A Rabbi on Our ‘Moral Emergency’
To be an acculturated Jew in America today is to vacillate between a sense of belonging and otherness.
By Jordie Gerson
In rabbinical school, we are trained to provide pastoral care for struggling couples, grieving families, ethical dilemmas, and sickbeds. We are trained to comfort and console, soothe and listen. What we are not taught to do is soothe the anxieties of Jews who are afraid of their president and what he has unleashed.
I serve a congregation in Greenwich, Connecticut, a bedroom community of New York City. My congregants are CEOs and hedge fund managers, investment bankers and physicians. They are more financially secure than most Jews throughout history, and, until this presidency, more existentially secure.
Many of them are, however, the children of Holocaust survivors who carry with them their parents’ stories of trauma like phantom limbs. They grew up on stories of anti-Semitism and bigotry, of hate-filled rallies and the rise of fascism. They are afraid that what they are experiencing—in Charlottesville (“there are good people on both sides”) and in Trump’s blithe dog whistles and alliances (Stephen Bannon)—is history, on repeat. They know it’s different, here and now, but they also fear that it’s not.
In December 2016, in an Atlantic article titled “Are Jews White?” journalist Emma Green observed:
[N]o matter how much prestige Jews may amass, their status is always ambiguous. “White” is not a skin color, but a category marking power. American Jews do have power, but they are also often viewed with suspicion; and having power is no assurance of protection. According to the FBI’s hate-crime statistics, a majority of religiously motivated hate-crime offenses are committed against Jews each year.
The president’s alignment with Bannon, Breitbart, and other alt-right sympathizers has only exacerbated the Jewish community’s anxiety about these incidents—and the social ambiguity they suggest.
The numbers suggest such discomfort is warranted. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): “There has been a significant year-to-year increase in [anti-Semitic incidents]: In 2017, [they] surged nearly 60 percent. It was the largest single-year increase on record . . . and it controverts a positive trend which tracked a decline in anti-Jewish attitudes since 1964.”
We are right to worry, and right to be afraid—and American Jews are not the only ones on notice. According to the ADL: “In a first, a majority of Americans are concerned about violence directed against American Jews . . . more than eight in 10 Americans believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.”
My congregation is politically diverse. It is more politically diverse than American Jews overall, who have tended to align themselves, for most of recent US history, with the Democratic Party. At the same time, my congregants, politically diverse as they are (some served in the Nixon and Bush administrations) are all Zionists: progressives and right-wingers, each of them in their own way, Zionists. Some support AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), some support J Street, and some support both, but they all love Israel. They may have critiques of Israel’s policies, but they also, to a person, believe in the Jewish right to self-determination in our own homeland. They want a president who’s good for Israel, who will protect her, champion her, and make sure that she is not held to a different standard. They want Israel to be neither fetishized nor vilified, but seen as a living, vibrant, complex country with real-world problems and struggles.
This unflagging devotion to a secure Israel alongside political diversity within the Jewish community has resulted in a larger identity crisis. To be a Jew in America today—particularly a non-Orthodox, acculturated Jew—is to vacillate between a sense of belonging and otherness. Torn between the poles of the left—champions of the marginalized, who often see Jews as in cahoots with wealthy and powerful antagonists of the oppressed—and the right—who see Jews as the Other, non-white, allies of the oppressed—we find ourselves in a double bind. We are increasingly uncomfortable in both far-left and far-right camps, and, perhaps more importantly, explicitly unwelcome in both.
Case in point: The majority of American Jews want Jerusalem recognized as the capital of the State of Israel, whether immediately or in the future. But when the embassy move to Jerusalem was announced, the reception among American Jews was mixed. The timing of the announcement seemed designed to provoke, and the presence of so many Christian Zionists at the press conference was discomfiting. That it was the Trump administration behind the move only exacerbated this discomfort.
Some American Jews believe it is politically expedient for the Israeli government to align itself with right-wing Christian Zionists. But for those of us familiar with the theology undergirding Christian Zionism—which calls for the ingathering of exiles, the apocalypse, and then the wholesale massacre of all Jews who don’t convert—the cost of such an alliance is far too high. To align ourselves with those who would like to hasten the end times is like holding a lit match over a puddle of gasoline, wondering what might happen.
And on the left, there are those progressives who are virulently anti-Israel, who allow no nuance and Israelis no humanity. Israel, they claim, is a Western colonial power in an Arab world. To be against racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia is to be against Israel. This kneejerk brand of identity politics on the left is a lazy cover for latent anti-Semitism and discomfort with Jewish power. There is no acknowledgment of Jewish history, the centuries of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence that made a Jewish homeland utterly necessary, or the fact that Israel is surrounded, on all sides, by hostile enemies.
My community feels trapped between these narratives. We are appalled by our president—not merely by his alignment with anti-Semitic, racist, and misogynist movements and politicians, but by his amorality. We abhor his family separation policy, in which we see our own history.
This past Rosh Hashanah, Stephen Miller’s childhood rabbi, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, took to his pulpit in Santa Monica, California, to give a sermon denouncing Miller. Comess-Daniels insisted that, as the architect of the family separation policy, Miller had “set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole . . . It’s obvious to me” he said, “that you didn’t get . . . our Jewish message. [Separating families] is completely antithetical to everything I know about Judaism, Jewish law, and Jewish values. In a free society,” he continued, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
While not all rabbis are as bold as Comess-Daniels, the vast majority of American Reform Rabbis understand ourselves as having an ethical, prophetic imperative to speak truth to power. To publicly and loudly object to policies that would violate the most oft-repeated (36 times) of the Torah’s commandments: “You shall not oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And of course, in Megillat Esther (the book of Esther, from which the holiday of Purim is celebrated) in what is the most poignant moment of the book, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, implores her to speak out against Haman’s persecution of the Jews with these words: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)
My congregants, regardless of political affiliation, understand this moment as just such a time. And though it’s not Jews being targeted by the family separation policy, it may as well be. Where anti-immigration sentiment and bigotry rule the day, anti-Semitism is never far off. And so on June 22, I—and the Greenwich Reform Synagogue Board of Trustees—sent this letter to the congregation:1
On Tuesday night, the Board of Trustees unanimously signed on to the Jewish community wide declaration of a state of moral emergency. We did this in response to the thousands of children who have been separated from their parents, and the growing threat of authoritarianism from this Administration. We believe the Jewish community must respond with one clear voice. More than 15,000 Jews from across the country, and more than 140 organizations and synagogues, have signed on to the declaration.
Notwithstanding the President’s executive order yesterday, the “State of Moral Emergency” is still in effect. The “solution” to separating families is to jail families together indefinitely and there is no plan for reunification of the thousands of families who were already torn apart. The crisis continues.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, we read that the Israelites, traveling through the desert, reach the border of Edom. Moses petitions the king of Edom to let them cross, but the king turns them away. A few verses later, Moses’ brother Aaron dies. We have a long history of being turned away at borders and the grief of losing family on the journey. Today, we take a public stand against family separation and brutality. Not here. Not now. Not in our name.
Hovering at the edge of all of this is an almost visceral fear. Yes, the president has Jewish grandchildren and an Orthodox son-in-law, but he has also ignored and empowered known anti-Semites and bigots over and over again. This unwillingness to denounce anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric has real-world implications: Anti-Semitic incidents, language, and online trolling are at record highs. The twittersphere that the president loves is ripe for and rife with white supremacists who not only target journalists with Jewish names, but create online mobs that can make their way into real-world threats and violence. According to Jonathan Weisman:
The Anti-Defamation League tasked a group of venerable journalists, led by Steve Coll, the former managing editor of the Washington Post, to catalogue the attacks. Their findings: 2.6 million anti-Semitic messages posted on Twitter from August 2015 to July 2016, of which 19,253 were directed at journalists. . . .
Beyond the Internet and beyond journalism, the pace of the assaults on multiethnic, multicultural democracy was only picking up steam. It would be foolish to think that hate this virulent would confine itself to commentary. It was certainly not confined to Jews. Muslims have been physically assaulted by Trump supporters. An Indian engineer in Kansas was gunned down by a man shouting, “Get out of my country!” His widow was later targeted for deportation.2
Anti-Semitism is a symptom, but it is not the full measure of our national sickness.
Jewish conventional wisdom has for decades insisted that America is different. No other country has treated Jews as equitably, has kept them as safe from bias and bigotry as the United States. We have seen the daughter of a non-Jewish president married to a Jewish man in a Jewish ceremony officiated by a rabbi (Chelsea Clinton), and a vice-presidential candidate who is an Orthodox Jew (Joe Lieberman). But now, it’s become easy to wonder if we have been willfully blind and naïve to native-anti-Semitism, if Trump has pulled back the curtains to reveal hate that has always been there, but deemed improper for polite company.
And so what now? How to move forward?
Most days, I vacillate between comforting congregants who quietly come to see me, frightened and concerned. And then, when they leave, I wrestle with my own despair and fear, a sort of generational shellshock at this political reality.
And on the bima, I speak frankly—about policies and morality and ethics. I avoid naming politicians or pointing fingers, but I do, and often, call on the sources—Jewish and American—to remind my congregants about our vision of a world redeemed, in part, by our own hands.
About six weeks after I started in Greenwich, Charlottesville happened. That Friday night at services, the seats were full of scared, angry, and disoriented congregants, disbelieving the news from Virginia. That Monday, I’d sent a letter to the congregation in which I quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, noting that in 1963, King had said “It is midnight within the moral order” when talking about the state of the country and civil rights, a sentiment that Heschel had echoed.
I pointed out that, for both of them, “The problem was one of vision. It was a failure to see the holiness, the divinity in others, to see urgent moral challenges. We [after Charlottesville] are tempted to think: But it can’t happen here. We think, never again. We think that we, as American Jews, are immune from the kind of bigotry and racism that dogged our people for millennia. And we forget: that passivity in the face of evil and violence is collusion, even when we are not its victims. We forget that we have a choice, every single day, between being bystanders and resisting racism, anti-Semitism, and sinat hinam—senseless hatred, and that, especially now, we also find our nation at the hour of midnight.”
Addendum, November 8, 2018: Two weeks ago, there was a massacre at Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Last Friday night, our synagogue was full to capacity with local politicians like Congressman Jim Himes, who spoke during services, non-Jewish neighbors and friends, and local ministers who came to mourn with us, to stand in solidarity and celebrate Shabbat. We were blessed and healed by their presence.
And then, this morning, Jews in Fairfield County, Connecticut, woke to learn that overnight, Stamford’s main library was defaced with swastikas.
Tomorrow is the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, known as “The Night of Broken Glass” one of the events that presaged the Holocaust. It is a night on which Jewish businesses, synagogues, and libraries were destroyed and defaced. It feels, today, eerily close.
And so, just a few hours ago, I sent this message to the Greenwich Reform Synagogue community:
This morning we woke to news that last night someone chalked swastikas on the Stamford library. The poignancy and pain of this—two days before the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht—is all but overwhelming, and the grief of an incident happening in our own backyard is very real.
Tomorrow night is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. And while we know we live in a very different country than 1930s Germany we are also aware that anti-Semitism cannot be given safe harbor, ignored, or dismissed, and that our public leaders—and our President—MUST be unequivocal in their denunciation of these acts. And so, tomorrow night, we come together in defiance to celebrate our vibrant, and thriving Jewish life in Greenwich and its builders. Their devotion to Jewish values and life is evidence of how we have thrived and survived as a community for so long, despite threats, violence, and bigotry. Because our devotion to each other, and our community, is persistent and true, and when faced by hate, we will counter, always, with love.
We are stronger together.
Jordie Gerson, MTS ’04, is the spiritual leader of Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.