A Rabbi Reflects on the Power of Faith Communities in the Fight Against Hate
By Rabbi Brad L. Bloom M.S. W., D.D.
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Brad Bloom was the Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, California, when in 1999 arsonists attacked the synagogue, as well as two other area synagogues. The fires destroyed thousands of books and historic Holocaust documents, and B'nai Israel, with nearly $1 million in damages, suffered the most serious blow. Investigators found anti-Semitic fliers within the wreckage of two of the three synagogues, shaking the foundation of Sacramento's Jewish community, and horrifying residents of all faiths and backgrounds.
One night, ten years ago, two brothers set fire to three synagogues and a Planned Parenthood facility in Sacramento, California. Following this act of domestic terrorism, the same two brothers murdered a gay couple in Redding, California, a crime for which they were eventually tried and sent to prison. Many people’s lives were changed as a result of these unspeakable acts, including my own and my family.
What can or should clergy and their congregations do to address the impact of hate crime, and perhaps even help prevent future attacks? This question challenges us as individuals and as communities of faith to recognize that we have a duty to support other congregations that become targets of domestic terrorism. From the experience I endured, I offer these lessons that may help guide other clergy and congregations in developing an approach to responding to hate.
The first step is for clergy and the leadership to discuss whether reaching out to a congregation when hatred raises its ugly face is consistent with the core values of the religious institution. It is crucial that the conversation take place before a major crisis in the community occurs. Surely there have been enough cases scattered around the country to justify that there is always the potential for a hate crime to strike against us in our own community. The key attitude that religious volunteers in leadership roles should remember is that a strike against one institution is an attack against the entire community.
The second step for clergy and the lay leadership is to discuss and organize a task force to establish a rapid response team and prepare a protocol for outreach to a religious institution in need. Congregations have hurricane response teams and a hate crime is not too far off from a hurricane in a moral and spiritual sense. The congregation should be prepared to do several things: make contact with the targeted congregation and clergy and offer immediate support to assist them. That could mean providing temporary worship space for the congregation, raising funds for them, or praying with them at services. Our congregation created a phone tree of contacts and volunteers to outreach to the house of worship that experienced an arson or other hate crime, as well as a fund to provide financial support. It is critical to get the message out to the community that the clergy are united in a no tolerance message against hate.
The third step is building bridges between congregations. Of course, a house of worship has a duty to care for its own well being first and foremost. But that duty cannot eclipse the sacred responsibility it has to repair the broken hearts and heal the wounds both physical and spiritual of neighboring faith communities. In Sacramento, we worked closely with the Interfaith Service Bureau, held educational programs, and built new relationships with clergy throughout the community. After September 11, 2001, I joined a group consisting of the local Imam and various Christian clergy, and we called ourselves “The Children of Abraham.” Our mission was to speak at various houses of worship, educate the community about our faiths, and demonstrate that despite substantive differences in our theology or outlook on any number of issues we could all agree to not tolerate baseless hatred or violence in pursuit of any political or so-called religious objectives. We felt that by all of us appearing and sitting down together to discuss how communities can work together to overcome differences, we were showing by example a model for reducing tensions in the community and building new relationships. We always included dinners with our host congregations and began a process of breaking down barriers and building bridges. In Judaism we have a term for this process of healing, called Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world.” We can make a difference in God’s eyes when we repair hurt and pain, and when we inspire hope that a congregation can heal itself after a calamitous event.
The fourth step is to watch over our clergy leaders. Trust me when I say that most clergy would resist asking for help or acknowledging that in a crisis brought on by a hate attack they would need spiritual support for themselves and their families. But I believe that in order for clergy to be effective in the long term, and to serve the best interests of their congregations, they may need moral support and spiritual direction, as well as time to renew themselves or professional support. Usually, no one is worrying about the clergy person because the congregation understandably expects this individual to watch over them and demonstrate leadership by showing strength. But when a few faith leaders reach out to a clergy person and their family experiencing the aftermath of a hate attack, it can contribute to the clergy person’s ability to stay focused, to remember the “big picture,” and to not feel alone.
It is important to remember that crises can produce opportunities for growth. Faith communities can set the tone for creating and sustaining peace in our communities across America. We live in times when terrorism comes not only from exotic places in far off lands but can appear from home grown radical elements that grew up in America with a distorted perception about the kind of country they believe America should be. In addition these domestic terrorists often use religion as a rationalization for violent behavior. Who else better than America’s faith communities to stand up and show that our country, regardless of religion, not only condemns hate crimes but stands for providing support to those victimized by baseless hatred.
A Jewish sage once wrote, “You are not obliged to complete the task. Neither can you desist from it.” The faith community can fulfill their mission by lending a helping hand when it is most needed. When we are all committed to each other’s wellbeing and safety, then we can feel like we are bringing the world one step closer to the kind of place God envisioned for humankind at the dawn of creation.
Rabbi Bloom is now the Rabbi of Congregation Bet Yam of Hilton Head, South Carolina