Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey

WE ARE NOT VICTIMS. WE ARE JEWS.
Shabbat Vayigash

The following is the sermon given by Rabbi Dr. Andy Dubin on January 3, 2020

For some time now, and not just the past two weeks, I've been struggling to figure out how to talk publicly about the uptick in anti-Semitic attacks. Unfortunately, it's much easier to lend support to other communities under attack than it is to cry out when it's your own people under attack.

And then came the 7th night of Hanukah in Monsey. Less than two minutes after bursting through the front door of a private celebration, the machete-wielding maniac left behind five stab-wound victims as he sped away in his car. One of those victims, Josef Neumann, remains hospitalized in critical condition. Doctors tell us that if he should ever regain consciousness, he will most likely live the rest of his life at least partially paralyzed and with severe brain damage.

Of course, this is hardly the first attack the Jewish community has had to absorb over the past couple of years.

According to Anti-Defamation League statistics, there were 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents reported to law enforcement in 2018, the deadliest of which was in October when 11 Jewish worshipers were gunned down, and two more severely injured, at the Tree of life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Actually, this was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack not only of 2018, but in all of U.S. history. So too was it also only one of 39 instances of anti-Semitic violent physical assault reported that year, which more than doubled the number of reported anti-Semitic violent physical assaults from 2017.

The other reported incidents ranged from harassment to vandalism. All in all, the ADL determined that while the total number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 decreased by 5 percent from 2017 (1,986 cases) to 2018--notwithstanding the 105 percent increase in violent assaults--when compared to 2016, the overall number was 48 percent higher in 2018, and a whopping 99 percent higher when compared to 2015. Statistics have not yet been compiled for 2019, but clearly the numbers are as bad or worse than they were in 2018. Nowhere is this truer than in my hometown of New York City, where police statistics show that since December 23 alone, there have been at least 13 reported cases of hate crimes against Jewish victims.

On Monday, December 23, 28-year-old Steven Jorge of Miami yelled "F- You! You Jew bastard!" and then sucker-punched an unsuspecting 65-year-old Orthodox man on 41st Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. When the victim fell to the ground, Jorge proceeded to kick him while down.

That same evening, two Jewish boys, just 6 and 7 years old, were punched inside the lobby of their own apartment building.

Still later that same day, actually, it was at 1:40 Tuesday morning, another group in Brooklyn started yelling anti-Semitic remarks at a 25-year-old Jewish man, and then one of the members of the group threw a drink at him. Fortunately, there were no physical injuries.

And then on Tuesday during the early evening, another group of troublemakers punched an unsuspecting 56-year-old man from behind on Union Street in Brooklyn.

Two days later, on Thursday, December 26, 43-year-old Ayana Logan was charged with an anti-Semitic hate crime assault after allegedly striking a 34-year old Jewish woman in the face with her bag.

Not to be outdone, 30-year-old Tiffany Harris of Brooklyn was arrested and charged with a hate crime after she allegedly slapped three Jewish women while yelling anti-Semitic statements.

On the final day of 2019, a group of teenagers threw a chain at a 23-year-old Hasidic man as he walked by. As the man continued walking, a few from the group followed him in order to get in a few punches as well. This same group, it seems, had assaulted a 56-year-old Hasidic man in the same neighborhood earlier that day.

And then, on New Year's Day, the very day Governor Cuomo came to Brooklyn to voice his solidarity with the Jewish community, two women approached a 22-year-old Hasidic man in Williamsburg, yelled anti-Semitic remarks at him, threw him to the ground, and broke his phone. One of the women also punched him in the neck.

All in all, the NYPD reports that anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 63 percent in 2019, with 152 reports as opposed to 93 in 2018.

These New York City attacks, of course, came just a couple of weeks after a man and woman killed three Jewish shoppers at a Jersey City kosher grocery on December 12. Earlier that same day, they had killed a police officer at a nearby cemetery.

Indeed, these are scary times, so scary, that many Jewish men in the orthodox community have actually begun to hide their identities by wearing baseball caps in public rather than visible kippot. It's understandable, of course, but just so sad.

From the part of this week's Torah portion that Shira just read for you, beginning with Genesis 46:33:

"When Pharaoh summons you and asks, 'What is your occupation?' you shall answer, 'Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers' -so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians."

The instructions are clear. Even though they are shepherds, Joseph tells them to skip that detail and emphasize their role as breeders of livestock. Why? Because Joseph, knowing full well that shepherds were disrespected in Egyptian society, wanted to protect his brothers from embarrassment, ridicule, or worse. But then, in verse 3 of chapter 47, when the brothers finally meet Pharaoh, things don't go quite as planned: "Pharaoh said to Joseph's brothers, 'What is your occupation?' They answered Pharaoh, 'We your servants are shepherds.'"

Oy! The one thing Joseph wanted them not to say, they went ahead and said. Surely, at least from Joseph's perspective, they were doomed.

But keep reading, because it turns out better than expected.

"As regards your father and your brothers who have come to you," said Pharaoh to Joseph, "the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. . . ." So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt . . . as Pharaoh had commanded.

So what was it that made the brothers ignore Joseph's guidance? What was it that gave them the confidence to share their true identities with Pharaoh? What was it that made Joseph and his brothers approach the situation so differently?

While I can't say I know for sure, what I do know is that while Joseph had spent these many years immersed in Egyptian culture, the brothers had been among family. While Joseph had been forced by circumstances to care what his neighbors thought of him, the brothers faced no pressure to be anyone other than who they were.

Joseph may be the hero of our story, but it is the brothers whose example can help us navigate successfully through a world polluted by anti-Semitism. Yes, it makes sense to be prudent with matters of security, as we are doing here at the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey, but let's not forget the value of presenting ourselves to the world exactly as we are as well.

So, what exactly should we do about the rise in anti-Semitic statistics?

At first, I thought the answer was to force ourselves on the haters by becoming more Jewishly visible, not less. To say to them, "You think you can shut us down? Just try it!" That would show them, I thought. But then I thought more about it, and here's what I concluded:

Other than extending our support to victims, and other than fostering relationships of trust and honor beyond the Jewish community, and other than taking the prudent security steps, what we really should be doing, as Jews, about anti-Semitism is,

     quite frankly,

          nothing.

Yes, in the face of rising anti-Semitism, I say we should do nothing. Not that we shouldn't recognize its existence, but we mustn't allow anti-Semites the privilege of defining who we are as Jews.

While I understand the inclination some may feel to start wearing kippot more often outside the worship setting in order to show solidarity with our Orthodox brethren who feel afraid to wear theirs--I understand it because it was my first inclination, too--the fact is, that is not who I am as a Jew. I have plenty of reasons, and I'm happy to discuss them at another time, but for the purpose of tonight's message, let me just say that this is not the most natural way for me to live my most authentic life as a Jew.

While it really does make me sad that Orthodox men in New York City have begun to substitute baseball caps for kippot, the reason is because that means they are unable to live their own authentically Jewish lives, not because their camouflaged headgear keeps me from living my own authentically Jewish life. Therefore, for me to start wearing a kippah more often outside of the prayer setting would be to present a false presentation of who I am, and I'm not prepared to do that. I'm not ready to allow the anti-Semites to dictate how I should express myself to the world as a Jew. My Judaism is a life of celebration and peoplehood and wisdom and God, and so much more. What my Judaism is not is victimhood. I am not a Jew because people paint me into that corner. I am a Jew because I choose to be a Jew, because I love being a Jew, because I find ultimate meaning in being a Jew. I create my path. I am not relegated to it.

Two days ago, on New Year's Day, in the midst of this spike in anti-Semitic violence, the most amazing thing happened. Ninety thousand Jews came together at MetLife Stadium to celebrate the conclusion of a 7 year process of reading through the entire Talmud--one page per day. Simultaneously, while MetLife Stadium was filled to the brim with celebrating Jews, so too was Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Truth be told, I have very little interest in participating in events like these, because they do not reflect who I am as a Jew. Yes, I appreciate Talmud, and yes, I wish I had the patience to read a new page every day, but even if I did, I still wouldn't have chosen to celebrate the accomplishment with 90,000 Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, because my authentic Judaism demands an egalitarian approach, not a stadium filled with men on the field level dancing and praying and women elsewhere. But just because that's not who I am, that doesn't mean it's not who they are, which is why I was so happy to see these sports arenas packed with celebrating Jews! It was Jewish people behaving Jewishly because that's how they found meaning, and that always lifts my spirits. My Jewish cousins in black hats didn't come together to prove the anti-Semites wrong. They came together to celebrate life, to worship God, and to find unity in common cause.

And that, I would suggest, is exactly what we are doing here tonight. We are here because this is where our Jewish identities lead us to be. We are here because our Jewish souls demand we be with each other. We are here not because we are victims, not because the anti-Semites have a say in who we are or how we should express our Judaism, but because it is Shabbat, and this is simply what we do as Jews on Shabbat. We are not victims. We are Jews.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

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Last updated: January 6, 2020