Yom Kippur 2019 / 5780
A couple years ago, while I was visiting my family in Memphis, I spent an afternoon doing what everyone does on vacation… digitizing old family photographs.
As I sorted through the pictures in the “Rachel” box, I came across a polaroid of myself, standing in a grocery store next to the homeliest Easter Bunny that I have ever seen. Feeling both bemused and confused, I took the picture to my mom and asked her why I looked so uncomfortable standing next to the Easter Bunny.
My mom glanced at the picture, shrugged, and said, “You probably just told her that you’re Jewish and that you don’t want her to come to your house.” She then flipped over the polaroid and showed me that she had written down the date the picture was taken which means that I can say with certainty that I was all of four years old when I loudly and publicly told this poor Easter Bunny that I had no need for her visits.
Despite my twinge of retroactive guilt for having been rude to whichever poor soul was made to wear an Easter Bunny costume that had been made by someone who had never seen a rabbit before, I have to admit that as I looked at the picture, I felt a little proud. I was proud of that little kid who was confident enough to broadcast her religious identity to every person and every giant mammal that she encountered.
For as long as I can remember, my Judaism has been something that I valued and loved about myself, and sometimes my love of being Jewish filled me up so much that it would spill out into public declarations.
For example, as a first grader at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, I used our class’ “journal time” to write the following:
“I am Jewish. I love being Jewish. I go to temple on Friday. I love going. I sing on Friday. I don’t bring my dog. My name is Rachel. The Rabbi reads the Torah on Friday. I go to Temple with my daddy. I know all the Rabbis. I go to Sunday school. Being Jewish is the best thing in the world. I have a Torah of my own. I love it.”
First, I just want to address the obvious: It is remarkable that I’ve overcome being such a shy and retiring child.
But, in all seriousness, my effusive love of Judaism and all aspects of Jewish life has always been a central part of my identity.
Even with my very public love of Judaism, I can say honestly that I can’t remember a time as a child or as a young adult when I felt uncomfortable mentioning that I was Jewish. There were, of course, moments when my Judaism was not relevant, and there were even times when I had difficult and sometimes painful conversations with friends and classmates whose churches had taught them that only Christians would be allowed into heaven. But even still, I can look back at my life from the time that I was an Easter-Bunny-rejecting four year old all the way through my college graduation and say that I can’t remember a time that I felt afraid to be proudly and loudly Jewish.
Over the last several years, I have thought a lot about the fact that the children in our congregation today almost certainly don’t always feel as safe expressing the same kind of unencumbered joy about their Judaism that I often advertised. The world that they’re growing up in is significantly different than the one that I experienced as a child, and I have heard from both children and adults that there are many spaces where they don’t feel comfortable being publicly Jewish.
I know that I don’t have to tell you that over the last several years, along with the rise of other forms of bigotry, antisemitism has been more openly and more frequently expressed. All of us have heard about incidents small and large in our surrounding area and around the world that were intended to make Jewish people feel like we don’t belong. And, of course, all of us are aware that a year ago this month, a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and brought violence and terror to their community and real, sustained fear to all Jewish communities.
The ADL defines antisemitism as, “The belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews... or political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them. It may also include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.”
I would add that while antisemitism often places the Jewish people at the center of a vast and all-powerful conspiracy, it’s intent is to make Jewish people and Jewish communities feel as small and as vulnerable as possible.
It is absolutely understandable that we have decided to shrink into ourselves as we have been faced with the reality of violence like we saw in Pittsburgh and California, with the sight of antisemitic tropes being employed by multiple news outlets, and with the repeated presence of swastikas and other graffiti drawn in the hallways, bathrooms, and classrooms of our public schools.
This response makes sense, but it is not what I wish for our children or our adults.
The solution to bigotry is not contracting in on ourselves. No matter how small we are, someone will always hate us. But, their hatred is not a reflection of us. It was not caused by anything that we did, and we can not cure them of it.
And so my proposal is that instead of contracting, we decide to expand.
Those of us who are adults, whether or not we are parents and whether or not we know it, are modelling for the children of this congregation what it means to be Jewish in our current world. We need to accept and understand that role, and we need to be advocates for Jewish communities in all aspects in our lives.
I think that many of us have become comfortable standing up against or calling out something that is blatantly antisemitic. But, we often feel powerless in the face of Jewish erasure in our community and towns. We worry that we’re being too sensitive or will come across as combative. And so, we shrink, and we shrink, and we shrink. We limit our Judaism to specifically Jewish spaces, and we force ourselves to accept that we won’t see ourselves reflected in public spaces.
But here’s the thing... when we push our Judaism into such small corners of our lives, we are severely limiting the amount of joy that our religion can offer to us.
I wish that I could stand on this bimah and promise that terrible, terrifying things will never again happen to the Jewish people. I wish that I could assure you that temples don’t need security and that we will always be safe from everything from bullying to the very worst. I wish desperately that I could tell you that I am never felt afraid. But I can’t.
No one can promise that everything will be ok, but we can work together to make sure that no Jewish person feels like they are facing the reality of this world alone.
When I was a young, precocious, Easter-Bunny-insulting pre-kindergartner, one of my favorite songs went like this:
Wherever you go,
There’s always someone Jewish.
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew.
So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of newish,
The odds are, don’t look far – ‘cause they’re Jewish, too.
There are many more verses in this song, but in the interest of time, I’ll stop here.
This musical masterpiece is called, appropriately enough, “Wherever You Go,” and from the moment that I heard these lyrics, I believed every single one of them. This song promised me, my classmates, and my community that, as members of the Jewish people, we had what amounted to guaranteed friends in every corner of this earth.
Now, as an adult and as a rabbi, I understand that the world is significantly more complicated than this song suggests. But, these very real complications don’t take away from the importance of the truth behind these lyrics.
Confronting those who seek to belittle us and even those who unintentionally erase us from public discourse is not easy work. It can be isolating, and it can feel overwhelming. But that is why belonging to a Jewish community is so critical. Because when we are feeling small, the answer is not continue shrinking. The answer is to seek support and strength among others.
Parents and caregivers, if your child tells you that someone has used their Jewish identity to make them feel small, please call the temple so that your kids can see that our entire community will show up for them and for everyone else.
TBC members of all ages, if you need help lifting up your concerns or your voices, our synagogue is as much a shield and a megaphone for you as it is for our children.
When bullies- whether they are on school busses or in boardrooms- make us want to hide, I pray that we will reject the urge to shrink. Instead, I hope that we will call on the support of our congregation because it is infinitely easier to be publicly and joyously Jewish when we are surrounded by the support of our community.
The next time you feel small or like you need to hide some part of your Jewish identity, I hope that you’ll remember that there are so many people who are ready to stand with you.
And if you find yourself away from home, maybe somewhere kind of newish, I hope that you’ll remember that, “The odds are, don’t look far– ‘cause they’re Jewish, too.”