Category Archives: genocide

A special message for Shabbat: Remembering Kristallnacht and Veteran’s Day

This weekend is an extraordinary confluence of memories and events that I pray leads to our rededication to the values we cherish as a nation and as Jews. Kristallnacht and Veteran’s Day are times of extraordinary solemn remembrance. The lessons we learn from these can shape our commitment to the world we seek to achieve.

 

November 9 marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Nazi Germany’s great pogrom and genocide against the Jewish people. The oppression and persecution of the Jews of Europe entered a new and deadlier phase bringing the long-simmering anger and aggression out into the open as Goebbels encouraged mass arrests, violence against Jews and any visible signs of Jewishness, including synagogues, stores, and our sacred texts.

 

WW1 veteran Joseph Ambrose, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He holds the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War.

November 11 marks Veteran’s Day, the time we honor those who have bravely fought to preserve, protect, and defend our country and the values we represent. Eventually, these men and women fought against the Nazi’s tyrannical regime built on hate but sadly too late to rescue the 6 million Jews slaughtered.

 

And yesterday, November 9, I was proud to accompany the Women’s Philanthropy Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia on a trip to Washington, DC to advocate both in Congress and the White House for DACA, Responsible Gun Legislation, Food Insecurity and the SNAP program, and against BDS and Anti-Semitism. We championed our values and spoke truth to power with persuasive force and civility.

The struggle to realize a better kinder nation and world continues. Yasher Koach and most profound gratitude to all of those who join the fight.

Shabbat Shalom.

Challenges of Yom HaShoah

Monday evening, local synagogues gathered to jointly commemorate Yom HaShoah. There was power in our being together. This moving event included an insightful author, powerful readings, and a beautiful choir performing stirring and poignant music. I could not help but notice three things that were missing. There weren’t any young people; although there were four congregations gathered, the sanctuary was barely full; and the program was very particular, focused on the Holocaust as a Jewish event without broader implications.

Were it not for the choir, there was barely a handful of young people (under 55, let alone kids) in the audience. The meaning of this seminal event of the Jewish people cannot be lost when first generation witnesses and their children die. How do we keep the message of remembrance alive and relevant?

With four congregations gathered, the sanctuary should have been filled to overflowing. The choir took a substantial portion of the sanctuary space. Judging by attendance, the Holocaust is becoming a distant detached part of our past. The March of the Living has become increasingly popular, but this is a minuscule percentage of the Jewish people actively remembering every year. We are challenged to find ways to connect to the world that is disconnecting from the memory of the Shoah. Why is it so easy to forget and what does that say about us as a community of caring people?

The Holocaust is an event unique to the Jewish people. But genocide is not. The particular experience of the Jews needs to become a universal cry to humankind for humanity. This explains perhaps why survivors speak to all children everywhere sharing their stories, not just with Jewish children at Jewish schools. Part of the Shoah’s power is that it happened in a time and place where it seemed unimaginable to many, and it was permitted because of silence and complicity in the atrocity. It happened to the Armenians, it happened to others, and it is happening now even as I write these words.

Do we have the moral courage to speak out and act, or will we find a rationalization to ignore the carnage that does not directly affect us? It is the great question for the civilized world and the great teaching moment of the Shoah. Will we learn and effect change from our experience?

 

A Hanukkah of Darkness

 

We enter Hanukkah from a place of deep darkness. I write this as the remains of the city of Aleppo are reduced to rubble. The people are trapped inside, with death raining down on them from above. The similarity to the gas chambers of the Shoah is unmistakable.

We have watched as this modern mass murder unfolds. I reluctantly refrain from the word Genocide, as it would ignite a conversation about the word rather than cold look at the harsh reality of the death and destruction that is occurring, where innocent civilians are being systematically destroyed. But the word resonates for me nonetheless. What are the lessons of the Shoah?

We must ask ourselves what is our role in the world. This question is for us as Americans and for us as Jews. It is too late for the remnant of Syria however. The United States provided some support to the political opposition of the Regime and we have provided limited aid to those who have escaped. But we have failed to protect the innocents, permitting the most brutal weapons of mass murder to exterminate. Hundreds of thousands have been killed; the savage death machine indiscriminate, women, children, and aid workers are victims as well as political opponents. The United States’ opportunities to assert itself as a provider of sanctuary either here or there have been squandered. A modern holocaust has occurred as we watched.

What did we learn from the Shoah? Was it merely a particular tragedy to befall the Jewish people? Wasn’t the Shoah also supposed to be a lesson to the world that “Never Again” was a cry to universal humanity? Sadly in the face of the Syrian crisis, we turned away, as the world turned away from the Jewish people in our time of greatest despair. I am overcome by the realization of all that we did not do, of all that I did not do.

Hanukkah is supposed to celebrate the light of freedom and God’s miracles. But they came in that order. The Jews wondrously won the improbable victory, and then the lights of the Menorah miraculously lasted for eight days. The miracle of the oil could only have happened after the people fought to overcome the injustice of the world where they lived. Sadly I think we did not merit God’s miracle this time. Let us use this coming year to commit ourselves to that most basic Jewish value; that we will no longer stand idly by while our neighbor’s blood is being shed.

Amen.

 

Shabbat Shalom in a World Desperate for Peace

We wish each other Shabbat Shalom, with the image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body seared into our minds. This horrific image profoundly disturbs the peace we are supposed to welcome and embrace. The suffering of countless victims of war in places like Syria and Africa is unimaginable.   The willingness to risk life itself to escape gives us some measure of the conditions that exist in the places from which they flee.

 Europe cannot turn its back on these people and we here in the United States must also be ready to offer help to those that flee. Moreover, the world must be willing to address the circumstances that have created these desperate situations. The time to act is long overdue.

College Students and Esther – What Purim might teach us about power and our future

Tonight we start the holiday of Purim where we read Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther.  Purim is a Jewish story.  And like so many Jewish Stories, it has multiple levels of meaning.

 Purim is a lovely children’s story- good triumphs over evil, a savior rescues us from the clutches of despair.  Righteous deeds are rewarded and the people rejoice and live happily ever after.

 Purim is also a great adult story, the story of sex, power and palace intrigue.  As gripping as any modern drama on cable; forces vie for control, often ruthless in tactics.  The heroine uses all her skills and wiles to rescue her people. Shonda Rhimes has at least a full season of Scandal right here in our Megillah!

 Purim is also a story with a deeper and darker side, which I believe is the reason why the Book of Esther is included in the Bible; it is a cautionary tale.  Purim admonishes us about the use and abuse of power.

How power can work and how it can corrupt.

What happens when power is not challenged and what happens when it seduces.  What might happen when we move from being drunk with complacency, to being drunk with power.  Megillat Esther portrays when the powerless are subjected to the whims of the powerful- those who are consumed with only their own power driven by the sense of self importance that comes from it.

 Haman plans to destroy the Jews because Mordechai does not bow before him.  Mordechai and Esther work together, conspiring if you will, to overthrow Haman’s power and gain power for themselves.  To achieve these ends they use nothing less than seduction and lies to lure Haman into a trap and inflame the wrath of King Achasverus.    The book of Esther demands us to question, “to what lengths are we willing to go to acheive power?”

 But then Megillat Esther continues to push us and asks,“What do we do with power once it has been acheived?”

 In a kind of  “Perverse Dayenu” we learn that it is not enough that the Jews triumph- Esther is the Queen and Mordechai becomes the King’s Vizier.  Nor is it enough that in an ironic twist of fate that Haman is executed on the very gallows he built to hang Mordechai.  The Jews then demand the execution of all of Haman’s sons and then 50 and then yet another 750 people in Sushan.  But it is still not over; for then there is a wholesale slaughter of 75,000 Persians in retribution.  This is a place where the phrase “Absolute Power corrupts Absolutely” could surely have been coined.   (Lord Acton 1887)

 We go from powerless, to powerful; from innocent to corrupt; from holding the moral high ground to losing all moral authority giving way to the basest of human emotion.

 So how this story resonate for us today?

 We are taught that with power comes responsibility.  That responsibility includes protecting those who are less fortunate and powerless, protecting our system of free expression, and protecting our ability to remain a full and vibrant part of this nation we call home. We have come a long way to achieve our comfortable public place in American society. But like our Purim story it was not always so.

 Esther concealed her identity from the king until Mordechai gave her the strength to step forward.  But what if she did not have the strength?  Who would have spoken for the Jews of Persia?  Mordechai says that if it was not Esther, someone else would step forward, but in the story we know only two, Queen Esther and her Uncle Mordechai.

Our tradition suggests Mordechai placed his hope in a higher power, but he knew his life was actually in Esther’s hands.  And likewise, the future of our next generations is in our hands.

 But ominous signs are on the horizon.  What if we became unable to advocate for ourselves?  It is not as outlandish as it may sound.  Many of you can recall the deafening silence of the American Jewish community in the 1930s and 40s. With only a few exceptions such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, our American community retreated into its fear as the Nazi’s systematically executed the Holocaust.  Today we can hardly imagine such gripping fear.  But this fear is alive as is the hatred.  It lives on our college campuses around the country and the implications are foreboding.

 We have just finished the national Israel Apartheid week.  This is a week of consciousness-raising held on campuses around the country protesting that Israel is no more than an apartheid state dedicated to the oppression of the Palestinians.  The attempt to De-legitimize the State of Israel also finds a voice in the growing organized economic boycott of Israel known as Boycott Divest Sanction or BDS.  This group was responsible for the commotion surrounding the Soda Stream company’s factory in the West Bank.  Students for Justice in Palestine (the SJP) is vehemently anti-Israel and actively protests against the State and its legitimacy on campuses across the country.  Not to be outdone, the academic community has, in real terms, taken up the Anti-Israel cause of the Palestinians by supporting the boycott of Israeli scholars through the American Studies Association, the ASA.

 The groups on campus have used thuggish tactics to bully and intimidate our college students. And as their teachers align with these politics, the classroom becomes a very uncomfortable, threatening place, instead of a place that is supposed to nurture.  The effect on our youth is profound.

 Many kids become turtles.  They withdraw into their shells and hope that it will all blow over.  Many of our kids find themselves fearful.  Unable to express an alternative point of view, students on campus are ostracized.  They are alienated from their Judaism and any relationship they may have to Israel. These young people are scared to think for themselves or express their opinions. And if they are courageous enough to try, they are subjected to public ridicule and humiliation.    If we do not work to support our youth, then we risk raising a whole generation of Jews, our future, unable to withstand the onslaught of hate and bigotry.  We will have completely ceded our power to those who would oppress us.

 So we must heed the lessons of Megillat Esther and embrace our power with respect.  We need to reach out to our youth by giving them a solid understanding of their Jewish identity and Jewish values before they leave for school and begin to explore the world.  But we must also support them in these college years of discovery by continuing to be present.  We can do this by supporting vibrant Hillels on campus, and as Congregations by remaining in contact with them while they are away and by making them feel warmly welcomed back into our temples when they return.  Finally, but so importantly, we must place a Reform Rabbi on every college campus with a significant Jewish population to nurture and care for our children.

The future is theirs, but the power to make that future bright lies with us and what we do now.

Central Conference of American Rabbis Statement Concerning Syria

September 12, 2013

The Central Conference of American Rabbis condemns the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1400 persons, including some 400 children, as a violation of international law and a crime against humanity. As Jews, we are well acquainted with a tyrannical regime’s use of lethal gas to commit mass murder and of the failure of democratic governments to intervene.

The CCAR applauds the President’s decision to respond to the Syrian authorities’ illegal and morally reprehensible conduct and to seek the complete, prompt, and verifiable removal of chemical weapons from Syria by means of diplomacy, if possible, before resorting to the use of military force.

We reaffirm the principle that the use of force should be undertaken with utmost reluctance, only when reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or prove unavailable.

We call on other governments throughout the world to join the effort to ensure that Syria does not commit another such atrocity.

We believe that effective action regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is essential to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction by others and reinforce the credibility of U.S. policy concerning such weapons.

We support the firm and unequivocal determination of the President and Congress to prevent Iran from developing or obtaining nuclear weapons.

We express our deep concern for the State of Israel and its citizens, who have been threatened with retaliation in the event of American military action, and reaffirm the CCAR’s steadfast support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens from all who seek to harm them.

We yearn for the arrival of “the days to come” that Isaiah foresaw, when nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”

We pray that the Jewish New Year, recently begun, will see the dawning of peace for the entire human family.

 

Rabbi Richard A. Block, President
Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive, and
CCAR Board of Trustees