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USCJ Unity and Diversity Shabbat (Re’eh 8/18/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanLast week, it was difficult to be an American, especially a Jewish American. I’m sure you are all aware of the President’s response to the riots and murder in Charlottesville last Shabbat, and there’s no need to elaborate on that. What’s most disturbing was that the white nationalists brandished torches and chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans, including “blood and soil” (an English rendering of the Nazi “blut und boden”) and “Jews will not replace us.” The attendees proudly displayed giant swastikas flags and wore shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. One banner read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”

David Duke, head of the KKK, told a large crowd Saturday, ““The truth is the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause.” Addressing another group, Richard Spencer mocked Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Mike Signer. “Little Mayor Signer — ‘See-ner’ — how do you pronounce this little creep’s name?” Spencer asked. The crowd responded by chanting, “Jew, Jew, Jew.” In TV interviews, attendees were not shy about their anti-Semitism.

It’s astonishing how in the 21st century, without a Church based anti-Semitism, there are still many clinging on the age old escape goat of blaming the Jews.

Here’s a letter describing the shocking events at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville last Shabbat morning by Alan Zimmerman, its president.

“On Saturday morning, I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services. (Even the police department’s limited promise of an observer near our building was not kept — and note, we did not ask for protection of our property, only our people as they worshipped).

Forty congregants were inside. Here’s what I witnessed during that time.

For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either.  Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them.  Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.

A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.

When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.

Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue. I sat with one of our rabbis and wondered whether we should go back to the temple to protect the building. What could I do if I were there? Fortunately, it was just talk – but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.

At the end of the day, we felt we had no choice but to cancel a Havdalah service at a congregant’s home. It had been announced on a public Facebook page, and we were fearful that Nazi elements might be aware of the event. Again, we sought police protection – not a battalion of police, just a single officer – but we were told simply to cancel the event.

Local police faced an unprecedented problem that day, but make no mistake, Jews are a specific target of these groups, and despite nods of understanding from officials about our concerns – and despite the fact that the mayor himself is Jewish – we were left to our own devices.”

Our former US Rep. Steve Israel, wrote this for CNN: “My grandparents, Myron Kuznicki and Raisse Volovitz, arrived in America in the 1920s. At the time, they were escaping anti-Semitism in Russia and Ukraine. My grandparents raised two children and had five grandchildren. They insisted that the grandchildren understand the precious gifts America bestowed on us. They told us that even if the streets weren’t paved with gold, no one could force us off the streets. Everyone was welcome.”

Mr. Zimmerman continues, “The fact that a calamity did not befall the Jewish community of Charlottesville on Saturday was not thanks to our politicians, our police, or even our own efforts, but to the grace of God.

And yet, in the midst of all that, other moments stand out for me, as well. John Aguilar, a 30-year Navy veteran, took it upon himself to stand watch over the synagogue through services Friday evening and Saturday, along with our armed guard. He just felt he should. We experienced wonderful turnout for services both Friday night and Saturday morning to observe Shabbat, including several non-Jews who said they came to show solidarity.

A frail, elderly woman approached me Saturday morning as I stood on the steps in front of our sanctuary, crying, to tell me that while she was Roman Catholic, she wanted to stay and watch over the synagogue with us. At one point, she asked, “Why do they hate you?” I had no answer to the question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.

At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.”

This is the response I received when I was firebombed five years ago. There was an outpouring of support from a broad spectrum of religious Christian, Islamic and secular American groups. I believe in my heart, that this is the true America.

Perhaps Monday’s, solar eclipse is a metaphor for what’s happening to us now. Dark times have come, but they will pass. It’s up to us to make sure that the pristine American ideals of equality continue, and all are still welcome in our country.

One Sunday, August 27, there are plans for a gathering honoring our Diversity and Unity at the Mid Island Y, please attend.

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
244 Manetto Hill Road, Plainview, NY 11803
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