The Privilege of Chanukah

On Wednesday evening, I was honored to take part in a commemoration of the antisemitic attack that took place in Monsey three years ago, injuring five and taking the life of Rabbi Joseph Neumann. Today I’m sharing some of the thoughts I spoke about, and combining them with a broader message about pride and privilege.

When I first heard about the 2019 attack which took place only weeks after the attack in Jersey City, I noted that the perpetrator was quickly forced out and away from the families gathered to celebrate Chanukah by one individual who threw a coffee table at him to repel his attack. Even in this moment so quickly after it started, the response was unhesitating. It reminded me of something I read the day after 9/11. One commentator wrote that the terrorists had the upper hand over the United States, for about an hour. Once the heroic passengers of United Flight 93 stood together and fought back, the tactics and strategy of the terrorists began to be defeated.

These are object lessons for us, here and now, when antisemitism and antisemitic violence are reaching new levels. First, like the families celebrating 3 years ago, we must continue to proudly celebrate our Jewish identity, even in the face of threats and violence. Especially now, when we are about to begin celebrating Chanukah, as public a holiday as we have. We cannot cower, we must not hide. We celebrate the triumph of good over evil, of independence over empire, of local particularity over hegemonic conformity.

Second, like the heroes of flight 93, we must stand and act together. We are one community, we are one county, and no one, not on our streets, not in our communal spaces, not on social media, or anywhere else should feel they can divide or attack us, and do so with impunity. Not on our watch at the Federation, and not on the watch of our local law enforcement agencies.

Amid the upsurge I’ve described, in some quarters, Jews are still perceived as unworthy of consideration as a vulnerable minority. We are ‘too powerful’, ‘too privileged’ ‘too able to blend in’. I have much to write about these perceptions, and the parts of the political, social, academic, and religious spectrum where they are prevalent, but suffice it to say it is a sometimes milder but just as troubling echo of the more strident hatred we see and hear from the usual suspects. And they both incite and lead to violence.

I’ve also been very conflicted about the hashtag #jewishprivilege that has trended off and on these last two years, and the ownership Jews have taken of it to illustrate the reality of antisemitism. I feel the same; ‘privileged’ to need armed guards, locked doors and ballistic glass at my place of worship, ‘privileged’ to still have some adherents of two major religions premising their belief upon my betrayal, punishment and eventual disappearance; ‘privileged’ that like many of my brethren but unlike most everyone else, I have the names of my family on the headstone of my grandfather, their dates of death and resting places unknown; ‘privileged’ that in comments on social media about the program I participated in on Wednesday, some local haters are still unwilling to call it what it was, a hate crime, because the targets were Hasidic Jews.

And then, I take a deep breath.

My real privilege is to be able to share a three thousand year old tradition with my children. To stand as I did on Wednesday among the leaders of our state, county, and towns, quoting from an ancient Jewish text familiar to billions of people. To visit, support and love a land that fifty generations of my ancestors could only dream of seeing. To be asked by an airport security officer if I get much abuse wearing a kippah in public, and being told by her that God is looking out for us and so are many millions of our friends. To stand, as I will on Sunday evening, with my wife and our daughter at our window, our nearly-five-year-old lighting the first candle and singing the brachot just as her grandmothers and grandfathers back to the earliest Chanukah have done no matter what circumstances surrounded them. That makes me proud. That is a true privilege.

Wishing you a Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Festival of Lights; a Freilechen Chanukah, a Joyful Chanukah; and a peaceful, restful Shabbat.