May 17, 2022 -

Living Out Loud As Jews

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Yom Kippur2021.

A dispatch from the old country:

The USSR suffered chronic shortages of consumer goods. Early one morning a rumor circulated in Moscow that a store was to receive a shipment of shoes. A queue formed immediately outside the store and continued to grow exponentially. After people had been waiting for an hour or so, the manager emerged and announced, “We will not receive enough shoes to accommodate everyone. Jews, leave the queue and go home.” And they did. A few hours later he emerged again and said, “We will not receive enough shoes to accommodate everyone. All non-veterans, go home.” And they did.

A few hours later he emerged again and said, “We will not receive enough shoes to accommodate everyone. All those who are not members of the Communist Party, go home.” And they did. As dusk was falling, he emerged for a final time and said, “We will not receive any shoes today. Everyone go home.” Deeply disappointed, two exhausted and shivering loyal communist party members, both of whom were World War II veterans, walked away from the store. As they did, one turned to the other and bitterly proclaimed, “Those Jews, they have all the luck!”[1]

This joke is at once funny and tragic. It articulates the absurdity that Jews are both the primary target of hatred AND disdainful envy. There is a big part of me that did not want to open my talk today with such a joke. I sometimes wonder if simply acknowledging the reality of antisemitism[2] gives it undeserving oxygen to live another day.

After all, haven’t we been through enough as Jews? Can we just agree that we should be done with the tumbling temples, the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the blood libels, the pogroms, and the Holocaust? And, might we attribute more contemporary spasms of hate in France, England, and even in America, as aberrations of the final gasps of an age-old antisemitism?

Could we just declare that we Jews have finally “made it,” ready to shed the label of victim, and put antisemitism to bed?

Not only that, but isn’t the world already on fire with issues of greater concern? The scourge of racism, domestic and international terrorism, the unceasing plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the increasingly frightening warming of our planet, a growing refugee crisis in so many parts of the world, not to mention a pandemic that has killed millions. Jews live in relative safety here in America. So do we really need to sound the alarm of antisemitism?

I think many of the students who have grown up in this congregation, and its environs, might have believed that antisemitism is no longer a problem… until they venture out into life beyond Northeast Ohio.

In the summer of 2020, I got a call from a temple parent of a rising freshman who would be attending an out-of-state college in the fall. The student (let’s call him, Colby[3]) was excited about starting his college career, and like so many of his peers began to learn with whom he would be sharing life in his dormitory. One evening, Colby had connected with one of his dorm-mates (let’s call her Carly).

Colby was messaging via social media with Carly.

They were chatting about their lives, and getting along well when she saw a photo of him with a Star of David necklace dangling over his shirt. “Is that a Jewish star?” Carly messaged Colby. Colby replied, “Yes, why do you ask?” Several hours passed by without a response.

Finally, Colby asked the girl point blank, “What is going on?” She replied, “I don’t talk to Jewish people.” He followed up with the credible question, “What about me is different from the person you were talking to before you knew I was Jewish?”

No response; the exchange never resumed.

For a kid like Colby who grew up in the eastern suburbs, those words hit hard and they hit deep. Colby had never really experienced antisemitism before in his life, protected by a largely accepting community around him.

When Colby’s mother reached me to unpack the episode, my heart sank. I was not surprised, but deeply saddened. I wanted to believe that our temple kids would be somehow immune from the antisemitism that I read about each day.

The truth of our world is different. Just recently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a report highlighting that while Jews make up only 2 percent of the U.S. population, they were the target of 57.5% of hate crimes motivated by religious bias[4]. Why is antisemitism so tenacious?

Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt of Emory University and recent nominee to be U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism[5], teaches that we have always been the convenient scapegoat:

By the nineteenth century, those on the political right were accusing all Jews of being Socialists, Communists, and revolutionaries. Those on the political left were accusing all Jews of being wealth-obsessed capitalists who were opposed to the social and economic betterment of the poor and working classes.[6]

No matter what time period you look at, the Jews have been blamed for the concerns of the day. Some recent examples:

Forest fires in California? They were caused by an electric company’s negligence and the growing crisis of global warming, but were purportedly caused by Jewish space lasers according to a United States Representative[7].

The dismantling of confederate shrines? Jews were called out at the 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the dismantling of a monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “Jews will not replace us[8],” was the White Supremacists’ refrain.

America’s intractable refugee crisis? One year after Charlottesville, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 11 worshippers were killed and six injured by a domestic terrorist who objected to the synagogue marking HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat. HIAS was initially founded to serve Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe. The shooter, white nationalist Robert Gregory Bowers, penned just before his assault, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. I’m going in[9]

Unfortunately, condemnation of the Jews has not only arisen on the extreme political right. Anti-Jewish sentiment comes from the left, too!

Today, Israel has become a polarizing issue in politically progressive communities. There has been a blurring of the lines in condemnation of Israel, and placing the blame for the plight of Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza squarely on the Jewish people as a whole.

In June of this year, another U.S. Representative tweeted an equivalency of Israel to the Taliban and Hamas, saying:

“We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban[10]“.

As a result, the congresswoman was castigated by 12 Jewish Democratic lawmakers[11].

She later attempted to clarify her remarks by stating that she was not making “a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel[12]” – but the damage was done.

We are seeing more of this from the left. Our progressive young adults see their friends, contemporaries, and even celebrities they follow post on social media, critiquing Israel and using Zionism as an offensive epithet. They feel a combination of anger, shame, and sadness as people they admire and respect are denigrating the State of Israel, a place they learned to love here at temple…a place they have visited on our congregational trips, and on Birthright.

On college campuses, they must learn to navigate a world of peers that looks quite different from Solon, Beachwood and Shaker Heights. They leave our temple feeling safe in their Judaism, but often face a rude awakening on campus.

When a recent temple member, let’s call her Kayla[13], first began her college career, she started to notice ignorant, anti-Israel sentiment on social media. After the initial shock, Kayla has become emboldened to tamp down anti-Jewish comments whenever she sees them, asserting to an acquaintance that she should “not use that phrase” and telling another, “you should check your facts”. As a result, Kayla has earned the respect of her peers by standing up for herself and her people. Currently, she is active at Hillel, and taking a course on Jewish history as she continues to educate herself and grow as a Jew.  

Let me return to Deborah Lipstadt.

She tells the story of one of her students at Emory who ended up in her office to talk about coursework. In the midst of their time together, the young student told his professor that he has decided to wear a kippah every time there is an anti-Semitic attack. The student felt proud, but Lipstadt said that she felt differently. She reflected:

I smiled. After all, I admire his moxie, his chutzpah, his desire to show his identity not cower in fear.

But at the same time, inside, my heart was breaking – because he had allowed the antisemites to determine when he felt Jewish.

…He had ceded to them the power over his Jewish identity. In short, he was motivated by the “oy” and not the joy of Jewish life.

That’s not my Judaism, and I don’t want it to be his…

Lipstadt went on…

I was glad that my student wanted to proclaim his identity, but as he left my office, I prayed that he’d build it eventually on the knowledge of what Jews do, and not what is done to Jews.

(Two years ago in Halle), Germany (after an attack during services on Yom Kippur day), when the police wouldn’t let people go out of the building that was serving as a synagogue because the situation was still insecure, they continued to pray and to sing. And then, when they were evacuated to the hospital, they gathered in the cafeteria and they finished their Yom Kippur prayers. And they sang and they danced. And then they had a good German beer.

It was an affirmation of life in the face of potential death. But for a reinforced door, there could have been a tragedy of unbelievable proportions. Those Jews were sending us a message: Even as others rise up to harm us and try to destroy us, we live as Jews – not because of them, but despite them, we revel in our Jewish identity.

And so (Lipstadt goes on) my hope for my student – and for the next generation – is that as they go through life, they will know that being a Jew is about so much more than just being a victim.

My prayer is that affirmation of their Jewish identity will be rooted not in Jew as object (what is done to Jews) but in Jew as subject (what Jews do).[14]

Lipstadt’s words speak to me deeply.

We must embody a sense of wholeness and holiness in our worth as a people. We must move ahead, yes, with vigilance, but also with purpose and joy—defining ourselves by the essential values we share and traditions we hold dear, instead of by our people’s oppression, and relegation to the graveyards of our past.

To be more pointed about it, the antidote to antisemitism is to live out loud as Jews. Only by respecting ourselves will we earn the respect of others. That requires us to explore the myriad ways in which we can express our Judaism, and choose ways that are meaningful for us. It requires us to educate ourselves about our history, about our texts, about Israel, for we can’t defend ourselves against the forces of hate if we don’t know what we are defending. We must learn, not only how to conduct a conversation with those who challenge or even attack us, but how to conduct our lives so that they are infused with the precious spirit of Judaism that can elevate our every day. 

This Yom Kippur afternoon, we will read from the Book of Leviticus. The text begins with the words, “K’doshim T’hiyu…You shall be holy[15].” It means that each one of us is imbued and inscribed with infinite worth. Our holiness is determined by who we are and what we do.

This brings me back to our congregant and recent grad, Colby. Colby and I have stayed in touch for the past year. Thankfully, he has managed to acclimate well to his college campus, and he is even now part of an active Jewish fraternity. As for the young woman who shut down the conversation upon seeing his Star of David, well the two never really reconciled, but that’s alright.

The episode helped Colby understand that antisemitism will likely always exist in his lifetime, but he must not live his life afraid. His pride in his Judaism has not withered, and in addition to his Star of David, Colby now wears a tattoo, Hebrew letters emblazoned near his heart: Kuf-Dalet-Vav-Shin

It reads: Kadosh – Holy.


[1] Antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, p 8-9

[2] For a treatment on the spelling, see: https://www.adl.org/spelling

[3] “Colby” is a real Fairmount Temple member. I changed his name to protect confidentiality.

[4] https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-jews-most-targeted-religious-group-in-2020-hate-crimes-fbi-says-1.10169147

[5] https://www.timesofisrael.com/holocaust-historian-deborah-lipstadt-nominated-as-us-antisemitism-envoy/

[6] Antisemitism, Lipstadt, p. 16

[7] While U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene did not explicitly use the words, “Jewish Space Lasers”, she did allude to a Jewish conspiracy: https://www.newsweek.com/marjorie-taylor-greene-claims-jewish-space-lasers-conspiracy-theory-was-fake-news-1574928

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/16/charlottesville-neo-nazis-vice-news-hbo

[9] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/11/hias-tree-of-life-shooting-immigration.html

[10] https://twitter.com/ilhan/status/1401985884191404041?lang=en

[11] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/group-house-democrats-condemn-rep-omar-remarks-about-u-s-n1270290

[12] https://www.npr.org/2021/06/10/1005227610/omar-is-forced-to-clarify-after-democrats-say-she-equated-u-s-israel-with-terror

[13] “Kayla” is a real temple member. I have changed her name with respect to confidentiality.

[14] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/being-jew-about-so-much-more-being-victim

[15] Leviticus 19:2