illuminated by phone lights and flashlights, making their way across from the Middle School parking lot next door to the grounds of our Congregation. The line just kept coming – as far as the eye could see. That line was filled with souls of all backgrounds from our town and beyond. This line of people filled the lobby that runs the entire length of our building from our parking lot doors to our sanctuary, on both sides. Several people deep in the wider part of our entrance hall.
Our congregants, and those of our neighboring congregation with whom with often partner, made their way down the lobby, overcome with emotion by the faces that greeted them. As they passed through, note cards and letters that had been written by members of the town were handed individually to them. Some from students in the middle school or on the hockey team. Some from the Senior Center. Some from faith communities. All deeply heartfelt. The whole experience brought tears to the eyes of our Jewish community. And not only our members. Among those who attended, I saw a good many from the area who are Jewish but who had what might have been the most powerful experience of their life of what being part of a Jewish community can feel like when we all come together.
With an overfilled sanctuary, and another 150 people watching on Livestream in our social hall, we began our Shabbat service with a reminder of the horror that had brought us to this moment. 11 candles lit for 11 Jews murdered by an anti-Semitic extremist at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. And then we welcomed in Shabbat and welcomed our guests.
Scenes like these were experienced in so many congregations all across the country as communities sought ways to reach out to the Jewish community and make it clear that expressions of hate do not represent who they are. It was tremendously uplifting and inspiring. In Jewish communities that are feeling anxious and unsettled, the outpouring like the kind we experienced in our community helped restore our equilibrium, knowing that there are so many good people who will stand up and speak out; who won’t remain on the sidelines and be silent bystanders.
And yet, in the midst of this outpouring of love and kindness that is so incredible to experience, we also laid out some hard truths about the increases in anti-Semitic attacks reported over the past year, including over 400 incidents reported in our schools, impacting our children. In the same two week period that our community organized and came out in force for this incredible show of solidarity, we heard of swastika graffiti inside a synagogue in Brooklyn, on the walls of a library in CT, at a school in upstate NY, and inside the school bathrooms in Reading, MA. All in exactly the same 2 weeks. So, as much as we can be comforted to know that so many will stand with us and speak up against hate, we cannot become complacent to what has festered in our wider community.
As I reflect on where we are at this moment, I am reminded of the Hasidic teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha. It was said that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other, he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself. The truth of this teaching does not lie somewhere in the middle of these two statements. We don’t conclude that ‘we are somewhat worthwhile.’ Rather, there are moments and experiences where we feel like everything we do matters and moments when we feel like nothing we do matters.
In a twist on that teaching, I feel myself between two realities that are equally true. What happened in my New England town of Westborough deeply matters. What our community did in responding to anti-Semitism by showing up with such a force of lovingkindness as to leave us overwhelmed and speechless deeply, deeply matters. Additionally, we are part of strong interfaith connections that our community has been instrumental in creating through a region-wide organization called Central MA Connections in Faith. The most important part of our events are the small group conversations that we have, where we begin to truly know and understand each other better. When I walked across the bima at the end of our service to offer challah to all those that I’d invited up who represented the civic and religious leadership (both clergy and lay), I realized that I knew each and every one of them. We are no longer strangers to each other – the Sikh community, the Hindu community, the Muslim community, the Christian community… this was not the first time we were breaking bread together. So the work that our town is doing through an organization called ‘Westborough Connects’ and the work that we have done in interfaith relations matters deeply. We have a strong community that will respond and be there for each other.
At the same time, there is a web of hatred that has been spun that connects individuals who find each other online. They are empowered when they hear the same hateful tropes that energize them repeated on our public airwaves by leaders who either don’t understand or don’t care that they are playing with fire. It only takes one of these hate-fueled extremists with access to firearms to leave us grieving again when that hate is directed at Jews, at Muslims, at women, at African-Americans, at people who are LGBTQ, or another target of baseless hatred. Knowing this truth leaves us feeling vulnerable. But it also spurs us to action, understanding that we can’t turn a deaf ear when we hear hate speech. We have to call it out. We have to lend our support to organizations like the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) who have the ability both to bring educational resources and programs to schools, colleges, and communities, and also the legal clout to find ways of shutting down or reducing the impact of extremist groups and websites that spread hate speech.
After our Solidarity Shabbat I am both hopeful and inspired by the members of our local community and, simultaneously, heart-broken by the hate that has festered in our society and the destructive impact it has on us all. On the days that I feel lost staring at the piece of paper in my pocket that reports on these acts of hate, I will turn to the other pocket where I will find the letters of kindness written by neighbors in my community and remember the incredible scene in our temple last Friday. It gives us strength, hope, and faith in humanity.