From the Rabbi’s Study, January 2016

My January/February JRC Bulletin Message…

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)

For me, it’s that verse that most accurately describes the Jewish mission. To empathize with the marginalized, and to turn our empathy into action, is what we’re all about. Our texts, our holidays, our daily prayers….all of the particularly Jewish things about being Jewish point us toward that universal truth. Calling out oppression when we see it and standing with the oppressed against their tormentors: this is what it means to be a Jew.

These are tense and difficult times in America. Capitalizing on another universal truth, that fear is easier to stir up than hope, a demagogue has tapped into a longstanding tradition in American politics: demonizing the Other. Huge crowds turn out to cheer him on.

For many Jews, both the language and the reactions to it stir up uncomfortable associations. Are we right to wonder aloud, “is that what it felt like in the last days of the Weimar Republic?” Is our invoking of Pastor Neimoller (“First they came for the Socialists…”) on point? Most of all, what’s next?

I hope it’s all blown over by the time you read this in early January (I’m writing it on December 9). I hope my column feels hopelessly dated and needlessly alarmist. My fear is that it will get worse before it gets better. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America; immigrants from Middle Eastern nations; Muslims, everywhere; people of color; the disabled; LGBTQ people; and, in a bizarre lifting-up of our great skill as deal-makers, Jews. He’s targeted us all, and grown in the esteem of some of our neighbors for doing so.

Reflecting specifically on the demonization of Muslims, Yehuda Kurtzer, who is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, recently had this to say:

When Jews and Muslims stand together in a moment like this, it is not merely in fulfillment of past debts, nor in consideration of future needs. Jews and Muslims must see in this moment the rise of devastating meta-narratives that strip us of our agency and are destructive to both communities, narratives that sadly are often cast against one another. All must resist the seductive simplicity of these mythologies; navigating the challenges of real life is difficult enough.

Kurtzer’s observations may be applied to our alliances with people of color and other marginalized populations as well. Our response to this moment in history must be to remain committed to alliances that cross boundaries of faith, race, and economic attainment. Judea Reform Congregation has a long history of acting on our empathy and compassion for the other. Let this ugliness serve only to cause us to redouble our efforts!

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