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Sermon on Anti-Semitism at RIJC on March 15, 2024


Last week I spent almost every day listening to people speak about antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Fortunately, those people were very articulate, intelligent and inspiring. I learned a lot, and I was given much to think about.  At the antisemitism conference at my seminary, AJR’s director of spiritual life, Rabbi Jill Hammer, warned us that we would be discussing a difficult topic, and she urged us to take care of ourselves. Our first exercise was to break up into small groups and talk about our personal experiences with antisemitism, and the feelings that these caused. I spoke about how hurt and angry I was when someone called me a kike.


Rabbi Rob Scheinberg spoke of the centuries-old tropes of antisemitism, including the notion that Jews control the world. Some antisemitic ideas  contradict each other. For example, white supremacists believe that Jews are an inferior race to white people. Others, including Black Nationalists, think that Jews are Uber white, and that we started the slave trade, and colonized people of color in the middle east.


Leaders of Jewish life at Columbia and Barnard and at Princeton spoke told us how Jewish students are attending Shabbat dinners and services in record number, despite all of the antisemitic rhetoric, incidents and marches on those campuses. The Hillel leaders think that students may be participating in Jewish events not just despite, but BECAUSE of the antisemitism they are experiencing. Especially since October 7, Jewish college students low fear being partnered with a science lab partner or a roommate, who may express anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments.  An Israeli student at Columbia was kicked off of the board of her dance club after she refused to support an anti-Israel statement. Other Israeli and Jewish students were harassed by professors.


At the ADL’s conference last week, speakers stressed how Jews throughout the world are not okay. We are feeling so much pain since our brothers and sisters in Israel were raped, kidnapped and murdered. We are feeling pain as anti-Jewish attacks have increased world-wide. Since October 8, there have been 3,291 acts of antisemitism in the U.S. alone. 


Many of the conference speakers said that we Jews are not powerless or helpless. Like the college kids I mentioned, who are embracing Judaism, so too are many adults. Jewelers have seen an increase in sales of Jewish stars and chais. Thousands of people have made trips to Israel, to offer support and to volunteer.


Deborah Lipstadt spoke. She is a U.S. ambassador, a special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. You may remember that they made a movie about her court case against Penguin books after they published a book saying there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz. Rachel Weisz played Lipstadt in the movie, which is called Denial. Lipstadt, a historian, said that she did not think that we should be concerned that antisemitism in our country is like the antisemitism that was in Germany in 1933. In Germany, it was the government that was committing acts and enacting laws against Jews. In contrast, in our country, the government is actively fighting on behalf of Jews. In fact, Lipstadt’s staff has grown since October 7. Lipstadt ended her talk by saying there is no logical reason why Jews should still be alive in the world, let alone thriving!


One of the more painful panels I attended was about how Hamas used sexual assault as a weapon of war. Not only was it difficult to hear about the rapes and murders of women, and the castration of men on October 7. It was also awful to hear about how women’s rights groups and individuals have remained silent since the rapes. In response to the deafening silence, Hadassah and the National Council of Women presented a program at the U.N., urging them to investigate and issue a report on the sex crimes. The U.N. finally did issue a report. It took them five months, compared to the three days it took the U.N. to report on sex crimes in the Ukraine.


Last Shabbat, I had the good fortune to hear Congressman Ritchie Torres speak at Temple Israel in Great Neck, which is the Conservative shul in town. You may know Congressman Torres. He became NYC Councilman from the Bronx when he was just 25 years old. After serving in the council, he become a member of Congress, representing the Bronx and Riverdale.


I was extremely impressed with Congressman Torres, even more so after I learned about all that he has had to overcome. He grew up very poor and was hospitalized often as a child. He suffered from asthma due to mold in his apartment. He was also bullied as a child. Torres is gay and was afraid to come out of the closet. He dropped out of NYU due to severe depression.  Torres is extremely bright and thoughtful. He is incredibly articulate and funny, too. Torres had gotten a lot of push back from his fellow progressives, because he is strongly Zionist and pro-Jewish. I wish that there were more progressives who were like him.


Perhaps my favorite speaker at the ADL conference was Dara Horn. She is a novelist who wrote became more well known after she wrote her first non-fiction book, People Love Dead Jews. Horn spoke about how Jews have spent the last 3,000 plus years being not like everyone else, and we should be allowed to continue being not like everyone else. From our very start, we have been against idolatry, against many gods. In the early cultures where we lived, the Roman, Babylonia and Egyptian dictators said that they were gods, and expected people to treat them as such.


We Jews have always maintained that our leaders, even our kings, were mere mortal. In fact, Jewish kings were obliged to carry a copy of the Torah with them, so that they would remember that they, too, must follow its laws and teachings. Dara Horn urged her listeners to remember the courage of Esther. She risked her life when she spoke to her husband, the Persian king. Horn exhorted us to be strong and courageous, and to speak up. Let us all be brave like Queen Esther and like Congressman Torres. Let us stand up for Jews here, in Israel, and in the world.

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