This past weekend, we had a wonderful celebration of the Beth Emet community as we kicked off our Capital Campaign. Beth Emet has been a sanctuary to so many people and a beacon of light in our community, and it felt right and good to look back with admiration at our congregation’s history and to commit to a strong Beth Emet future. The Book of Ecclesiastes teaches that there is a season for everything. But the reality of our lives is that good and bad, exaltation and mourning, reassurance and anxiety, are more often mixed together in the same season. We can feel deeply fortunate to be part of a congregation that feels integral to the spiritual and civic life of the larger community and, at the same time, be deeply troubled by an upsurge in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric in our country, some of it aimed at the Jewish community. Since January, there have been more than 100 bomb threats against JCCs across the country, disrupting operations and creating a sense of fear and vulnerability for American Jews. The Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana, has been threatened and mercilessly harassed by a white supremacist group, and vandals have attacked Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, New York, as well as Chicago’s Loop Synagogue. And just yesterday, Chicago Jewish Day School, where Beth Emet members are teachers and students, received a bomb threat and had to be evacuated.
At Beth Emet, we continually reevaluate our security procedures in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Department of Homeland Security, and the Evanston Police Department.
President Trump condemned these anti-Semitic attacks. And that is a positive step, following many weeks in which he failed to speak out against racially, religiously and ethnically motivated violent incidents. But we must insist that the condemnation he uttered during his address to a joint session of Congress a week ago be followed up with action to curb the disturbing rise of hate and bigotry.
Yesterday, all 100 senators demanded action on these cowardly anti-Semitic bomb threats. We should demand that our president heed this call and the following
recommendations issued on March 1, 2017 by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs:
“We urge the President, the Attorney General, and the FBI to spare no resources to investigate these new threats and bring the culprits to justice.
We also call for implementation of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) anti-hate recommendations:
Convene a federal inter-agency task force on Fighting Hate that brings together all the relevant agencies
Appoint a White House coordinator for Fighting Hate
Support federal and state-level legislation to protect students from increasing religious harassment and discrimination on college campuses
Train state and local law enforcement agencies led by the Department of Justice on how to handle hate crimes, including detection and response”
In these troubling times, I’ve been heartened by the acts of solidarity from countless groups and individuals who have stood with our community. The first phone call of support I received after the vandalism at the Loop Synagogue was from my friend Ahmed Rehab, who is the director of the Council of American Islamic Relations in Chicago. A few days later, I joined leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities brought together at the Loop Synagogue by the Jewish Federation of Chicago to condemn hate in all its forms and to support the Jewish community. And many of us have been moved by the outpouring of support from Muslims across the country who have contributed money and time to repair damaged Jewish cemeteries and who have even offered to stand guard at Jewish cemeteries.
Clearly, Muslim communities across the country have embraced a principle that is embodied in our tradition, as expressed in
: “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.” (2:6)
Indeed, when hatred and bigotry are on the rise, all of us must redouble our efforts to act courageously, to be caring and compassionate, and to join with others who are doing the same. Hate directed at any group within our society is a threat to us all.
In conclusion, I’d like to share with you the words of Beth Emet member, Becky Galler, who wrote the following as a closing prayer to our Board of Trustees meeting two weeks ago:
“As I reflect on the current political climate and all of the divisiveness and hatred in our world, I am often reminded of the famous quote by [German theologian] Martin Niemöller. I am sure you are all familiar with it, but it bears repeating.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Becky continued: “For many of us, this is our last board meeting. And I can’t help but think that what we do here at Beth Emet is so often informed by Niemöller’s words.
Every Wednesday evening in our soup kitchen, we feed over 100 members of our community… even though we are not hungry.
We conduct winter coat drives … even though we are warmly clothed.
We assemble baskets of food at the High Holidays to deliver to members of our community who may be alone and homebound…even though we will share a warm holiday meal surrounded by loved ones.
Last year, this board approved a measure to offer our synagogue as an emergency shelter on bitter cold nights this winter…even though we are not homeless.
This month, we are sending our youth to the Mexican border to learn about the complexities of immigration…even though we do not live in fear of deportation.
We support members of the LGBTQ community…even though we may not suffer from discrimination based on whom we love.
We support our neighbors in the African American community…even though we do not suffer the daily sting of racism.
We stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers…even though Judaism has not been demonized as being a religion of terrorists. And today, that community stands with us.
Yesterday, as many of you know, a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was vandalized. Hundreds of graves desecrated. Today, the Muslim community of St. Louis announced that they have raised over $25,000 (that number is now $160,000) to help rebuild. Reverend Niemöller’s words heeded.
And now, we are on the cusp of a new Capital Campaign which promises to elevate, strengthen, and enrich our congregation…even though it will bring the most benefit not to us, but to our children and grandchildren.
May the words of Martin Niemöller continue to guide this board and this synagogue.
May we never forget what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. May we go from strength to strength.