The Lessons We Need to Learn

When I was about 11 years old, my brother and I encountered a trio of 17-18 year olds one night on our way home from school who grabbed our kippot from our heads and pushed us around. The words they yelled at me I had read, but I had never heard directed at me. And the feeling of helplessness we had against these three bigger, older, stronger, hateful bastards (I don’t apologize for the language, as that is what they were) was a terrible, terrible thing. I’ll never forget that feeling. 

But that feeling lasted for only a few minutes. As we finally were able to continue on our way, two older youths, Jewish brothers who lived around the corner from us, were coming home as well. They had seen part of what happened, checked that we were OK, and then they took off after the other three. Suffice it to say that we were never bothered again by those teens. In fact they never showed their faces in the neighborhood again. To this day I remember the kindness and the strength of those brothers, Irv and Sam, who later spent time encouraging and teaching us how to be proud, overcome fear and defend ourselves - something we had to do, often enough. And I have never forgotten those lessons. 

The interesting thing is that we really shouldn’t have been surprised by these events. In fact, our father had told us his own similar story, from postwar Krakow more than 30 years earlier,, when he was beset and beaten up day after day by antisemites as he walked home, until a Hashomer Hatzair neighbor asked him where he got the bruises and bloody nose. The next time he was followed on his way home, the neighbor and his fellow shomrim were waiting. The Jewish kids who had returned to the Kazimierz neighborhood weren’t bothered for a long time after that. 

It took my own experience to internalize what my father had told me. For him, as a very young returnee who spent the war in a refugee camp in Khazakstan, it took his many childhood experiences to internalize what we read every year at the Seder ‘Yet in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.’

We can’t wish it away. We can’t assume, despite our necessary, earnest and best efforts, that we’ll be able to educate or cultivate tolerance everywhere. We can’t ignore it, or bury our heads in the sand, but as I have written before, we must not let it define us. 

The torrent of antisemitism isn’t limited to or aimed at only one part of our community. It threatens us all - religious, secular, ashkenazi, sefardi, gay, straight, professional, student, homemaker or senior. And it comes from across a parallel spectrum - White Nationalist, far Right neo nazis, Black Hebrew Israelite, Nation of Islam, Islamic Fundamentalist, radical ‘anti-imperialist’, far Left, blue collar, white collar, from congressional representatives, media, and entertainment personalities. And to be clear, the hatred is there whether we are the most unobtrusive of neighbors or not, whether our presence represents difference & change or not.

In this environment, we’ve got responsibilities. All of us. First we must continue to celebrate, to cultivate Jewish life, to sing, pray, study. We must wave our flags as high as ever, broadcasting our identity, our connection to our people and our homeland. We must continue to be proud. 

At the same time we must do our ‘hishtadlut’ - that which is within our capability to do for ourselves. We must secure our institutions. Your Federation is committed to doing that with every school, temple, camp, shul, and yeshiva in Rockland that will join our initiative. This week, we raised funds from across the community to help in that responsibility, and all donations to our Security Initiative were matched. We thank everyone who contributed. 

And yet, that is not enough. We are engaged with all levels of government, and law enforcement at all levels (to whom we express tremendous gratitude) yet it is not enough. We are in dialogue with the media, and we have made headway, but it is not enough. We are working with partners like the Pride Center and Nyack NAACP to address hate in our school districts, but it is not enough. 

Here are three things you can do right now to make a difference.

  1. Be an ally. We should support those who are also under threat, often from the same adversaries. For example, the Rockland Pride Center has been the target of more threats and violent rhetoric in recent days. They often stand in solidarity with our community. We should stand in solidarity with them. We are stronger together. 
  2. Be aware. Obliviousness is not an option. These times demand situational awareness. Pay attention to what is going on around you - on your streets, in your classrooms, on social media, at your synagogues. If you see something, say something. Report it, call it out, shine a light on the darkness. 
  3. Support the work we are doing to secure our community. Our communal spaces are where we can celebrate, where we can express our proud Jewish identity, where we can bring our children to learn about their heritage, and where we can honor our seniors. You can help to secure those spaces. 

And finally, as I’ve said in the past, when we bring all of our assets and strengths to bear on this problem as a united community, we will find out that we are stronger and more resilient than we could have imagined. Until we accomplish that unity, as General Joe Stillwell would say during WWII (in latin) and as the Irish band U2 wrote on one of their best albums, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’.