Tonight is the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, during which anti-semitic pogroms and riots spread throughout Berlin and parts of Germany. Hundreds of synagogues, businesses and homes were torched and burned to the ground while firefighters stood by and watched.
Perhaps the worst part of the whole thing is that it wasn’t the worst part of the whole thing. It was just a precursor to the true horrors of the Shoah, in which 6 million Jews were murdered, along with gypsies, gay people, Catholics, and anyone who the Germans decided were the Other.
This Othering of people who are different was nothing new in the middle of the 20th century, and it continues, seemingly unabated, to today. Deborah Lipstadt bemoaned this in the introduction to her book Antisemitism Here and Now, which was published in August 2018:
“While the contemporary nature of the events discussed made this a challenging book to write, the pace of recent events made it an almost impossible book to finish. It seemed that every day a new development… demanded analysis and inclusion in this work. Sadly, giving the unending saga that is antisemitism, I feel comfortable predicting that by the time this book appears there will have been new examples of antisemitism that should have been part of the narrative.”
We know this to be all too true. And we know that it will continue.
At a Kristallnacht commemoration service last night, I heard disturbing statistics about the numbers of Americans who believe the Holocaust didn’t actually happen (in today’s terminology they call it “fake news”) or think that just a few people died, or have never even heard of it at all.
Just weeks ago we marked the first anniversary of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Eleven Jews died, the largest number in any anti-semitic act in the United States.
At our Friday night service my congregation placed 11 stones on a Tanach, as members recited their names. But what do we do with the number six million? Do we light six candles, place six stones? The number is mind-numbing. It is too large to fathom.
If you knew all six million names, and it took 10 seconds to say each one, it would take 695 days – without pausing – to say them all. That’s about 23 months, non-stop, every second. Does that help us absorb the enormity? Not for me.
The number is just too big to comprehend. And the anti-semitic attacks that are happening all over the world today also are becoming mind-numbingly familiar. A man wearing a kipah is attacked in Paris. A Jewish politician in Italy receives hundreds of death threats because she suggested anti-hate legislation. A synagogue in Germany is saved by their new door whose lock didn’t budge when a gunman tried it. And here in America, a Colorado synagogue bombing is thwarted by FBI agents.
The question that continues to arise for me is, what can we do? What can I do? And the only answer that makes any sense is to continue to maintain a presence in the community.
To “be” Jewish publicly and proudly. To stand up for Jews and as Jews for anyone who is being Othered – black, Hispanic, gay, whatever.
This is not easy. More and more Jews are hiding their Jewishness. A recent study by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) reports that nearly a third of American Jews surveyed said they avoided “publicly wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify” them as Jewish.
And one in four said they “avoid certain places, events or situations out of fear… [for their] safety or comfort as a Jew.”
We cannot let that fear stop us. We must show those being Othered, their tormentors, and the rest of society that Jews are willing to do the right thing. That we are willing to lead, to stand up for what is right. To live our Jewish heritage of caring for the stranger. To remind ourselves and others that every human being is made in the image of God and is worthy of respect.
It is our heritage. It is our privilege. It is our responsibility.
This is the sermon I gave at Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat.