At the beginning of the Jewish New Year, it is traditional to sound the shofar. Like the bugle, this instrument blasts a call to the slumbering to awaken and reaffirm the commitments that give our lives and communities purpose and life. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, this Rosh Hoshanah sermon from Rabbi Sydney Mintz, of Congregation Emanu-El San Francisco, who also sits on NIOT’s Advisory Board, calls us to action in this moment.
Kugel for the Klan by Rabbi Sydney Mintz
On Rosh Hashanah, the rough and ragged sounds of the shofar pull us out of the ordinary, acting as our spiritual midwife and blasting us awake, as it has done for the past 4000 years. Some years we are eager to receive it, some years we humbly accept it, some years we hear it, but don’t listen, and other years we might even try to ignore it. It is a strange and powerful gift, the call to return, the call to step off of whatever place you are on your own circle and to create a new one while simultaneously returning home.
Rabbi Alan Lew taught: “We go about the surface of our lives, working at our jobs and dealing with our relationships, and we're largely oblivious to the fact that the soul is going through this incredible melodrama. We discover the reality of that during these days--that the soul is living this life and death drama. Every year the soul discovers: Will it live? Will it die? Will it change?” Rabbi Lew teaches: Transformation does not have a beginning, a middle, or an end. We never reach the end of Teshuvah. It is always going on. We are awake for a moment, and then we are asleep again. Teshuvah seems to proceed in a circular motion. Every step away is also a step toward home.”
For a four thousand year old tradition, Judaism has some very radical and revolutionary ideas. First, that time exists not on a straight path, but on a circle. On the surface, human life is merely birth, life and death on a linear plane. But we exist on a planet that is constantly in motion, spinning in a circle on its own axis each 24 hours.
Think about the circular way we read the Torah each year. We read the final story from Deuteronomy and the first story from Genesis on Simchat Torah with the actual scroll wrapped around our entire community. We read the last word of the Torah which is Yisrael and the first word of the Torah, B’reyshit, touching one to the other to begin the circle again.
The word B’raysheet reminds us that our lives are circular, we have many chances to begin again, to create, not just at one fixed point in time.
In November of 1938, my son’s great-grandfathers, Victor and Emil Newbrun, were taken from their homes in Vienna and rounded up with all the other Jewish men in the city. Emil was jailed just before and Victor was jailed on Kristallnacht. I can only imagine the shock they experienced when they realized that even though they thought of themselves as Austrians, to the Nazis they were simply, Jews.
Exactly 40 years later, in 1978, Nazis planned to march in my backyard in Skokie, Illinois, the Chicago Jewish suburb where more Holocaust survivors resided than any other. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Nazis’ march in Skokie, after the ACLU defended their 1st Amendment rights, they ended up marching in Marquette Park in Chicago, no where near Skokie. I was 12 years old, preparing for my Bat Mitzvah and could barely wrap my head around what it meant. I had already seen the graphic and horrific photos and movies about the Holocaust. Why were there still Nazis? What did they want? Were they coming for me and my family?
40 years later on the circle, it is 2017, one month ago, and Nazis are granted a permit to march in San Francisco, just down the street from where we are sitting in this sanctuary. In Chrissy Field. Coming to our city were the people who had just terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia with swastikas tattooed on their necks, backs and arms, carrying torches, armed and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” This time, the ACLU would not represent them. There are limits to the Freedom of Speech. That limitation became perfectly clear when the life of Heather Heyer was taken.
The difference for me was that at age 12, in 1978, I could not fathom what it meant that Nazis still existed in our world, let alone that they could march a few miles from my home. It seemed inconceivable. At age 50, when I saw the footage from Charlottesville, I was not shocked to see Nazis marching. What was shocking to me was that I expected to see Swastikas and Torches and Heil Hitlers, that I completely understood why so many of these extremists don’t think of me as an American, but as a Jew.
All three of these stories remind me of the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song The Circle Game:
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on a carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Although I love the Circle Game, its message is actually antithetical to the blasts of the shofar. One says-we are captive on this carousel of time. The other says: Wake up now and know that this year is different than any other. Act now or you and this world will be a victim of your own neutrality and inertia. At what point on your life’s circle will you be asked what you were doing when your neighbors were being deported to Mexico? Where were you when the Muslim ban was enacted and tens of thousands of Americans came together in airports across the country to rally for their release? When the Nazis were going to march in our city, where were you? The Circle Game is only a song, not a theology. And, as American Jews, this coming year of 2018, more than any since 1938 on Kristallnacht, and 1978 in Skokie when the Nazis came back, this year we need to wake up and know that although we are patriotic Americans, to many other Americans, we are Jews.
And, as American Jews, this coming year of 2018, more than any since 1938 on Kristallnacht, and 1978 in Skokie when the Nazis came back, this year we need to wake up and know that although we are patriotic Americans, to many other Americans, we are Jews.
Elie Weisel taught: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.” So, at this moment of 5778 on the circle of time, we are at the center of the universe. As liberal Jews we are commanded by both our prophetic tradition and the heart of the Torah, which calls us stand with and by and for the persecuted in our midst. And when people are singled out for harsh inhumane treatment at the hands of our government, we have no choice as Jews but to resist that, to push back and to know that by using the power we have in this country, yes, it makes us more vulnerable and perhaps the target of other forms of hatred, but in my humble estimation of this beautiful religion, I feel we have no choice. And one more thing, if we really want to change the course of history right now, I believe the only way to do that is by getting to know those who say that they hate us. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center Study, California ranks No. 1 in the nation with 79 active hate groups, six of which operate in the Sacramento area, an hour from here.
The documentary “Accidental Courtesy,” focuses on the quest of one African-American man, Daryl Davis, an accomplished keyboardist, who made it his personal mission to befriend members of hate groups such as the KKK, asking them, “How can you hate me, if you don’t even know me?” Dangerous? Perhaps. Revolutionary? Definitely. He explained his logic: “The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.” Over the past thirty years, Daryl has built relationships with hundreds of members of the Klan and other Hate Groups.
"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere." Elie Weisel
As a result, 200 members of the Klan have turned in their robes and disavowed their memberships. Daryl has each of these robes hanging in his own home to remind himself of the dent he has made in repairing racism. If one man can compel 200 Klansmen to abandon their hatred, what can we, thousands of Jews do? And if not not, when? Our colleague, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, creator of the organization Resetting the Table, spent the summer in blue states that had turned red in 2016 with 30 young Jewish leaders whom she had trained for a listening campaign-in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan-after the summer she shared that what she took away from those relationships that had been created was empathy and compassion, not derision and hatred. Taking their lead, why don’t we make some kugel and rugalach and take a trips to the Sacramento area to serve some white supremacists up a little Jewish love and compassion in the form of food. Let’s make sure that the people who hate us get to know who we really are.
I want to share with you the heartbreaking and life affirming poem, The Low Road By Marge Piercy:
What can they do to you?
Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can bust you, they can break your fingers, they can burn your brain with electricity, blur you with drugs till you can’t walk, can’t remember, they can take your child, wall up your lover.
They can do anything you can’t blame them from doing.
How can you stop them?
Alone, you can fight, you can refuse, you can take what revenge you can but they roll over you.
But two people fighting back to back can cut through a mob, a snake-dancing file can break a cordon, an army can meet an army. Two people can keep each other sane, can give support, conviction, love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge.
With four you can play bridge and start an organization.
With six you can rent a whole house, eat pie for dinner with no seconds, and hold a fundraising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time, it starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say We and know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.
Heartbreaking and simultaneously hopeful.
Teach your children, everyday, through your actions, that you care desperately about their future, this country and this earth that is suffering so terribly alongside us. The shofar’s blast must not just be against injustice, the shofar’s blasts must move you to do more justice. So, take off your seat belt, get off the carousel and start a new circle for yourself. It’s always the right time to begin.
Ken Yehi Ratzon-May this truly be God’s and your will.
Rabbi Sydney Mintz
Listen to Audio of the sermon here.