Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת וישלח, תש״פ

Parshat Vayishlah, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

Bari Weiss on Antisemitism

This was a week of high emotions for the American Jewish community. On Tuesday, three civilians and one police officer were killed in a shooting at Jersey City Kosher Supermarket. Along with providing thoughts and prayers, as is always the case in one of these shootings, many are suggesting increased gun control, while many are suggesting increased presence of guns. On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order aiming to reduce anti-Semitism, especially on college campuses. Many are relieved, while at the same time, many are upset that this executive order categorizes Jews in the same way they were categorized by the Nazi regime, as a separate nation. Many are worried that this new executive order improperly reduces free speech of those fighting against Israel’s policies, while many believe that those activists have had too much free speech for too long. I would guess that no one in this room has the same views on the why, what, and how of combatting anti-Semitism as the person you’re sitting next to, but I would also guess that most individuals in this room have thought about anti-Semitism in a deep, serious way at some point this week.

Yes, the politics of responding to both anti-Semitic incidents and the government’s prevention of such are vitally important in our present moment. But we also need to remember what exactly we’re fighting for. As journalist Bari Weiss spoke in a speech this past Sunday, “Fighting against antisemitism has to be about fighting for Jewish souls, not just Jewish bodies.” As a Jewish people, Weiss teaches, we have not survived this long because of defense or political clout; we have survived this long because of our spiritual strength and adherence to tradition. We no longer have Hittites or Canaanites, nations that were once much more powerful than our nation ever was; today, we still have about fifteen million Israelites. Our survival going into the future must be about bringing our faith and practice forward, about reviving the Jewish tradition and religion.

At the joint conference between the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly this past weekend, Bari Weiss gave ten ideas I’d like to share with you today pointing towards a Jewish revival to combat anti-Semitism. I certainly won’t be as engaging or persuasive as she was, but today, I can certainly try. Weiss first urges us, the Jewish people, to embrace our differences from the rest of society. In this congregation, I’ve been asking you for the past few months, “Why Conservative Judaism?” Your answers have often had to do with the traditional nature of the service and the idea that being here doesn’t feel anything like church. This synagogue space is one in which we can share with each other our unique concern for Israel, the funky laws we follow about what we eat, and the collective memory no one else can understand in quite the same way. When others ask us what we believe and strive for, we must be confident in presenting how we differ, so that our practices are never completely dissolved into the melting pot of our society.

Weiss’ second recommendation is to “be Zionistic.” This is not the same as being Zionist. The founders of Zionism had the audacity to do the unthinkable - to make the desert bloom and to establish a State founded on values no other state had ever been founded on before. Being Zionistic means to be daring and try new things - inviting others into our synagogue space, investing in visible building improvements, being vocal about our values - not allowing fear to be a part of what others do or say. The more we dare, the more vibrant of a community we have the chance to recreate.

Third, Weiss charged us to reimagine a world in which Zionism has succeeded in establishing a state. Our ideas about and funding of Israel should no longer focus primarily on defensiveness and protection, but rather, about how to support the moral compass that the State first strove towards. What can we offer, morally and creatively, to the State of Israel, and what can they offer us? As the world sees us as inherently connected to the State of Israel, the actions of that State and the people within directly concern us.

Fourth and fifth, Weiss reminded us that all Jewish lives matter and that we should prove our belief in that idea by bowling together. I’ve beat you over the head with this phrase in the past, but it bears repeating - Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh - all of Israel is intertwined with one another. Externally, what one Jew does affects how the world perceives us as Jews. It’s a lot of pressure, but every word you say to someone of another faith tradition, every action you take in the public eye, affects the public’s perception of the Jewish people as a whole. Many of us are related to and friends with Jews from other movements and in other parts of the world. We naturally exchange ideas about what it might mean to be Jewish and what the best practices could be for enhancing Jewish community.

Specifically in this community, we are blessed to have another Jewish community right at our fingertips and to learn and experience alongside them. What if we see B’nai Zion as partners in sustaining Jewish lives and living, seeing the disagreements we’ve had in the past as worthy demonstrations of these and those being the words of the living God? We are two separate communities, not because one is better than the other, but rather, because each community appeals to a different kind of person or family. Just throwing it out there as an unofficial suggestion - I wonder what it would mean for us to get together as two congregations, perhaps with the mediation of the Federation, and discuss what our differences and successful partnerships have looked like in the past, as well as what our boundaries and collaborations should look like in the future. If we’re going to succeed to grow our Shreveport Jewish community, to make this place as attractive to Jews and to those seeking Judaism as Rabbi Feivel and I found it, we’re going to have to brainstorm together.

I’ll skip to Weiss’ seventh suggestion, that the Jewish community should begin to place Jewish and Hebrew literacy at the center of Jewish life. To identify as Jewish, we need to know what exactly that means; diving into Jewish learning strengthens identity and ownership of our practice. And of course, these Shabbat and holiday services that last one or two or three hours long tend to be a lot more meaningful when we’re able to follow along, even more so when we know what we’re saying. With the rise in numbers of people who started coming to services after Bruce began his Pirkei Avot learning and with the women’s learning group that Dorothy demanded and achieved, we have demonstrated our thirst to learn within this congregation. We have the entire canvas of our calendar in front of us. I want to hear what you want to learn; I want you to have the tools to develop what it means for you to not only stay Jewish but to educate your children and grandchildren, too. Within the structure of this synagogue, I am teaching a constant rotation of Hebrew and bimah skills classes, currently focused on Hebrew for Siddur and learning to leyn Torah. Outside of this synagogue, Rabbi Jana teaches regular Hebrew classes at B’nai Zion, and Rabbi Feivel teaches Hebrew through his company, Freelance Judaism. In a small community, you as a congregant have a lot of sway in determining what you want to learn and organize.

Weiss’ sixth, eighth, and ninth suggestions call for free Jewish education, a radical rethink of Jewish life in higher education, and a year of public service for every Jewish 18-year-old. Ultimately, our younger generation’s learning cannot just involve bagels, driedels, and Fiddler on the Roof. Just as much as we need Jewish education to keep us engaged in prayer and tradition, those at the age at which they’re deciding where their life will take them need that comprehensive understanding of their identities even more. Weiss suggests that 18-year-olds live out their Jewish values through programs that combine study and charitable action, showing them how much good Judaism can enact in the world. Currently, in this community, we don’t reach out enough to local medical students, and I have no idea whether there are any younger college students, largely because of the prevailing notion that they won’t stay long enough to become contributing members. But we, as part of the greater Jewish community, have a responsibility to keep their Jewish souls alive and excited, especially in a location in which it’s so easy to give up and identify otherwise.

And finally, Weiss suggests that we embrace unadulterated, unapologetic pride in who we are as the Jewish people. In this week’s parshah, Jacob wrestles with a divine being and prevails, earning the name Yisrael, the one who fights with God. According to the commentator Seforno, Jacob’s wrestling match acts as a representation of the Jewish people; we have fought for our lives constantly throughout our time on this planet, and yet, we have always prevailed and will always prevail. Our success represents not only our physical strength, but much more importantly, the strength of our spirit, our wisdom, and our ideas. We cannot convince the rest of the world that we are better than good enough if we can’t convince ourselves. Every single day, we should be asking ourselves the question, what is it about this Judaism that invigorates me, that makes me proud?

At the end of the day, like any other hatred, anti-Semitism is present and refuses to go away. As scared or angry as we may be, putting up our defenses and hiding away cannot be solutions. The more we cower and worry only about our Jewish bodies, the more we let our united Jewish souls fade away. I am here as your rabbi and your support system, to help you deal with worry and figure out how to dive deeper into your Judaism. Next week, we’ll host a Hanukkah party that’s open to the entire Jewish community, as well as other communities who want to know who we are and what we stand for. At this event and in our Jewish lives going forward, let’s prevent anti-Semitism by making ourselves so righteous, so friendly, and so confident in who we are that no one can dare find fault in our faith and our tradition.