Sometimes in the span of a short time, a particular message is driven home in a variety of ways. This happened for me recently. The message was this: While anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head, we are a proud and resilient people. This message was brought home when I experienced these three things, all in the course of one weekend: the desecration of a dear friend’s synagogue in Seattle; attending Burlingame High School’s Holocaust-themed play “Letters to Sala”; and our fun and spirited Purim celebrations at Peninsula Temple Sholom.
On Friday morning, March 10, an off-duty police officer in Seattle discovered painted anti-Semitic graffiti on the exterior wall of Temple De Hirsch Sinai, where my childhood friend Daniel Weiner serves as senior rabbi. Vandals spray-painted the words “Holocaust is fake history!” with each letter S written as a dollar sign. Speaking to my friend, I could hear the deep sadness and pain in his voice. To see these words is, he said, “heartbreaking.”
The graffiti was only the latest in a wave of anti-Semitic vandalism and of threats made to Jewish institutions all across the country. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that since January, there have been 161 bomb threats targeting Jewish institutions, including Jewish Community Centers, schools, synagogues and ADL offices in New York, San Francisco, Washington, Dc, Atlanta, and Boston. To date, one man has been arrested in connection with eight of these threats. The history of our people, of course, has been filled with periods of deep animus from the societies in which we have lived. Graffiti and bomb threats, by comparison, are low-level acts of hate.
The second way the message was brought home to me was watching “Letters to Sala” at Burlingame High School, based on the true story of a young woman who survived five years in seven different Nazi labor camps. As I read the program before the show started, the words of director Cindy Skelton expressed how so many of us are feeling: “Last summer when I read this play, I had no idea how topical it would become.” She added: “In recent weeks we have seen a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic language in this country. Bomb threats have been made against synagogues and Jewish community centers. Discrimination against people because of their religion? No one could do that today, certainly not in America, could they? We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past, haven’t we?”
Sadly, we know the answer. Sitting by Holocaust survivors from our congregation at each performance, the power of the play was heightened. To experience the show through the prism of today’s national climate was piercing. Somehow, people across the globe have not yet figured out a way to share our planet peacefully, or to simply tolerate differences in religion or ethnicity or countries of origin. Too often acknowledging the inherent dignity of every human being eludes us.
I was touched by and proud of the many PTS youth and the entire cast and crew who so poignantly told the story of a Holocaust survivor and of her many family members who perished. It is so important that we continue to tell the history of our people from one generation to the next, and these young people honored the weight of history.
With both the synagogue desecration and the horrors of the Holocaust in my mind, our Purim story took on new resonance for me this year. It was the third reminder of this theme of anti-Semitism and the resilience of our people. This ancient story, probably composed sometime between 400 and 300 bce, late in the Persian Period, is a reminder that the Jewish community is stronger when we stand together, and we are vulnerable when we are divided. Like Mordechai and Esther, we have a responsibility to speak out and stand up for ourselves and for our people. We also have an obligation to put the values of our Biblical and Talmudic texts into action so as to protect and defend all people. And while voices of hate pop up in every age, it seems, we must draw on the love we have for our faith to keep affirming our Jewish hearts and souls.
May the visions and words of the prophets be manifest in our time, shaping societies from town to town, coast to coast, and across continents, with kindness and understanding, love and tolerance. I pray for the time when all are safe to worship and study in peace and harmony.