Charlottesville. All I have to say is that one word, that one name and images are conjured up in our minds: Shabbat morning, August 12, in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, a university town not unlike our own, a “Unite the Right” rally took place. Clashes broke out between the “Unite the Right” folks and the counter-protesters. A man drove down a street filled with counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring others. Two Virginia State Patrol troopers also died that day when their helicopter, monitoring the events on the ground, crashed.
Most of you have read, I’m sure, the article written by Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, describing the events of that Shabbat: the armed security guards hired by the synagogue for protection, forty congregants inside at Shabbat morning worship, people marching by shouting “There’s the synagogue!” and chants of “Seig Heil,” some carrying flags with swastikas on them. Services ended, people having to leave through the back entrance of the synagogue in groups, learning that Nazi websites had called for the burning of the synagogue, removing from the building the Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), just in case.
The following Friday morning, August 18, the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing held a quickly scheduled meeting to discuss what happened in Charlottesville and what we should be doing here in the Lansing / East Lansing area. I was heartened to see that 14 or 15 of my colleagues showed up to this last-minute meeting and many others who couldn’t attend expressed support. To demonstrate their support for our Jewish community, some of my colleagues attended Rosh HaShanah evening worship at Congregation Kehillat Israel and some are with us tonight. (names) We are grateful for their support and welcome them to our home this holiest of evenings.
At that meeting in August we discussed how to respond not only to the tragedy in Charlottesville, but to other situations as well. We talked about what we could do as clergy to respond, what we could do or say or bring to our community. During the conversation, one of my colleagues leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m tired.” He said – and here I’m paraphrasing – “I’m tired. We’ve done this work before. We’ve taught, we’ve preached, we’ve prayed together. I’m tired.” I looked at him, nodded, and said, “I’m tired, too.”
As I was driving to the synagogue following the meeting, I realized that I hadn’t given a full and more appropriate response to my friend’s comment. “Yes, I’m tired, too,” but I should have also added, “but we can’t give up for the Talmud teaches: ‘Rabbi Tarfon omeir: Lo alekha hamlakhah leegmor v’lo atah ben choreen l’heebatell meemenah – Rabbi Tarfon said: You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.” [Avot 2:16]
Some would say that if you cannot complete a task, you shouldn’t even bother to start it. However, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that something is better than nothing. Rather than opt out because we cannot do it all, we are encouraged to do our best. If we try, something good might happen; if we don’t even bother to try, we most certainly won’t accomplish anything.
A colleague, Rabbi Brad Levenberg, of Temple Sinai in Atlanta, wrote a blog on the “Times of Israel” website ten days after Charlottesville. I commend it to you. It is lengthy, so I will only share a part of it with you this evening:
[He talks about the temple’s Shabbat service the Friday evening after Charlottesville. He contacted his non-Jewish colleagues to invite them and members of their congregations to attend what they were billing as a Unity Shabbat. He was in for a shock.]
One friend with whom I spoke offered a stirring rebuke. “Look, Brad, I get it. The Jewish community is shocked and you are reaching out to people of color to be a part of this dialogue. But where was the Jewish community when my community needed an ally? When yet another black man was murdered by the police…where was the outrage of the Jewish community? When we were marching in the streets I looked for allies and there was a sea of people who looked like me and I didn’t see ANYONE who looked like you.”
…Or this response: “Brad, the Jewish community was all over Facebook when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. But when the LGBTQ community marched on the Georgia Capital during this past legislative session, there was not one non-LGBTQ rabbi standing by us. And the Jews who WERE there? They were not with us because they are Jews.”
Throughout this week I have been on the receiving end of a good amount of criticism. While my friends expressed personal support, the rebuke was stunning: when we needed an ally, the Jewish community was not by our side.
I recognize that the Jewish community has done a lot of good in standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others. After all, in many communities, my own included, there is a healthy contingent of Jews and Jewish organizations present at the PRIDE parades. The Jewish community en masse supports the ADL [Anti-Defamation League]; the American Jewish Committee creates and supports dialogue between communities, including the Black/Jewish Coalition. For Reform Jews, the Religious Action Center has been involved in many national actions and has recently been engaging local communities in a whole new level.
But for a good number of us, myself included, we have not been good allies. We do well with the sponsored initiatives, we do well when our movements are recognized as partners. But by and large we have not cancelled our plans to participate with those who feel threatened when they needed somebody from outside of their community to demonstrate an act of solidarity. We are great about forwarding articles and clicking “like” on Facebook…
Rabbi Levenberg’s blog was a kick in the pants. Sadly, Rabbi Levenberg is correct. We like to think that we are doing the work that needs to be done. But we’re not. Admittedly, I get frustrated when interfaith programs are scheduled for Shabbat or other Jewish holidays. But I know I can – I must – do better with those programs which do not conflict with our religious holy days. And at the same time, I need you to join me at these programs. Sometimes I’m the only Jew in attendance; sometimes there are a handful of us. Our Jewish community is not large number-wise, but I know that are our hearts are huge, and I know that we can find ways to help make our community better. We are not required to finish the task, but we are not free to abstain from it, either.
For the first time in the over ten years that I have lived here, I will miss the Interfaith Clergy Association of Greater Lansing’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. (My family has scheduled a week-long cruise to celebrate my mom’s 75th birthday and my parents’ 55th wedding anniversary.) So do me a favor: Make this year’s Thanksgiving service, scheduled for Monday, November 20 at 7:00 p.m. at Peoples Church, the year that we have the largest turnout from our temple. Show up this year. It’s always a beautiful service and I know you will enjoy it. But don’t make this the only interfaith program you attend. Pay attention to what’s being offered in our community and participate.
I conclude this evening with a prayer written by Rabbi Karyn Kedar titled “These are the Days of Awe”:
These are the Days of Awe, the Days of Judgment.
O, Eternal source of Peace, hear our plea.
Judge us, inspire us, compel us
so that we will not turn away,
never to be silent, never to be numb,
never to be distracted, never to let our bewilderment
and exhaustion keep us from
doing what is right, what is good,
and what is demanded of us, O God,
to love mercy, pursue justice and to walk humbly.
These are the Days of Discernment, the days of Self-Examination.
God of compassion and love, hear our prayer.
Give meaning to our confusion, purpose to our pain
and bring healing to our fragmented hearts.
May our tears ease the suffering of another.
When we love our neighbor, we transcend;
when we love the stranger, we transcend;
when we do not stand idly by, we transcend;
when we pursue peace, we transcend;
when we hold the world as a vessel of grace, we transcend.
These are the Days of Renewal, the Days of Life.
Divine Source of good, hear our heart’s desire.
Lift us, guide us, command our eyes
to gaze into the shadows, and upon the streets,
and into every place that evil strays and preys
upon all that is good and beautiful in our world.
Send us forth, that we may be Your servant
choosing blessing over curse, bearing witness.
May we proclaim from the heights and from the depths
the power of goodness, beauty, righteousness and hope.
These are the Days of Holiness and You are the Holy One of blessing.
We will not tire, we will not despair, we will not turn away.
You Dear God, are the Source of peace in the high heavens.
We are the source of peace, here, upon the earth.
And let us say: Amen.