Rosh Hashanah's services gave us the opportunity to reflect on our lives as Jews and as caring human beings who look for ways to be better people. Our clergy's sermons were reminders of our better selves: that we are full of talent and potential; our world and nation has opportunities for us to express ourselves; that difficult emotions can be springboards for action.
Rabbi Stacy's sermon can be heard here; the full transcript is below.
Rabbi Stacy Friedman
Rosh Hashanah- 5778 Congregation Rodef Sholom
While ordering his eggs and coffee at a local restaurant a few weeks ago, a man told his waiter a joke. “Why did Hitler commit suicide?” he asked. A man from our community eating his breakfast at the next table overheard the “joke.” And he heard the offensive punch line as well. He was horrified not only by the distasteful joke, but by the waiter’s response as well, laughed upon hearing and told the patron he’d have a new joke for him the next time he came in. What our friend heard that morning made light of unspeakable evil; it was repugnant and horrendous and clearly, anti-Semitic.
This is my 25th Rosh Hashanah celebrating and praying together with you, and it is one of the greatest privileges of my life. Each year, we gather in this holy place and reflect on the year that has been, and on the one that is yet to be. And I must tell you as I stand before you that never have I felt more compelled to speak about anti-Semitism than I do today. I feel compelled because just last month neo Nazis and white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville with torches and swastikas and confederate flags shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” I feel compelled because in the last few days, an anti-Semitic and racist twitter storm erupted after a St. Louis synagogue sheltered protesters fleeing rubber bullets and tear gas. We have witnessed anti-Semitism on both extremes, both on the right and the left. This past summer, women holding a rainbow flag with a Jewish star on it were expelled from a lesbian march in Chicago because they were Zionists. Directed not only at Jewish institutions and individuals, anti- Semitism has been targeted against the Jewish state as well. We’ve seen this over and over again. And it didn’t start with Charlottesville or St. Louis or Chicago. Over the past year, anti-Semitic incidents have risen dramatically in our nation, by almost 90 percent in the first part of 2017 alone.
And our children are experiencing it as well. Week after week I have heard from parents whose children are subjected to anti-Semitic taunts and bullying at school. One day, after hearing about another incident at a local school, I returned home from synagogue, sat down with my own sons and asked them for the first time ever, “Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?” And their answer broke my heart. “Of course we have,” they replied. “Regularly. Not the mean-spirited kind tough,” they explained, “just comments about Jews or jokes from other kids.” Like the kind my friend heard in the restaurant that day over breakfast, I thought to myself.
1 ADL Report on Anti-Semitic Incidents, April 24, 2017.
I am speaking about anti-Semitism today because our children and our grandchildren should be able to feel proud of being Jewish without fear or self- consciousness. I am speaking out because Holocaust joke are not funny. And I am speaking out today in honor of you, our survivors, those who are here today, and also in memory of those whose seats are now empty. Your stories and your memories will always be part of our collective story. You inspire us all every day to fight against bigotry and intolerance in all its forms because we know that hatred against one group is hatred against us all. We have seen the destructive force of bigotry before and we cannot be silent in its presence. We need to name it, to call it out, to stand up against it and denounce it wherever and whenever we see it. And we need to call upon our leaders to do the same.
The Talmud states, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest it– you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” We are responsible not only for ourselves and our families, but for the wellbeing of our world as well. Our tradition teaches that when people act immorally or unjustly, we are obligated to speak up or we are held accountable as well. When we hear people promoting intolerance or hatred, we must denounce it. In fact, a medieval commentator teaches that we must voice these hard truths even to those with great power. He writes, “The whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions.”2 Today, I speak out as a Jew and as a rabbi against the moral abdication of our leader who has failed to unequivocally call out hatred and prejudice. For anybody to dehumanize or degrade another human being is immoral and it is wrong. Today, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of all humanity. We affirm that all people are created equal, holy in God’s sight. Regardless of our religion, our gender, or our sexual orientation, regardless of our abilities, our beliefs, or the color of our skin, every human being equally deserves love and respect and dignity. In fact the great sage Ben Azzai taught that the most important teaching in all of Torah is that God created us one human family from a single person, Adam, so that nobody could ever say that my lineage is greater than yours.3 Not the king, not the president, not the rich or the poor, the native or the stranger in our midst. We are all equal in the eyes of God.
Our nation was founded on these principles as well. In the year 1790 George Washington wrote in his famous letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “For, happily, the Government of the United States...gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”4 The values that George Washington espoused in 1790 have enabled us and other minority groups to thrive in this country for generations. Though imperfect, our democracy is strong. It enables us to speak out without recrimination, to fight for our values, and to stand up and proudly proclaim, I am Jewish. This is not Nazi Germany, thank God. This is not 1939 when so many Jews and other minorities lived in mortal fear. As one survivor recounts, “My mother taught me not to draw attention to myself, to become invisible, so that I would survive.” And thank God he did, so that he and his children and theirs could live freely under their vine and fig tree and not be afraid. We no longer have to hide. In fact, never before have we had such access to power and privilege and partnership.
2 Talmudic and Medieval texts adapted from OneVoice 5778 sermon. Thank you to Rabbis Elka Abrahamson and Judy Shanks.
3 Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim.
4 To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, from George Washington, August 18, 1790.
And these partnerships have been such a bright light over the past year. I must tell you, amidst the heartbreak and odious challenges, a tremendous hope has emerged as well and I am deeply heartened. We saw this hope every time people came together to march against hatred across our country. We heard this hope in the shofar blasts from the steps of City Hall in San Francisco and in the words of our civic and religious leaders who stood together against hate. We felt this hope in the words Ben Stein, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor who led marchers to an anti-racism rally in Berkeley. Surviving two ghettos and nine concentration camps, Mr. Stein fought back tears as he told the group, “I’m not here alone with the living, but I see all the people of my past...we must unite against racism.”5 And, he added, “I feel hopeful, seeing the crowd’s outpouring of support.” Over the past year, every time we experienced a bomb threat or another Jewish cemetery was vandalized, interfaith leaders from across this county reached out to the Jewish community in solidarity and support. I received calls and emails and offers of unconditional support and love. And in turn, when our Muslim and immigrant neighbors have felt threatened, we have stood with them, by their side in solidarity, friendship and unity.
When anti-Semitic and racist incidents increased in our schools over the past year, our county’s educators and leaders mobilized immediately to condemn them. But more than that, they have used this as an opportunity to educate our children and train our teachers. Parents and students have protested against this bigotry as well, including many from our own community. One righteous Rodef Sholom woman has made it her mission to root out anti-Semitism in our local schools, meeting with principals and educators across the county. And we have partnered with both the JCRC and ADL creating opportunities for our teens and parents to discuss the bigotry they and others encounter at school. I invite you to join us at our Muslim-Jewish partnership gatherings, or make a contribution to an organization that fights racism and hatred, and we will continue to mobilize over the upcoming year to curb this disturbing trend. Working toward this goal, a group of interfaith, educational and civic leaders from across Marin County, sat in my study at Rodef Sholom, dreaming of ways we could combat hate and bigotry. We came together in response to hate and divisiveness, some of us meeting for the very first time. Hate may have brought us together, but we ended up deepening our connections and love for each other in the process. And, I am proud to announce, that just recently our group received a grant to convene a broader gathering and conceive of ways to combat hatred in our county together. Today, I stand before you hopeful and emboldened by the many righteous acts of love and kindness and support we have seen. And I am in awe of the power of love and compassion to drown out and repudiate hatred of every kind.
5 KQED News, August 27, 2017.
We saw a powerful example of this in July not far from here. Following the conflict and violence at the Temple Mount this summer, Ammar Shahin, the 31- year-old imam of the Islamic Center of Davis, delivered an inflammatory sermon. The hour-long sermon called upon God to destroy Muslims’ opponents at the site, and, depending on how you translate it, spoke of “annihilating the Jews down to the very last one.” Understandably, many were alarmed. Interfaith leaders, worried about potential violence and protests, met with Shahin face-to- face to share their concerns. They spent days together discussing how to address this controversy. In response, they jointly held a news conference where Shahin stood side-by-side with Christian, Jewish, Muslim and civic leaders and offered the following apology. “To the Jewish community...I say this: I am deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused. The last thing I want to do is intentionally hurt anyone, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise. It is not in my heart, nor does my religion allow it.” And he added, “Today I commit to working harder and will join efforts for mutual understanding and building bridges. As a young religious leader, this has humbled me.”6 This is type of leadership and strength that will bring our divided nation together. This is the type of self-reflection, honesty, and humility that will heal our national soul, and our own souls as well.
Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we humble ourselves as we search our own souls. Because sometimes we know that sometimes, the bias, the prejudice isn’t only out in the world, it’s inside of us as well. We are all good and kind people who only want to do the right thing but we too harbor internalized or implicit biases. And today, just like this brave young imam, we are asked to unearth them. Today, we are brutally honest with ourselves and with others, and with grace and humility, we ask for forgiveness and the power to grow. And we need to address the internalized anti-Semitism that many experience as well. We need to have conversations with our children and grandchildren, with our friends and neighbors and co-workers. We need to stand up boldly and speak out against anti-Semitism and bigotry wherever we see it or hear it. That’s what our friend did, that day in the restaurant over breakfast. After the patron who told the offensive joke left the restaurant, our friend called the waiter over and politely and respectfully said to him, “I want you to know that I heard that joke and found it incredibly offensive.” The waiter replied, “Me too.” Remarkably, he added, “It’s because I’m a Jew myself that he tells me these jokes. He’s trying to bother me. He does this all the time and next time, I really need to handle it differently,” he added.”
6 The Washington Post, July 28, 2017.
But I must confess to you that there is another reason why I felt compelled to speak about anti-Semitism today. And that is for my son, Adam. Adam recently turned 18, and will be going off to college next year. This may very well be his last High Holidays with us for a while. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sending our children off into the world, my children and all of our children, I wonder what it will be like for them. We have created this holy cocoon here at Rodef Sholom, where our children feel safe to love and celebrate their Judaism with joy and pride. They have learned to feel comfortable being Jewish, to love Israel, and feel a fierce connection to the Jewish people. And I am grateful every day that Frank and I have raised our family among this holy community.
A blessing for my son:
I know when you go to college, Adam,
You will encounter challenges-
There will be people who will question your love of Israel,
There may be people who don’t appreciate your deep love of Judaism Or don’t understand that your deep commitment for social justice
Is firmly rooted in Torah.
There may be people who don’t understand why you wear pants with dreidels all over them
all year long,
but that you do because they make you happy.
And you may even encounter people who don’t know the words
to every Dan Nichols song or all of the Camp Newman session songs. But I hope that you will always feel proud of these things,
I hope you, and all of our children, keep singing,
I pray that you will always hold the Torah high as you march for justice and righteousness.
I pray that you always find joy and warmth in our traditions, that you will teach your new friends the songs and the dances that have inspired and lifted you through your childhood.
I hope and pray that you will always be
A proud Jew.
And I pray, that the words and prayers and melodies
You hear today flowing from the hearts and souls
of these incredible and holy people
who have carried you and
loved you from the time you were born,
Will carry you and surround with love and inspiration always.
May God bless you and watch over you,
May God fill your life with light and compassion, May God bring you, and our broken world, peace.