This sermon was delivered at Grace Baptist Church in Statesville, North Carolina, on Sunday, August 28, 2023.
Psalm 133 says, “Hinei mah tov u-mah naim shevet achim gam yachad, behold how good it is to be together as brothers and sisters, as siblings.”
And I say the same thing to you. “How great it is to be back together with my brothers and sisters, and siblings, of Grace Baptist Church and of Congregation Emanuel.”
A great Chasidic teacher, Reb Moshe Leib of Sassov used to tell his Chassidim, his devout followers, that he learned what it means to love fellow human beings from two Russian peasants. Once he came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka.
One of them, in a slurred drunken drawl yelled to his friend, “Igor! [pronounced Ee-gur] Do you love me?” Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered, “Of course Ivan, of course I love you!”
“No no”, insisted Ivan, “Do you really love me, really?!”
Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, assured him, “What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!”
“Oh yes, yes?” countered Ivan. “if you really loved me … then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?”
Your Pastor, and my close colleague and friend for more than 20 years, Dr. Steve Shoemaker, knows how to truly love. He should really be giving this sermon on interfaith healing in response to rising antisemitism because he lives the lessons through his life. He sees the pain of others and works to heal it.
To open, I want to teach you an important Hebrew word, Zachor – remember.
Zachor, remember, is one of the 613 commandments of Judaism.
Zachor, remember, is repeated nearly 200 times in the Bible…
Remember the Sabbath. Remember the covenant with God. Remember the Exodus from Egypt.
Zachor, remember, is not passive commandment but it is active. In Judaism, memory calls us to action.
As Jews we are called to remember not only the joys but the pain, not only the celebrations but the sorrow.
We remember not only our high moments in history but we remember the hardest moments of our history, too.
We are called to remember the cruelty of Amalek, an enemy of our people, whose attacks were more brutal than any other in the Bible. We just heard the Scriptural reading from Deuteronomy – Zachor et asher asah l’chah Amalek – remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt.
Amalek surprised us on our journey just after we escaped from hundreds of years of slavery. When we were famished and weary and overcoming the trauma of slavery, Amalek attacked us from the rear – killing those members of our community who were lagging behind — most likely women caring for their children, the elderly, and the ill.
“And when you get to a settled place,” Deuteronomy enjoins us, “When God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! In Hebrew, Lo tishkach!
Our tradition tells us to eradicate the evil of Amalek. Indeed, Amalek became the archetype of all oppressors.
A Chasidic teaching found a new meaning in the commandment that bids us to remember Amalek: “Had the children of Israel not forgotten about the slower ones in the back, but instead had brought them closer, binding them to all of Israel, the Amalekites would not have succeeded in their attack. Because the Israelites left them behind and forgot about them, Amalek prevailed. Therefore does the Torah tell us, “Zachor Amalek, remember Amalek.” Remember not only his evil but remember our failure to care for those who had fallen behind.
Amalek was one of the earliest persecutors of Israelites alongside the Pharaoh but he was by far from the last.
Haman in the book of Esther sought to annihilate our people.
Hitler aimed to make Europe Judenrein, Jew free for 1000 years.
In the Middle Ages and into modernity, from the years 1100 CE to 1800 CE, Jews tragically experienced more than 800 community expulsions and more than 500 instances of those were acts of mass violence.”
As Jews the trauma of antisemitism is intergenerational.
For many of us, the trauma is personal.
Zachor – remember.
As Jews, one way we remember is through lighting of the candles. We have Yizkor candles, memorial candles, we kindle in remembrance of those who have died.
This is a Holocaust candle that I light in memory of my family members who perished in the Holocaust.
I am named from Judith Steinberg. Her stumbling stone, her memorial stone, is outside the home in Berlin where she and her husband and five children once lived. Her memorial stone reads: here lived Judith Steinberg, born Schindler. 1910. Deported September 5, 1942 to Riga. Murdered September 9, 1942. She was 32 years old. Her husband, Eli, was 34 and her five kids, Kayla, Gitel, Shimon, David, and Chana, ranged in ages from 10 to 2 when they were murdered alongside their parents.
There is a psychologist who calls those literally named for victims of the Holocaust Yizkor candles. They hold the names and flames and stories of those who were murdered.
Metaphorically speaking or perhaps psychologically speaking, I am a Yizkor candle – a memorial candle. My life’s mission is to remember the past and to prevent hatred and prejudice from spiraling out of control into violence and death. I ask you to join me.
Interfaith healing in the face of antisemitism starts with understanding antisemitism – being able to identify it.
What is antisemitism? Plain and simple is hatred against Jews. It has been labelled “the world’s oldest hatred.”
Our Jewish otherness was evident in the book of Exodus, in our slavery, and like a virus, has morphed with each passing century.
The conspiracy theories leading to violence against us have been many and remain today. We’ve been accused of Deicide of killing God, of killing Jesus. Jesus himself was a Jew as was his whole community. We know the Romans killed him and in Christian theology his death serves as atonement for all human sins. We’ve been accused of controlling the world, even though Jews represent .01 percent of the population. Jews represent one in every 1000. We’ve been accused of creating the Black plague and COVID. We’ve been accused of dual loyalty – of not being loyal to the countries where we have lived. There are times when antisemitism has garbed as anti-Zionism. Israe, as the only Jewish and democratic state in the world, has been regularly demonized and delegitimized. There are those who identify as supporting Israel that have been kicked out of social justice marches and kicked off their college student governments. That is antisemitism. While criticism of the government of Israel is always acceptable, demonization and delegitimization of the 75-year-old state is not. It is antisemitism.
Like COVID and like other forms of hatred, racism, anti-LGBTQIA+ hate, anti-immigrant hate, antisemitism morphs and grows and changes. Like a virus that invades vulnerable bodies, antisemitism invades vulnerable and unhealthy societies.
The 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was a turning point for modern antisemitism. It was the deadliest attack on Jews on American soil. The violent attacks have continued. Shooting at the Chabad of Poway and the Jersey City Kosher Supermarket in 2019, a Rabbi and his congregants held hostage in their sanctuary of Colleyville, Texas for 11 hours in 2022. This list goes on and on.
Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. rose 36% in 2022. The Anti-Defamation League tracked
3,697 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault targeting Jewish people and communities that year — the highest number ever recorded since the ADL first began collecting data in 1979.
The acts of hate our kids our experiencing in their NC schools is overwhelming. Swastikas, Holocaust jokes, antisemitic slurs.
I am co-chair of the North Carolina Jewish Clergy Association. Last week, I literally had to send information on how to Stop the Bleed if there’s an active shooter in our sanctuaries. The fears and the evil and hate are real, but so are the sources of light and goodness.
How does interfaith healing happen?
Relationship building – as you have done befriend the Jewish community. Make your relationships authentic. Mourn together. Celebrate together. Support each other.
Education – Please educate yourselves and your children. Please study the tropes of antisemitism on the Anti-Defamation League website so that you can recognize antisemitic statements and actions when you witness them and respond.
When we see or hear an act of prejudice and discrimination, we have three options for effective action – Calling out… calling in… and calling upon. Each one has its time and place.
You can call out those who seek to harm Jews. Such as the white nationalists and those who kowtow to them.
You can call in influencers to learn, share facts and combat conspiracy theories. Such as in the case of Whoopie Goldberg who erroneously thought that Nazi ideology was not the same as Black racism. They are one and the some systems of human hierarchies based on pseudoscience and false narratives. Take time to educate influencers so they can use their influence in a positive way.
And you can call on our civic, corporate and religious leaders to make Jewish safety, security and inclusion causes they steadfastly support.
You can teach your religion in a way that is inclusive. Be cognizant when you present your Scriptures that you do not transmit notions of Christian supremacy and supersessionism. All hierarchies, patriarchal hierarchies and religious hierarchies, can create harm.
Allyship – You can be allies by asking your Jewish neighbors, what do you need? How can we help?
You can follow the lead of your Pastor. When I spoke at Congregation Emanuel about antisemitism in January of 2020, right before the pandemic closed our doors for some time, Dr. Shoemaker share the following on Christian Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism –
“I have said in mixed company of Jews and Christians these words: If the original sin of America was slavery and racism, the original sin of the Church was anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, hatred of Jewish religion and hatred of the Jewish people. The church should confess this sin every year at the beginning of its Holy Season of Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday, so that we may help rid the world of the hatred we began and helped grow.
Among the claims Dr. Shoemaker so eloquently makes is that
- Christian scholars and preachers have tried to make Jesus look good by making the Jews look bad.
- The Passion Accounts in the gospels which trace the last week of Jesus, from Palm Sunday to his crucifixion by Rome increasingly shift the “blame” for Jesus’ death from Rome to the Jewish people. In the years of the last half of the first decade, CE, there was a painful divorce going on between the synagogue and church. And some of the things said on both sides were hurtful. The problem for Christians is that we’ve taken these words offered in the heat of the divorce and made them normative for Jewish/Christian relations.
- In the next centuries, the hatred of the Jewish religion, anti-Judaism, became more and more also the hatred of the Jewish race, anti-Semism. Then it turned murderous when the Roman state and the Christian religion joined hands from the time of Constantine. Anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism were reinforced by the power of the State.
- In the popular Medieval Passion Plays, the Jews were made the oppressive villains in the story. [My own editorial comment is that there were countless violent attacks on Jews and Jewish communities immediately after these plays were viewed.]
- Martin Luther, the great German Reformer and founder of the Protestant Reformation, however heroic and brilliant, was terribly anti-Semitic, which we see in some of his writings. [My own editorial comment is that you can read his 65,000 word anti-Judaic and antisemitic treatise “the Jews and their Lies.”
- Dr. Shoemaker closed his piece quote Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient said, “We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.”
We are all responsible for the hate that occurs in our community.
You can all be upstanders. Use the privilege you have to help those who are being marginalized and dehumanized by white supremacy and Christian supremacy.
The Stan Greenspon Holocaust and Social Justice Center at Queens University of Charlotte is bringing a Seeing Auschwitz exhibit to Charlotte.
Seeing Auschwitz is an exhibition that incorporates 100 photographs, sketches and testimonies of the German Nazi camp Auschwitz and the Holocaust. The exhibit was in London and is now in Durban, South Africa. It will be the first time this visit is coming to North America.
We invite you church and congregational Emanuel to plan a joint trip to the exhibit when it comes to Charlotte from late January to mid-April. I have posters here for you to take with you.
Words hurt and words heal. Words can kill and words can save. Your words and your actions have been and can continue to heal as they do today.
The rise of antisemitism is fearful and painful. But here’s the upside. As fearful as the rhetoric of hate feels, we are not 1933 Germany.
In 1933, the Protestant Church of Germany embraced Nazi ideology.
Even the Confessing Church led by Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer fell far short. Had even a modest percentage of the 60 million members of the German Protestant and Catholic church truly stood up and protested, the Holocaust would not have happened. The church leadership sought to de-Judaize Christianity: to cut their ties from their Jewish roots, to remove the Old Testament from their Bible, and paint Jesus as an Aryan.
But 2023 in the USA is a different time and different place.
In Nazi Germany, the violence was a state sponsored systemic policy of dehumanization and the ultimate mass-murder of six million Jews.
In the US, the antisemitism is being perpetuated largely by rogue and marginal organizations and actors.
Our US government is fighting it. This past May, the Biden administration issued the first national strategy for combating antisemitism, outlining over 100 steps federal agencies have committed to completing, and more than 100 specific calls to action aimed at Congress, civil society, state and local governments, academic institutions, businesses and religious communities.
Our NC State is combating it. This week our state is instituting the Gizella Abramson Holocaust Education Act which became law in 2021. This Act mandates Holocaust education in middle and high school in public education starting in the 2023-24 school.
And all of you are here together battling it – coming together for interfaith healing so that we, as Christians and Jews, can fight antisemitism and other forms of hate hand in hand.
Yet still, we need to be vigilant, for if we look away, if we do not keep our eye on the ball, antisemitism will spread like a weed and like a wildfire.
Zachor, remember… Grace Baptist Church, Remember with us…
As Jews, how do we remember?
We remember with stones – placed lovingly on Holocaust memorials.
As Jews, we remember our loved ones who have died not with flowers that blossom then fade, but with rocks that remain.
We remember with candles. The book of Proverbs affirms: “Ner Adonai nishmat adam, the spirit of the human being is the light of God.’ (20:27)
We remember with prayers – with the Kaddish affirming holiness – of God and of the souls who are now gone.
We remember through education…
through being upstanders…
As Jews, what do we remember?
The rise of hate… Eichmann, Goebbels, Goering, Heydrich, Himmler, Hitler… too many names of too many leaders who masterminded the murder of millions.
We remember the silence of neighbors, of citizens, of soldiers, of most…
We remember the righteous, though far too few, who in small ways and large shared and showed humanity.
Why do we remember?
To remember that thoughts of hate
become words of hate
become acts of hate.
become laws of hate
Genocides don’t just happen. They arise step by step, day by day, year by year, discriminating act by discriminating act.
We remember to stop prejudice at its root with the first utterance of hate we hear.
For the survivors
For the liberators
For the righteous
For the murdered
For our children
For our grandchildren
For our future
For our world.