Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Anti-Semitism and the President

​Let's talk about all these JCC bomb threats.​

I work at a Jewish Community Center. Thank God the building I work in has not yet been the target of a bomb threat, like ​nearly 70 other ​JCC​s across the country in the past month, but ​the threats still hit home​. My friends and colleagues have been evacuated from their offices and children shepherded out of harm's way per carefully-planned security procedures. These threats, some near and some far away, echo in my workplace in heightened security checks and more frequent reviews of evacuation plans.

Dealing with anti-Semitism comes with the territory of being Jewish and it takes many forms. It can be an off-handed remark based in ignorance, graffiti scrawled on a synagogue, headstones overturned in a Jewish cemetery, or threats to Jewish community centers. If you can stomach it, you can listen to an audio clip of one of the past month's phone threats here.

I​ would be lying if I said it wasn't at least a little scary to go to work everyday in this environment, but I am less gripped by fear than by anger. I'm angry that my workplace is a target because it is Jewish. Of course, I'm angry that anti-Semitism exists and is on the rise. I'm angry that these callers and vandals have so much hate in them and that anti-Semites and hate-mongers feel empowered in America today.

When the first few waves of threats were called in, I thought I didn't need or want our 45th president to respond. I certainly wasn't going to hold my breath waiting for him to express concern for our communities. He was, after all, dealing with other enemies - the media, the National Park Service, millions of cases of voter fraud, and refugees and legal green card holders - and he has been busy spending our taxes traveling to and from his Florida resort. Besides, his speech - stilted, unrefined, combative, and limited in its expressive vocabulary - has never been able to move me to anything but repulsion. I did not need him to make some hollow statement, some empty gesture. 

Except, I did need that.

Yesterday, another 11 JCCs received threats and, like all the others so far, they turned out to be hoaxes. But yesterday, I realized that I had lost count of how many threats had been reported this year. Was this the third round or the fifth? How many times now had the Birmingham JCC where I used to work been forced to evacuate? And after watching the president specifically dodge a question about combating anti-Semitism just a week before, I had finally had enough.

This president does not get to claim that he is the "least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life." He does not get to hide behind having a Jewish daughter or excuse himself because Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has "known [him] for a long time." This president ran a campaign of hate. His campaign rejected civility (or "political correctness"), revived the anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric of "America First," and evoked old stereotypes and tropes linking Jews to some secret global power structure that does not exist. He retweeted neo-Nazis and was hesitant to denounce the support of the KKK. His campaign and his victory gave hope to anti-Semites, racists, bigots, and all the worst slime of our society. And so, while I knew that nothing he could say would ring true to my ear as I enter my workplace every morning, I did still need him in his capacity as our president to say something.

Yesterday, after the latest 11 JCC threats, his Jewish daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted:

Last night, the White House released a statement condemning "hatred and hate-motivated violence."

This morning, Hillary Clinton joined in:

After all that, the president himself finally uttered the words he had been avoiding. During a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he said:
"The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil." 
It is one of his more coherent sentences, without the asides and repetitive hyperbole characteristic of his speech. It is, of course, not enough. It feels insincere given his history on the campaign trail and the fact that it took almost 70 bomb threats and a month of nagging to get him to say anything at all about an issue that the president should be forced to address. So, while his statement left me every bit as underwhelmed as I expected it would, the fact that he said anything when he so clearly did not want to feels like a small victory and I'll take it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Quote of the Week: Teamwork

One of my boss' favorite phrases is "teamwork makes the dream work." I don't know where she picked it up and if it makes you groan at how corny it sounds, you are not alone. Yet, as we prepare to read Parsha Yitro this weekend, I can't help thinking that it is extremely relevant.

In this portion, Moses' father-in-law, Yitro (or Jethro) visits the newly-freed Israelites in the desert and almost immediately notices the inefficiency of this new nation. All issues in need of arbitration are brought to Moses, who personally hands down judgments on all the people's problems. Seeing that this is tiring for both Moses and the people waiting patiently for their turn to be heard, Yitro proposes a solution: teamwork. Moses chose trusted leaders in the community to hear cases and make judgments for the people's minor issues, leaving only a "major matter" (Exodus 18:22) for Moses to personally hear. By delegating the work in this way, Yitro lessened the burden for Moses and shortened the wait time for the people, so that they would not be overwhelmed.

Where the people had once spent entire days waiting to deliberate their problems, they could now be heard much more quickly, leaving time for other important matters, like finding food and water, protecting themselves from enemies, and worshiping God. We learn from this portion that asking for help and relying on others is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength and trust necessary for the furtherance of any nation and betterment of mankind.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Quote of the Week: Tu B'Shevat

Friday night is Tu B'Shevat, a minor Jewish holiday celebrating the New Year of the Trees. In that spirit, I would like to take a moment to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds us every day.

This weekend, we will read Parsha Beshalach, in which God finally leads the Israelites out of Egypt. There is danger awaiting us on this new journey, not only the Philistines and other people, but from the unforgiving desert wilderness. In Beshalach, we come up against nature again and again - our escape route is blocked by the Red Sea, scarce water is undrinkably bitter, then there is no water at all, and the ground is barren with no food to sustain us on our long trek.

In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
"Monotheism in teaching that God is the Creator, that nature and man are both fellow-creatures of God, redeemed man from exclusive allegiance to nature. The earth is our sister, not our mother." -Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone
If the earth is our sister, she certainly acts like it in this parshaSometimes we don't get along with our siblings; we refuse to share our toys and withhold things from them. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder from our parents to play nicely, call our siblings more often, and look out for one another. In Beshalach, nature (with some prompting from God) takes care of us. The sea parts safely, bitter water becomes sweet, food appears on the ground like dew, and water flows freely from a rock.

On Tu B'Shevat, how can we return the favor? Aside from taking a moment to appreciate our surroundings and enjoying this unseasonably warm weather, here are some other ways to celebrate the holiday:
  • Clean up your neighborhood - Next time you see a discarded food wrapper on the sidewalk, pick it up and throw it away. Or call your local Parks Department to volunteer to clean up a neighborhood park.
  • Plant a tree in Israel - You can donate online to the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in honor of a special occasion or in memory of a loved one.
  • Recycle - If you don't recycle at home or at work, look into recycling centers near you or talk to your coworkers about instituting a recycling program in your office. When I lived in an apartment complex that didn't recycle, I drove my cans, bottles, and paper to a recycling center 20 minutes away.
  • Composting - Try composting at home; the EPA has a handy guide to get your started. You can do it in your backyard or, if you're like me and don't have any outdoor space of your own, try a smaller composting container inside. I have a friend who has an indoor compost - it's a super-cute ceramic jar on her kitchen counter and it doesn't smell or anything.
However you celebrate, chag sameach; have a happy Tu B'Shevat!