16 October 2016

The Collateral Damage of Love-Bombing

Susan Sedwin forwarded this NPR article  to me:
Black and Jewish

Black, Jewish And Avoiding The Synagogue On Yom Kippur

My first thought is that I do not have an answer that will either heal the deep pain and alienation felt by the author, or, more importantly to me as a synagogue rabbi, that will avoid replicating this experience for other non-white Jews entering our places of worship.

My second is to say to Leah Donnella, "Please come back.  The organized Jewish community is not so good at this, but we are really trying to get better.  If you have the strength, we'd love for you to teach us how to do better."

My third, upon reflection, is to remember a story from our own congregation that comes from a different vector, but really illustrates the same problem.

When I came to our small suburban New Jersey congregation almost twenty years ago, we thought we were a very welcoming congregation.  The truth was that we really were not so good  - for very real, human reasons. A ninety year-old congregation of around two hundred families, our members did not actually know each other that well.  Most members knew some other members, but they did not know everyone.  Therefore, on a given Friday night, one member might be reluctant to introduce themselves to someone else at the oneg (the after service fellowship), because they feared embarrassment in showing their ignorance in not recognizing a long-term member.  People who were guests, because members assumed they were long-term members they just did not know, were not welcomed or sometimes even spoken to.  The bright shining exception was the day a black woman walked into services.  Immediately, she was surrounded by well-meaning congregants who wanted to show her how the prayerbook worked, introduce themselves, explain the blessings before we ate the oneg cookies, and on and on.  [Thank you to April Baskin, VP of Audacious Hospitality from the Union for Reform Judaism for informing me that this sometimes intrusive and overbearing behavior is called "love-bombing".]  I imagine the thought process went, "Well, she's black, so she's not Jewish, so she's not a member, so, thank God, I can welcome her and show us how nice and welcoming we really are."  Thank God, she was not Jewish - otherwise she might have been having exactly the same reaction and experience that Ms. Donnella recounts in the article above.  My point - even though we were attempting from the bottom of our hearts to be well-meaning and welcoming - our assumptions might often give the opposite effect.

The sad truth is that Jews who do not fit the internal stereotype are often supposed not to be Jews by the Ashkenazic majority present in the synagogue.  The reality is that Jews never have and certainly not in today's America all look the same.  We should have learned from my great-aunt Mary that there are many people in our community without Jewish sounding names - now reflected in Hendersons, McNallys, Wangs, and Christiansens listed on our membership rolls.  Jews with Asian ancestry have been telling us for a generation that when they walk in the synagogue and show some familiarity or expertise with Jewish practice others assume that they were adopted or converted to Judaism.  I even admit, as a rabbi, that from the bimah, I have to remind myself when I speak of Jews and our relationship with the African-American community that it is not us and them, but that there are some of us who are both.

[I just interrupted typing this post to step out of my office, this Sunday morning, as I listened to a teacher teaching about American Jewish history, say, "Most of our ancestors came from Russia" to change that to "Many of us", and mention ancestors of all different types from all different places, some Jewish, some not.]

We have a long way to go - and there are some who, justifiably, may have neither the patience for us to change, the fortitude to help us make the necessary change, or the forbearance to deal with those who have not yet heard or will not change.

We - all of us - Jews of all backgrounds - can only try to do what we should in most situations - live up to the dictum to love your neighbor as yourself, by truly placing ourselves in their perspectives.  We need to ask ourselves, how is what we say, in the best of intentions, being heard?  Because we truly want to be welcoming, not to push people away.

10 August 2016

Do Not Let Baseless Hatred Destroy Our Society

Because most synagogues have less activity (including no religious school) in the summer, the holiday of Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av) often passes by unremarked.  While most Jewish holidays celebrate a massive deliverance, Tisha b’Av* marks not just one national tragedy, but several.  It is believed that the first Temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon, was destroyed on this date in 586 BCE by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar.  The second Temple, built by Ezra and Nehemiah after the return from the Babylonian Exile (and rebuilt by Herod), was also destroyed on this date by the Romans under Titus.  The Arch of Titus in Rome is a commemoration of this Roman victory.  Jews, however, mark this moment as the beginning of the Diaspora, when the Jewish community, previously centered in the land of Israel (the Roman province of Judea) is spread out all over the known world.  Since that time, Jewish traditions of mourning have included not using musical instruments in worship, lessening the celebration and joyous occasions, and fasting for twenty-four hours on this date.

The Biblical books of the Prophets, especially Jeremiah, explain that the reason for the destruction of the first Temple was that the Israelites were not worshipping correctly.  However, the Rabbis of the 1st century knew that the rituals of the Temple were being properly followed, and determined that the destruction of the second Temple was a result of a different sin - sinat chinam - or baseless hatred.  Hatred of others without cause is what the founders of rabbinic Judaism considered to be the reason that the Jewish polity was destroyed.  Sadly, we see the signs of modern polity being destroyed by the same cause.

Baseless hatred, in our time, is not hating others without a justification.  Sadly, we can often find justification for any hatred - of those who have more money, or those who have less; of those who speak differently, look differently, or worship differently; of those who came to this country a generation or two before or after our ancestors; of those who have strongly held opinions different from our own.  Rather, baseless hatred is hatred without need.  There are things which we need to hate - injustice, poverty, hunger, disease  - things which sap our strength and we can combat.  People, we do not need to hate.  Other people, we need to understand.  Baseless hatred destroys our society by moving us apart.  We do not listen to those we hate.  We do not see the pain in their hearts.  We do not acknowledge that though we disagree with them, they come to their beliefs with their own passion and logic.

The subtle wickedness - the perfidy - of baseless hatred, is that it allows us to justify ourselves and those whom we believe are with us, while we can ignore those who we think are not.  But, this realization gives us the key that we need to fight baseless hatred.  If we decide not to assume that everyone with a different opinion is a moron; if we stop de-friending those whose posts rankle us; if we take even a moment to listen to the deeply-held feelings of others, we break through that hatred.  Importantly, even if we disagree, we need to listen with an attitude of empathy.  

Do not be the one who shuts the other out; who denies another person their voice.  That is the true hatred - the walling of those we disagree with - and we should be building bridges, not walls.  Open up a conversation, and close the door on hate.

*Tisha b’Av will be marked this year beginning the evening of Saturday,August 13th - actually the 10th of Av, because the 9th is the Sabbath, when fasting is generally prohibited.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, a Reform congregation.  He is a past-President of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Ministerium, and co-founder and current Vice President of Social Justice Matters, Inc..  He is also part of the leadership of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis - a national group of Reform Rabbis working together for racial and economic equity.