Charlottesville and Us
Sunday, August 20, 2017 at 03:06PM
Rabbi Daniel Greyber

August 19, 2017 / 27 Av, 5777

To watch a video of this sermon, click here

  Yesterday morning, at the advice of law enforcement, we evacuated our building. There is one Torah in our ark and one downstairs in the Orthodox Kehillah. The rest of our Torahs are safe at our home. Moving those Torahs, watching the staff of our synagogue leave, working from home made me sad; it made me angry. I wrote these words on Thursday, before yesterday’s events. I want to give them over because they are still true, for the most part, and because these times feel too fragile for me to improvise as I try to help us navigate these waters together.


  On Wednesday morning before minyan, I read an article by Alan Zimmerman, President of a Reform synagogue called Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA. It’s just a few hours from here and I imagine it’s not so different from ours. It’s in the South. There is a wonderful university there, where my wife, Jennifer, went to school. The synagogue is located near downtown, like ours. Forty congregants gathered for Shabbat morning services. Zimmerman stood outside. Here is what he witnessed (click here for his full account):

For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple...Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There's the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols...When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.

 

As I said my private Amidah on Wednesday morning after reading that description, I asked myself what I would do if, God forbid, such a situation unfolded here in Durham. Of course, I don’t know what I would do. Few of us know how we will actually react in such heightened moments, but I asked myself what I hoped I would do, how I hoped we would react as a community. I asked God for guidance.

  What I imagined in my mind during my prayers is that inside, services would begin and go forward. I imagined KKK sympathizers on Watts Street and on the sidewalk but somehow coming no further - whether that would be the case, I don’t know. I don’t know what would keep them on the sidewalk as opposed to coming in the building, but that’s what I imagined. And I imagined myself in my tallit walking people from their cars, not looking at the protesters, greeting each member of our community and walking between them and the protesters until they were safely inside where they could attend services and find safety in God’s sheltering presence. I would do this for a while and then, like at Neilah when we hold a tallit before the ark and, after a while after people’s arms get tired others come up and take their place, I imagined that other people would come and escort people into the building.

I imagined we would call the police and the FBI with whom we have a relationship - we did that yesterday (it was on their advice that we evacuated the building) - in the hopes that they would come and keep order - this, by the way, did not take place in Charlottesville, even though the congregation asked for a police presence. Here is what Zimmerman wrote:

Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns – and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish – we were left to our own devices. The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.

[Later that afternoon]...we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. What could I do if I were there? Fortunately, it was just talk – but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.

I have had people reach out to me from United Synagogue and colleagues express concern. In this time when people are confused and afraid, your rabbi too is confused and afraid, and I too look to wisdom from my teachers. One of the greatest rabbis of this generation Rabbi Ed Feinstein. He was my teacher at the Ziegler School and my mentor at Camp Ramah in California where he was once the Director. I’m going to quote at length something he wrote this week:

The events in Charlottesville this week are many things - ugly, despicable, horrifying. But not surprising. Not to those who know Jewish history. We've seen this story many times before: A rapidly changing world leaves people feeling lost and powerless. An eruption of fierce nationalism vowing allegiance to "blood and soil," to "purity" of race, faith and culture. A world reduced to crude binaries - us and them; our people and those people. The mindless mob whipped into a violent frenzy. Innocent lives destroyed. In our parlance, we call this a pogrom. These events are horrifying, but not surprising. Not to us.

We Americans have apparently forgotten that democracy is fragile. That is the surprise. At the heart of American democracy is our aspiration to build an inclusive, accepting national community, welcoming differences and embracing hyphenated identities. On my street live Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Persian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Armenian-Americans, Latino-Americans.  A dozen languages are spoken in our homes. Neighborhoods sparkle with Christmas, Sukkot and Halloween decorations. We enjoy sushi, samosas, burritos and blintzes. The pluralism brings color to our community. America's great project is to bring the pluralism together into one -- e pluribus unum. This is our continuing project. It is daunting. And all the more so when we take it for granted.

The tribalism of Charlottesville is natural. It is democracy that is not natural, not part of our nature. Democracy is learned. Democracy is an expression of our sacred aspiration to rise above our nature, to rise above our reflex to fear the unfamiliar, to blame the outsider, to destroy the Other. Democracy must be taught, re-taught, rehearsed, and renewed daily. Democracy is an ongoing project aimed at reshaping our basic human impulses. It is never finished. It is always demanding more of us. And this week, after the events we have witnessed, it demands more still.

We pray for the victims. We hold in our hearts the families of Heather Heyer, and Virginia State Troopers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates.

We pray that our children will not come to perceive any of this week's events as normal.

We pray for the strength and resolve to push back the hate and reclaim the American project of democracy. We pray that we might one day really be "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

In our Torah portion, we read about the Ir Hanidachat, a frightening example in the Jewish tradition, a city that is all idolaters. The Torah commands that it be destroyed. Although we do not follow that example from the bible, there are four Hebrew words I want to highlight, words the Torah demands of us when we find something despicable in our midst before it is to be destroyed:  “V’darashta, v’hakarta, v’sha’alta heteiv” - we must “inquire, investigate, ask well.” The rabbis use these words as the basis of the importance, the imperative of the judicial process. The importance of a judicial process ​--and violence only when judicially-sanctioned--​is true not only for idolatrous cities​, but also when it comes to statues and to counterprotests against vicious hatred, ​and of course, ​when that​ vicious hatred ​is itself​ brought​ in​to our midst. The American project of democracy is endangered anytime people in our society resort to violence and intimidation to make others feel afraid.

  So even though the police did not protect the synagogue in Charlottesville, that it was by the grace of God that their building still stands, the idea that we would take matters into our own hands, “Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war” was, to me, too frightening, too terrible a prospect to consider. So, in my mind as I prayed on Wednesday morning, I convinced myself that things would be okay, that they would be different here somehow. That the police would not let us down, that they would prevent marchers from destroying our home. Either because lawlessness is too terrifying for me to imagine or because I (perhaps naively) must still believe and hope and trust in America, I prayed that the rule of law would win out in the end and keep us safe.

I imagined that I would come back into the sanctuary and we would read the Torah and pray for our country and for peace with such love and light that it would drown out the hatred and darkness that rages outside.

I am going to speak in an unusual way from the bimah this morning. Those of you who come to Beth El on a regular basis know that it is the exception rather than the rule for me to speak and teach about what is in the news. Your rabbi is not a prophet. I read the same newspapers and articles the same as you and my rabbinic ordination did not vest me with special powers to tell you who to vote for and which politicians can best solve our country’s ills. I am the rabbi for everyone in this community and I do my best to love you all and be the best teacher I can. But there are political moments that demand a religious response, a moral response, a Jewish response. I am not alone in my conviction. Let me echo statements that have been made this week by the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization for Conservative rabbis around the world, and the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of American Orthodox rabbis.

President Trump’s suggestion of moral equivalency this week between the White Supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and those who stood up to their repugnant messages and actions is abhorrent and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms. As Rabbi Elazar Muskin, president of the RCA and a friend of mine from my years in Los Angeles wrote in the RCA’s public statement, "Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism.” Speaking for the RCA, Muskin continued, “While as a rabbinic organization we prefer to address issues and not personalities, this situation rises above partisan politics and therefore we are taking the unusual approach to directly comment on the words of the President."

Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President, said, "The RCA joins with politicians of all parties, citizens of all political persuasions, and people of all faiths calling on President Trump to understand the critical consequences of his words. We call on all the leaders of our country to denounce all groups who incite hate, bigotry and racism, while taking action and using language that will heal the terrible national wounds of Charlottesville."

In the words of the Rabbinical Assembly statement, “The repeated failure to [unequivocally condemn these hate groups]...has fueled their growth and poses an imminent threat to all Americans as Saturday's violent rallies showed. History has demonstrated that where a country's leaders fail to condemn these philosophies, violence and hatred can quickly and exponentially consume the fabric of civil society. Our leaders must act now. Let us continue to pray for and to work for the day when all shall "sit under his/her vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid."

There are no marchers. No KKK this morning. There were none yesterday to my knowledge. I pray my fears are never fully realized. I pray my prayers on Wednesday morning prove to be an unnecessary dress rehearsal in my mind and my soul. I pray that this week marks a turning point and that the coming weeks and moments will be ones in which our nation heals and comes together.  But if they do not, we must stand up against this President’s moral confusion with a demonstration of opposition to hatred and racism. As Durham city council member, Steve Schewel wrote this week, “We must not succumb to violence ourselves nor to the rhetoric of violence I hear all too often. We must [be]...peaceful, brave and resolute. That’s the Durham Way.” That, too, is the Jewish way.

Our tradition teaches that we do not end on a pessimistic note; we move from darkness to light and hope. So let me conclude by sharing with you stories upon which we can build. In Charlottesville, Zimmerman reports that “At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.” And, “John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, took it upon himself to stand watch over the synagogue through services Friday evening and Saturday, along with our armed guard. He just felt he should.”

This week, our own synagogue got an email, subject line: Standing with you.

Hi there, After Charlottesville I just wanted to reach out and say that I'm deeply sad that this is the state of things in our country, and that I'm just a random nonreligious white guy, but I'm glad to live in a diverse and peaceful community. If your synagogue is facing threats, please know that the vast majority of regular people like me are happy that there is a strong Jewish community here who adds to our collective strength. If you're in need of community volunteers for anything please let me know and I'll do what I can to help. All the best, Eric.”

Eric may describe himself as a “random nonreligious white guy” but to me, his email was holy. It was God-ly. To me, this week, Eric was an angel. I want to remind us: Eric was angel. We should be angels too. We must be angels for others as well. As others have reached out to us, we must reach out to other minorities who are targets and say to them what they have said to us: you are not alone. Eric is the America I believe in. It is the America that I trust and for whom we pray. Please rise to recite the prayer for Our Country.

Article originally appeared on Rabbi Daniel Greyber (http://www.rabbigreyber.com/).
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