Anti-Semitism vs. Our Real America

A few weeks ago, I officiated at the funeral of an 84-year-old man, Sigmund Rotenberg. Sigmund had the unfortunate luck to be born in 1934 in Berlin to a Jewish family. When he was eight, his parents did the unthinkable, ultimate, selfless act of bringing him and his older brother, Wolfgang, to a church in Belgium, asking the priest to take care of their children until they could come back to collect them when things calmed down. They never did.

The priest, Father Celis, knew that by saying yes to the request of the Rotenbergs, he was seriously risking his own life, but it didn’t stop him and his housekeeper, Marie Tabruyn, from taking the boys in and raising them as their own. 

They changed the boys’ names and taught them how to live and pray like devout Catholics, but every morning the priest insisted that they recite their Hebrew prayers so they would not forget that they were Jewish. In a testimony that Sigmund taped before his death he said that he never felt so Jewish in his life as he did while living in the church.

A little over a year ago, as I was watching the hate-laden people marching with swastikas and torches outside of a synagogue in Charlottesville, SC, chanting Nazi lines, I had a disturbing feeling that perhaps we, American Jews, are reacting in a similar way to that of our European brothers and sisters in the early 20th century, convincing ourselves that “this too shall pass.”

Today, as our people bury the 11 victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue Massacre, we know that things just got worse.

On November 9, we commemorated the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of the shattered glass, when 267 synagogues were destroyed, 96 Jews were murdered, 30,000 Jews were incarcerated, and thousands of Jewish businesses and schools were torched.  

Is this going to be our future?

I want to shout, “No way!” but can we honestly do that, knowing that since Charlottesville, there has been an increase of more than 50% in anti-semitic incidents in our country? And this is not just a number—many of our kids feel it in their schools.

Can I honestly say, “No way!” when in the first 24 hours after the killing in Pittsburgh, on Instagram alone, 12,000 anti-semitic posts were displayed, including hashtags #Jewsdid911 and other hashtags using the number 88, an abbreviated version of “Heil Hitler?”

But do I have some good news? Yes I do. Our Jewish anthem is Hatikvah, “The Hope”.

During the Holocaust there were thousands of individuals like Fr. Celis, who were willing to give up their lives to save Jews, but there were hardly any communities that had the strength to stand up to the Nazis saying, “enough,” “this is not okay,” and “we will not tolerate it.”

But here, in America of the 21st century, there are thousands of those communities, and we are  blessed to be among them.

We are a community showing the world what the real America is, as we stand together against hate.

Our real America is the America of the police officers who ran straight into the line of fire to save as many worshipers as they could.

Our real America is the one that sent money and other resources to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh to help them to rebuild what hate destroyed. The Muslim community alone, which endures its own share of hate, raised over $150,000.

Our real America is the country of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who, when he was ordered by the Nazi officer at the POW Camp to separate the Jewish American soldiers so they would be sent to the death camp, ordered more than 1,000 of his captive soldiers to step forward with him as he pronounced, “We are all Jews”.

If there is one thing we need to learn from history, it is that when Jews are attacked, other groups will soon fall victim to hatred. And it also works in reverse, when others are hated—be it African-Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ, immigrants—the hatred will surely find its way against the Jews.

My friends, we live in the greatest country with the greatest people. But as a few drops of ink muddle a pool of pure water, a small group of bigots and racists who spread hate wherever they go muddle the soul of our society.

We can no longer wait for things to get better—this train has long left the station. We must actively and purposely fight hate, be it in the political arena or around the table on Thanksgiving when our brother-in-law cracks a racist joke.

We just witnessed how quickly words of hate turn into deadly actions.

My friends, I have never been so proud to be part of a community. I will never take your support and love for granted.

May God bless us all.