Message from Michael
Last month, following the fourth wave of bomb threats against JCCs, the president condemned the rise in anti-Semitism. He said, “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible, and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” For some, his statement came too late and said too little. At least there was finally a statement, although I would have liked to hear a commitment about how the federal government is going to help address the issue.
Does the increase in hateful threats and acts represent an actual increase in anti-Semitism or an increase in visible anti-Semitic acts? Has the public discourse made it more acceptable to engage in hate speech and hate crimes? I don’t know the answers but it is a sobering reality that to many in this country, Jews are still outsiders.
The Torah has a lot to say to us about how Jews should treat outsiders or “strangers.” We are told that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No other commandment is repeated more often throughout the Torah – no less than 36 times according to the sages. Moses tells us that “[God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” Why is the treatment of strangers given such prominence in the Torah? According to Nachmanides, caring for the stranger is important because the stranger is powerless and psychologically isolated. The Torah’s fixation on the stranger reflects the very history of the Jewish people. Abraham becomes a stranger when he leaves his home and goes to Canaan. Jacob becomes a stranger in his uncle’s home. Joseph is a stranger in Egypt and ultimately the entirety of the Jewish people are oppressed strangers in Egypt.
Torah scholars tell us that to build a just society – one that cares for the stranger – we had to experience exile and slavery, and know what it means to be the stranger. Every year at Passover, we re-enact our history. Until recently, I thought that Passover was a reminder of the distant past. I believed that living as a Jew in 21st century America was unique in Jewish history. Our Jewish community is fully integrated into American society. Every Jew is a Jew by choice – we can identify ourselves as Jewish or not. The Jewish community is established, prosperous and accepted. We are in a position to speak up and take action on behalf of those who are disadvantaged and those who are outsiders, our society’s “strangers.”
I watched with astonishment and horror as the vile discourse of the last election focused on demeaning the stranger: the Mexican immigrant, the Muslim, the woman and the disabled. This was followed by post-election hate crimes right here in Montgomery County. I found myself called to be at the “Stand up for the Montgomery Way” rally in Silver Spring to speak up for the stranger.
But then a rise in anti-Semitic incidents around the world spread across our country and to our county. It included multiple waves of bomb threats directed at 53 JCCs in 26 states in less than six weeks. Clearly, I was naïve. Even in 21st century America, we are still the strangers to many. What keeps me going are the notes and emails, mostly anonymous, that I have been getting in the mail each week expressing support. One signed, “an atheist family in Tennessee;” another, “your Baptist neighbors in Takoma Park.” All are from people who are not Jewish.
Even more encouraging is that our upcoming MultiFaith Film Fest includes the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and the Islamic Community Center of Potomac as co-sponsors. Those seeking to intimidate Jews, Muslims and other minorities are, in actuality, bringing people of faith together in new ways.
As Jews in America today, we may still be the stranger to some. But we are not powerless or isolated. We are the stranger who must include and care for every stranger.
As a Jewish Community Center, welcoming the stranger runs in our veins. It always has, it always will.