Shanah Tovah. Happy New Year to you all.
I want to share with you something From the memoirs of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels, z”l describing Rosh Hashanah 1944. It is a true story.
“The experience of one transport that left Auschwitz is seared in my memory,” he writes. “With the grace of HASHEM I was miraculously able to bring a shofar into the camp.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I went from block to block, shofar in hand, to sound the tekiyot. This put my life in danger and I had to avoid the Nazis and malevolent Kapos.
I thank HASHEM that due to God’s mercy and compassion I was privileged to sound the shofar that Rosh Hashanah some twenty times, coming to a hundred blasts en toto. This revived the spirits of the shattered camp inmates and gave them some peace of mind knowing that at least they could observe one mitzvah in Auschwitz – that of shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The Shofar in Auschwitz brought peace of mind to those in the midst of horror. The Sound of the Shofar does many things. Our Shofar last night was a sound of hope, of renewal, of potential, the sound of improvement. It said “Wake up!” “Wake up to the New Year.” “Wake up to the rebirth of the world.” “Wake up Jews to your chance to become who you want to be.”
This morning the call of our Shofar blasts is also a warning. The staccato notes of Teruah and Shvarim are calling to us to “Wake Up Jews.” “Heed the warning Jews.” “Pay attention Jews.”
The prophet Ezekiel (33:5-7) said the following:
5 He heard the sound of the shofar and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But he that takes warning shall deliver his soul.
6 But if the watchman should see the sword coming and not blow the shofar and the people not be warned, if the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away because of his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.
7 So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at My mouth and warn them from Me.
Ezekiel understood that the Shofar must be sounded as a warning when harm comes our way. This morning we must also hear the sound of the Shofar as a warning to the Jewish world.
I believe we ought to take the threats to wipe out Israel and Jews as serious threats from ISIS and Hamas. We should take them at their word. We cannot live in denial. And there is increasing evidence from some on the far left of the political spectrum as well as the far right in Europe that we are seeing a convergence on the issues of Anti-Semitism; from Golden Dawn in Greece and Le Penn in France to the far left in Norway and Sweden and even here in the U.S.
Today, on this Rosh Hashanahs morning we ought hear the warnings of the Shofar this season. And we should take seriously the threats against our people in Europe and the Middle East. There is a growing danger to Jews around the world that is happening before our very eyes. Perhaps not since the 1930’s and 1940’s have Jews been under such a threat.
The rise of ISIS, The Islamic State of Al-Sham, or ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant which goes by all these names and the other extreme Jihadist like Al-Nusrah in Syria, Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Boko Haram in Africa, pose a menace to the Jewish people. In truth they pose a menace to Christians and Muslims who don’t worship like them either.
Let me be clear. I have never been an alarmist about Anti-Semitism. And I believe there are many organizations in the Jewish community that cry Anti-Semitism when there hasn’t really been any. But I can tell you first hand after my trips to Israel and Europe this summer and speaking with Jewish leaders in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, France and England and Israel, that we, the Jewish community are facing serious dangers. Just as Jewish life is blossoming once again in Europe and especially in Eastern Europe, Anti-Semitism is fresh and ugly. And it threatens to destroy the delicate renewal of Jewish life there.
France used to have the third largest population of Jews in the world after Israel and the United States. Ten years ago the Jewish population of France was listed at 600,000 Jews. But events over the last several years have caused French Jews to flee in great numbers. This past year the population count was about 550,000 Jews. Most are making Aliyah to Israel. And because of the events of the past summer, the number of French anticipated to make aliyah to Israel this year is over 5000 families.
As you may have heard about in the news there was a shooting near the Jewish day school in Toulouse in 2012, murdering the principal- a rabbi and his son and two other boys. And this summer one of the Paris synagogues was firebombed with Molotov cocktails while people were praying inside. They were trapped inside while an angry crowd with metal bars kept the Jews from leaving. In another attack in a northern Paris suburb, a mob attacked a Jewish owned grocery store. And the French comedian and performer Dieudonne’ who has a tremendous following has been making many Anti-Semitic statements and invented the quenelle, a sort of backward and lowered Nazi salute that has caught on like wildfire among his followers and is aimed at Jews. According to France’s Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community, the average annual number of anti-Semitic acts so far in the 21st century is seven times higher than during the 1990s. Two-fifths of racist violence in France in 2013 was focused on Jews, the SPCJ says, though Jews constitute less than 1% of the population.
But France isn’t the only place Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head. In Britain more than 300 Anti-Semitic incidents took place in July alone as reported by the Jewish Community Security Trust. It was the highest monthly amount of anti-Semitism since they began to keep records in 1984 according to an article in the Jerusalem Post.
While I was in Berlin on a study mission with 20 rabbis this summer, there was a large demonstration that began as a protest against Israel and the war in Gaza but quickly devolved into chanting “Death to the Jews” “Hitler should have finished the job”. It was horrifying. And while we were in Berlin we met with a deputy of the Foreign Ministry who apologized on behalf of the German people for this blatant Anti-Semitism. She explained that many Muslims who are now German citizens do not go to German schools and thus are not part of the rigorous Holocaust reconciliation education that are given to German school students. Her job consisted of outreach to the Jewish community in Germany. She was gracious but the fact that in the foreign ministry is a department dealing with the Jews of Germany gave us all pause.
Even though last week 5000 Germans including Andrea Merkel the Chancellor of Germany gathered at the Brandenburg Gate to denounce Anti-Semitism in Germany.
It is a growing concern.
In Hungary the Jewish community is facing clampdowns by right wing ministers in the government and the left wing governmental indifference in Sweden has led to an increase in Anti-Semitism including the rabbi of Malmo attacked in August.
Yes, some of this anti-Semitic violence took off during the war between Hamas and Israel this summer. Like the City of Glasgow in Scotland raising a Palestinian Flag over its city hall.
But what is increasingly clear, and something I have been talking about for a number of years-is that anti-Zionism is merely a cloak for being Anti-Jewish. This isn’t just about opposing Israel. It is an attack on the Jewish community. The world-wide condemnation of Israel this summer, even though Israel had a solemn duty to protect its citizens from increasing missile attacks and pending massacres that were planned by the extensive tunnel system dug by Hamas, fueled some of these horrific protests.
But most including those here in the United States and Canada quickly moved from protesting against Israel to calling for “Death to the Jews”. And now a Kentucky candidate for US Senate has placed signs around from Northern Kentucky telling voters “With Jews You Lose.” Today in Jackson Ms the new rabbi in town was thrown out of a local restaurant for being Jewish,
And let us not forget the continuing efforts of Iran whose commitment to destroy Israel proceeds closer everyday as it develops nuclear arms. They deny the Holocaust. They send missiles to Hamas. They round up Iranian Jews as collaborators and spies of Israel for doing nothing at all.
My friends, The shofar we will soon hear is warning us to help our country stay strong in its negotiations with Iran to rid itself of nuclear capabilities.
The beheadings of James Foley and fellow Jew, Steven Satloff, whose mother is a religious school teacher at the Reform synagogue in Miami (Beth Am) and where he went to Day School, has shown us the brutal, terror of ISIS. They will stop at nothing. Their extreme view of Islam targets all Takfiris those within Islam that follow other streams of Islam and all non-believers, khafiris, including you and I. They have murdered and crucified Christians. Tried to commit genocide of the Yazidis, and Jews are on their radar as is Israel. They want to establish their caliphate throughout the Middle East.
Hamas is no different. Their charter calls for the destruction of Israel. They aren’t interested in peace nor are they interested in governance. They rejected the peace treaty with Israel eight times this summer even though Israel accepted it every time.
When they finally said yes, after holding out and killing more of the Gazan people and Israelis, they got no better terms. It was exactly the same deal as the first treaty. Hamas shows no mercy to Palestinians either. They are clear in their commitment to wipe out Israel even as they use human shields to cover their crimes.
The Shofar is calling us to wake up Jews. Wake up. Do not let our American Jewish cocoon, our seemingly easy-going Jewish life here in America fool you. Because already we are seeing signs here that the same creeping attitudes are playing out; those who see Israel as only the aggressor against “the Palestinian people” go quickly from hating Israel to anti-Jewish sentiment. The BDS, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement that has caught fire on college campuses is but one example. Jewish students report all kinds of anti-Semitism on campus from graffiti at Hillel houses to attempting to ban Jewish students from school activities like student government if they have ever been to Israel or on a birthright trip. This happened right here at UCLA. This week at The University of Ohio in Columbus 4 Jewish students were arrested because they spoke out of turn at a student government meeting that was being manipulated to impose a boycott of Israel throughout campus. They were not being recognized to speak and they were removed from the meeting when they tried to protest the railroading of the motion.
In these kinds of times it is critically important for all of us to band together as a community. We have to stand strong as a Jewish people worldwide. And we must strengthen the synagogue as the cornerstone of our community. It is in the synagogue that we gather. Not only to pray and study so as to strengthen our own knowledge about who we are, but we gather in the synagogue to think, to advocate and to build ties to other religious leaders who will stand with us against anti-Semitism.
Rabbis together with synagogue lay leaders through the sacred home of the synagogue are the best antidotes to this growing threat. Together we can reach out to other communities of faith to engage in the kinds of conversations and honest interactions that will educate others about the dangers and threats that really exist both from the far right and the far left; we can advocate together through our own government for Jews in Europe and other places in the world. And we can reach out to moderate Muslims in our own community to learn from one another and encourage them to continue to challenge the Jihadists version of Islam.
The synagogue is a place for prayer. But our tradition has taught us that we do not rely on prayer alone. The synagogue is a B’eit Midrash a house of study and a B’eit Knesset, a place of gathering.
The time has come to Wake up. The time has come to gather together and strengthen our synagogue. The sounds of the Shofar are calling to you. To each and every one of you-to heed the warning on this New Year Day-The shofar is a warning but it is also the reminder of hope and continuity.
“The shofar which marks the New Year is a great symbol of hope against hope, a call to optimism in a despairing world. The shofar challenges us to be hopeful…. Fear of anti-Semitism in the wake of the Shoah certainly played a role in putting the state of Israel, finally, on the map, but the centuries upon centuries that preceded 1948 were marked more by a pervasive hope, by countless moments in history when our people, by all rights, should have lost their hope and faith, but didn’t. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” writes Emily Dickinson (254), “That perches in the soul—And sings the tune without the words—And never stops—at all—.” If the enduring song of that “thing with feathers” is proportional to the amount of suffering one has to endure, then our people have music to spare.” (Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg)
From warning to hope. That is the sounds we hear this morning. Warning us to pay attention to the threats against the Jewish world, against Israel. Urging us to refresh and renew our souls and to hope and pray and act to redeem the world.
Urging us to strengthen the synagogue, our synagogue in this New Year. With the Shofar we have music to spare, music with out words. We have hope. Hope is perched in the soul as Emily Dickenson wrote. This is the call we will hear. This is what we shall do together.
Ken Yehi Ratzon
RH AM 5775