Why Am I Here? A Reflection on Remembering Shabbat on Nov. 9, 1939 and 2018

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Shabbat Service on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

I am going to make three statements that are all true. Here they are: It is Friday, November the 9th. It is 2018. It is Shabbat. My guess is that at best, perhaps one out of those three truths are meaningful to you. For depending on the year you examine, November 9 could bring a smile or a painful memory.

Eighty years ago tonight, November 9 was Kristallnacht, the night of Broken Glass, when a devastating combination of military forces and hostile German civilians taught to fear and demonize Jews by their leaders, carried out a vicious pogrom, shattering the glass of Jewish owned stores, apartment buildings and synagogues. Kristallnacht did not happen in isolation. It was part of a systematized attempt to degrade, isolate and destroy us. November 9 eighty years ago was a no-good very bad day. But let me reiterate: it is not 1938. It is 2018. The decades that have passed since then include a wide range of experiences, bitter and sweet.

This would typically bring some salve to the wounds of memory. It might even be a source to us of blessing, progress and of hope. It might. It could. It would, if only we weren’t just thirteen days after October 27, 2018, a day our babies will be talking about 80 years from now. They’ll be telling their children how they woke up on a Shabbat morning, and across this country Jews began to tremble after a white nationalist shot down worshipers and wounded first responders at a synagogue.

It is Friday, November 9. It is 2018, and I am afraid. But thank God, it is also Shabbat. Shabbat is the means by which Jews have always sought to transform our longing for shelter from the storms of life into a realized aspiration. Zachor et Yom Ha-Shabbat L’kodsho, these words in the Ten Commandments remind us all year long that the seventh day of each week is the day to remember Shabbat, to handle it with care, hallow it and let it make our week whole and complete.

Zachor. Remember Shabbat, remember our heritage. God is telling us to remember where you stand in the flow of time. Zachor, we are directed to show up and soak in the memories we have made. We are to remember. I don’t mean “remember” the way you remember to pick up wine to bring when you are a guest at someone’s home. Nor do I mean “remember” the way you remember to check the receipt before you sign your bill. Remembering Shabbat is saying “I love you back” when someone says “I love you.” Remembering Shabbat tonight means sending our love and support to families scorched by a yet another raging incident of gun violence in a country-western bar two nights ago in Southern California. Zachor tonight we remember those who are trying desperately to get out of harm’s way, as all of us long to enter into a period where as far as the eye can see is only what we dream for on Shabbat: celebration, rest, beauty and peace.

Zachor, this Shabbat we remember this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. For it contains the compelling narrative of Rebecca and Isaac striving to begin a family, struggling with infertility and then with a pregnancy for Rebecca where she is utterly riven with pain. In Chapter 25 of Genesis, we read that even in utero, the sons within Rebecca are torturously at war with one another. You can’t help but empathize with the physical pain Rebecca endures. Then she reveals her emotional distress to us. She says Im Ken, Lamah Zeh Anochi “if this is to be, why am I here?”

For years of studying this text, I haven’t known exactly what to call Rebecca’s plea for a sense of purpose. I can’t tell if she says the words or just ruminates on them. I wonder if they are disastrous premonitions of a cursed future, the kind that fleetingly pass through our minds. Or perhaps Rebecca’s outpouring qualifies as a prayer? What do you think? Are her queries to know why she must endure pain, to know why the lives within her must hate on and war with one another, are these prayers?

Eighty years ago tomorrow, November 10, 1938 when the Jews of Germany awoke to desecrated synagogues, they had but one day to step over the glass and prepare their souls for Shabbat. There was little time to figure out their existential purpose. According to the Nazi reports, more than 190 synagogues had been set on fire, another 76 were completely demolished along with many apartment houses and cemeteries. According to estimates at the time, the amount of plate glass destroyed on November 9 eighty years ago, the night of Kristalnacht, equaled half the annual production of the plate-glass industry of Belgium from which nearly all of it had been imported.

Can you imagine how staggering that view of shattered glass must have been to the souls of the Jews waking the morning after Kristallnacht? The Jews directly affected by this horrible pogrom knew that not only were their places of celebration and rest for Shabbat destroyed but so as well were the places they spent their weekdays, their places of business destroyed and many of their warehouses and apartment buildings, torched, broken, shattered.

Im Ken Lamah zeh anochi? Rebecca asked that if this kind of violence and pain was within her, why was she there? It has been 80 years and Rebecca’s questions again cry out to us, even as we are safely bound together tonight, even as we feel an extra degree of security and protection around us. But it makes me question still: why am I here? What are Jews and Judaism for other than for the haters of the world, including many more white supremacists than we would’ve liked to believe, to target us with their venom?

The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with our Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld and with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, once said that in his time, “even an infant could see that humanity stood at the edge of an abyss.” He said that “the possibility of saving the world from destruction depends on the recognition [of Judaism] that there is a supreme criterion by which we must evaluate all human values and that there is something that rises above all…” What is that one thing, that one criterion by which we should examine all humane values Rabbi Heschel taught that it is “the soul of every human being…”

But whose soul? Yours? Mine? Or perhaps the souls of the thousands of people who’ve recently stood at our side here in Cleveland and across the nation since the Pittsburgh shooting. So many of them have pledged to build with us a world of understanding and love and kindness. So many have offered their help in steadying us when so much feels shattered.

In recent days, I’ve tried to get such messages of solidarity across to you by email and to many of our congregation’s young people when I’ve visited with them in person. I decided last Friday to keep a previous commitment I made to a number of our congregation’s college students at Ohio State. I took them out for a meal, to talk with them, listen to them, and remind them that to us, there is nothing more valuable to us than the news that they are safe, supported and growing into the persons of integrity. A few days later, Cantor and I hosted our confirmation class for a special meal at my home, where we talked with them about what they found meaningful after the hate attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Tonight I must tell you: what each of these groups and individuals told me was both heartening and heart-breaking.

First, what was heartening? Our Fairmount Temple kids, those adolescing in high school or beginning their own independent lives in college are feeling confident in articulating and setting an example to fellow students about what it means to be a Jew and to defend themselves against hate. They said that being a Jew, given our history, means being resilient. It means holding onto hope. It means acting to stem despair and senseless rage that causes anyone to contemplate hurting themselves and others. Many of the kids asked after you and inquired how temple is doing. Cognizant that they feel safe, they are asking how they can help others. You’d be so proud of them.

But there is also something heartbreaking about what the kids told me about the attack in Pittsburgh. It is that given the range of their ages, they have simply grown up expecting that news will come out every couple of weeks of a horrid and preventable and violent attack on someone. Our kids see that no one is immune. Since they’ve been watching and absorbing the news, they’ve seen moviegoers killed watching a Batman movie in Colorado, Congressmen shot while playing a softball game outside of D.C. They remember a Chardon High School cafeteria scorched by gun violence and just in the last few years have seen hate-filled massacres occurred against peaceful worshippers of the Sikh faith in Wisconsin and the Christian faith in both Texas and South Carolina. The confirmation class kids at my home that Monday hated to admit it but…Pittsburgh was just our turn. Just our turn. God help me, how am I supposed to explain that idea to my racing mind when I try to sleep at night? How can any of us rest when such savagery and brutality is mixed in the same cocktail with little responsiveness from public leadership?

Fred Rogers used to say, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Do you remember how Mr. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, found a way to reach across the television screen of our childhood to be a source of reassurance and unconditional encouragement? Mr. Rogers was right. Even amidst times of fear and pain and desolation, there are always helpers.

This week I received an email with the words of a person who is a helper, a person whose thoughts about Pittsburgh can help us tonight, as we strive to figure out why we are here, why we exist amidst so much hardship and hate. The helper is a nurse at a hospital only a couple hours away from where we are praying tonight. The helper who wrote these words was educated in one of our movement’s synagogues and grew up at one of our movement’s camps. He wrote the following words:

I am the Nurse. Yes that Nurse. Yes, that Jewish Nurse. The same one people are talking about in the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 dead. The trauma nurse in the ER that cared for Robert Bowers who yelled, “Death to all Jews,” as he was wheeled into the hospital. The Jewish nurse who ran into a room to save his life. To be honest, I’m nervous sharing this. I just know I feel alone right now, and the irony of the world talking about me doesn’t seem fair without the chance to speak for myself. When I was a kid, being labeled “The Jewish (anything)”, undoubtedly had derogatory connotations attached to it. That’s why it feels so awkward to me that people suddenly look at it as an endearing term. As an adult, deflecting my religion by saying “I’m not that religious,” makes it easier for people to accept I’m Jewish – especially when I tell them my father’s a rabbi. “I’m not that religious,” is saying, “Don’t worry…I’m not so different than you,” and like clockwork, people don’t look at me as awkwardly as they had.

I experienced anti-Semitism a lot as a kid. It’s hard for me to say if it was always a product of genuine hatred, or if kids with their own problems found a reason to single me out. Sure, there were a few Jewish kids at my school, but no one else had a father who was a Rabbi. I found drawings on desks of my family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on my locker, notes shoved inside it saying, “Die Jew. Love, Hitler.” It was a different time back then, where bullying was not monitored like it is now. I was weak, too. Rather than tell anyone, I hid behind fear. Telling on the people who did this would only lead to consequences far worse.

Regardless, the fact that this shooting took place doesn’t shock me. To be honest, it’s only a matter of time before the next one happens. History refutes hope that things will change. My heart yearns for change, but today’s climate doesn’t foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility. Even before this shooting took place, there’s no real evidence supporting otherwise. The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center note that Jews only account for two percent of the U.S. population, yet 60% of all religious hate crimes are committed against them. I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.

So now, here I am, the Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers. I’ve watched them talk about me on CNN, Fox News, Anderson Cooper, PBS, and the local news stations. I’ve read articles mentioning me in the NY Times and the Washington Post. The fact that I did my job, a job which requires compassion and empathy over everything, is newsworthy to people because I’m Jewish. Even more so because my dad’s a Rabbi.

To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bower’s eyes. I saw something else. I can’t go into details of our interactions because of HIPAA. I can tell you that as his nurse, or anyone’s nurse, my care is given through kindness, my actions are measured with empathy, and regardless of the person you may be when you’re not in my care, each breath you take is more beautiful than the last when you’re lying on my stretcher. This was the same Robert Bowers that just committed mass homicide. The Robert Bowers who instilled panic in my heart worrying my parents were two of his 11 victims less than an hour before his arrival.

I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?

Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings.

I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading [or hearing] this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.

Respectfully, Ari Mahler, Registered Nurse.

I am going to conclude now. But first, I want to remind you of three truths. It is Friday, November 9. It is 2018. It is Shabbat. Each of these truths weigh on us tonight. It is not the day after Kristallnacht. It has been eighty years. But our kids are now being referred to by sociologists as “the massacre generation,” so it is hard to let go of the feeling that there is more broken glass to come. So tonight, this Shabbat, this day in history, I pray that the weight of their fears won’t keep them pinned down to the ground and motionless. Tonight we are here together, and this makes me a little less afraid. Tonight, even with all its hate and rage, I can hold world events within my grasp, and I feel less afraid. For within my hands, they seem to bear a little less weight. Within my hands, I can smooth their rough edges. The world in your presence seems palpable, and it feels less burdensome. Tonight on Shabbat with you, I know I can do something, something worth doing, something to make tomorrow different from today.