“Va’yakom melech hadash” – “And a new king arose who knew not Joseph.”
The words from the opening of this week’s Torah reading are eerily prescient. They describe how, incited by Egypt’s new ruler, the Israelites turned from being privileged people of power and influence to being the targets of conspiratorial whispers and creeping fear in the eyes of their neighbors.
Worldwide, we see this story being reenacted today. Dictatorial governments use fear of immigrants and refugees – even of those born in the country and who can count the generations since their ancestors arrived – to distract the population from governmental corruption or malfeasance. The election campaign of the incoming president used these tropes plentifully.
Many of us, not least in the American Jewish community, are struggling with how to handle the post-election despair of everyday traumatic headlines, while working out how to anticipate the future. Some say it’s like being between the earthquake and the consequent tsunami. Should we breathe easily in moments of relative quiet or use the time to brace for the next catastrophe? Monitor every new outrage or refuse to share any depressing updates, only focusing on positive news?
There isn't one right way. But unquestionably we need to strengthen our capacity for survival, resilience and resistance. Communities will be more important than ever. My own community, Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, is working on how to become a powerful spiritual community of resistance and love.
How? First of all, we must educate ourselves: What does history tell us about how tyrants have unleashed hatred against minorities, and what forms of resistance have been successful?
We must expand our communal support systems. We need to make our community model the kindness and strength we want the larger world to adopt. We will answer anti-Semitism with a redoubled commitment to Jewish practice and values.
We won’t abandon the progressive organizations in Israel, such as the Israel Religious Action Center, the Jerusalem Open House, and the New Israel Fund, with whom we share such deep values.
Since the election, we have experienced months of hateful words and deeds. New York City has seen a 157% rise in hate crimes: anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, anti-stranger. We are all in this together, which is why we must act together, those of us who are strong, those who are vulnerable.
We will build real and lasting connections to our Muslim neighbors. The Muslim community is one of the first targets of institutional and individualized hate. As LGBTQS Jews, we know about being targeted. Starting this Friday, minutes after the inauguration, working with, we will hold weekly welcome vigils at the Islamic Center of NYU and Muslim Community Network and invite others to join us.
We will raise our voices and partner with organizations to create a persistent and clear message of resistance to any and all abhorrent policies and actions by our new government. As a synagogue, our formal participation in electoral politics is limited by law, but nothing prohibits our protesting or supporting administration policies. We will fight the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant and anti-environment political rhetoric that is already all too visible.
All these are reasons why this community of LGBT Jews has proudly committed to the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st.
One thing we have learned from the election is the degree to which Americans don’t know each other. Being part of a national coalition with groups of all kinds will be a powerful learning opportunity unto itself.
Jewish organizations must be present, to combat the divisiveness that right-wing strategists are sowing to weaken resistance. We all know that, in order to curry favor with the incoming administration, certain Jewish organizations and individuals have decided to abandon their commitment to Jewish values of caring for the vulnerable and pursuing justice. They are a minority of American Jews, but they have big money and big institutional names that grant them the appearance of legitimacy as spokespeople for American Jewry. I think we will see a more accurate, representative and uplifting picture of the American Jewish community within the coalition of marchers on January 21.
The rise of hate is a global phenomenon. We must be vigilant and informed, let ourselves be inspired by the values of Judaism, and in turn inspire others to right and thoughtful action.
We simply cannot afford to get lost in despair or become embittered. We are beginning a marathon, and as Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1944, “just as the forces of fascism are evil, we must be just as, if not more so, forcefully good.”
Since 1992, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum has been the spiritual leader of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a voice for equality and justice for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions. Follow her on Twitter: @SKleinbaum
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