Moments before jumping into the narrow, rocky chute, Dave, my laconic guide who has skied these steep mountains in Taos, New Mexico for almost forty years, each run like a pulsing vein in his own body, warned me “if you fall with your head facing downhill, you have just seconds to get yourself turned around and stick your boots, your hands, your poles, whatever you can in the snow to stop your fall, otherwise you will slide all the way down and it will not end well.” Until he offered this sobering advice, I had not actually been that afraid, trusting my skill and my mostly good judgement. We had hiked up from the top of Lift 2 in Taos Ski Valley, a fairly rigorous twenty minute hike in ski boots to the top of a run called “Stauffenberg.” I had wanted to attempt this run, not just for the personal challenge and satisfaction, but also because I had become captivated by the story of the name of this steep, narrow descent. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was one of the four German officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 and end the brutal Nazi regime. All four of them have runs named after them – Stauffenberg, Oster, Tresckow, and Fabian. I found myself so enamored of the history of this ski mountain, founded in 1955 by Ernie Blake, born Ernst Hermann Bloch, a German Jew who grew up skiing in Switzerland and who escaped Nazi Europe in 1938. During and immediately after the war, he worked for US military intelligence, as an interrogator of Nazis with the code name Ernie Blake, which he kept after the war. He had the dream to create his own ski mountain and the drive and tenacity to see it realized. In its fulfillment, Blake honored some of those who stood up in the face of evil with formidable moral courage and brought that honor and history to this mountain. The failed operation to eliminate that demonic dictator and his vile vision, was called Operation Valkyrie, whose name also lives on – in a bowl and a gulch. (Some of you may have seen the film Valkyrie with Tom Cruise playing Stauffenberg.) And now, here I was all these years later, a few weeks after my own journey where I stood outside the Reichstag in Berlin, had my heart ripped open as I sat for hours in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Theresienstadt, weeping for the victims and for humanity’s capacity for evil. Standing in skis at the top of this formidable run, my heart racing not just from the exertion of the hike, but from the anxiety of visualizing my body sliding endlessly on this snow and rock and ice. I think of Ernie Blake, of Stauffenberg, of all whose hearts pulse with courage for what is right and resist, standing up, standing up. I overcame my fear and skied, pretty well I think, down that chute to the safety of flatter ground, aware of the irony that I was not saving the world from tyrants, but enjoying the great privilege of skiing in New Mexico.
Last November, just a couple of weeks after the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I was in Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Berlin, Prague and Theresienstadt all for the first time as part of my sabbatical journey, visiting some of the places that most clearly define the brutality and darkness to which humanity can plunge. My last day in the beautiful city of Prague coincided with a close friend from London, Jewish historian Jon Boyd, being there with a few hours to spare. He was there giving a presentation on antisemitism to the Czech parliament and when we met he said, “will you come to a church with me?” I had already seen most, if not all, of the city’s magnificent synagogues, which had been cynically preserved by Hitler as a future “museum of the lost Jewish race.” We walked across the Charles Bridge to the Orthodox Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. The first thing you see when you get there is the year 1942 as a red mosaic in the sidewalk in front of the church’s crypt. This crypt, now a museum, was the hiding place of Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík and seven other paratroopers from what was then Czechoslovakia’s exiled army. Most of you will likely never have heard of these names Kubiš and Gabčík, but I can assure practically every Czech school child has because they are national heroes. They were the leaders of Operation Anthropoid, training in Britain and parachuted into the countryside outside Prague for the mission to assassinate SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, acting Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. A popular book about this operation and its aftermath is called HHhH, which are the initials of a phrase in Nazi Germany – Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich. He was one of the worst Nazis of them all, ruthless and cruel. Anthropoid didn’t go exactly to plan, but Heydrich did end up dying from a piece of metal that entered his body after his car was blown up by the plan b grenade. The Nazi rampage and man hunt that ensued was obscene, brutal and chilling. The paratroopers were given sanctuary in the crypt of that church where I was that day and you can see the bullet holes from Nazi machine gun fire when they finally tracked down the hiding place after a tip off. The Nazis ordered the local fire department to fill the crypt with water from their fire hoses, to drown any survivors from the gun fire, not knowing that they had all actually taken cyanide pills rather than be captured or killed by that cancerous Nazi evil. Thousands of people visit this site and Czech school children learn the story of courage and resistance, of standing up. The Nazi occupation in that region was brutal for everyone and for Czechs today, the heroes of the story are definitely the ones that resisted, not the perpetrators of the genocide.
I had a similar experience in Poland as I watched hundreds and hundreds of Polish school children walking around the Polin museum in Warsaw, learning of the vibrant 1000 year history of Jews in their country, a third of the population before the war. Two days later, I saw even larger numbers learning about their brutal destruction in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Young non-Jewish Poles went out of their way to host me and guide me, as we all confronted the horrors of the past together. Bartek, a filmmaker in Warsaw, felt like a brother by the end of my few days there. Bartek, who is working with my oldest friend Jonathan on a film about Auschwitz, told me that he has been to that darkest of places almost a hundred times and each time it rips him up to his core. He connected me to Lukasz, who picked me up from my hotel in Krakow at 5.30am and drove me to Auschwitz, where he and Bartek had arranged for Pavel, a brilliant academic, journalist and official guide, to take me into that hell before it opened to the public; I saw the Arbeit Macht Frei sign emerging into light in the newly risen sun. Lukasz, my driver, stayed in the area for the whole day waiting, meeting me at Birkenau, Auschwitz II, and taking me into the town of Oświęcim, just outside the camp, where he had acquired the key to the old Jewish cemetery of this town that, like so many other Polish towns, had a reasonably sized Jewish population before the war. Lukasz took me to the recently rediscovered and refurbished old synagogue, now a museum and cafe. At the end of that exhausting day, I wanted to pay Lukasz, but he was offended at the suggestion, explaining what a deep honor it was for him to take a rabbi to these places, and was it possible to join me at any services. He came to the Friday night service and Shabbat dinner at the Krakow JCC; craving, yearning for connection to Jewish people and Jewish heritage. Both he and Bartek revealed to me later that they had both recently discovered that one of their grandfathers was Jewish. I was in that country for such a short time and am fully aware of the nationalist Polish government’s law criminalizing public claims that Poland was complicit in Nazi war crimes and their attempt to rewrite history; but I am also aware of Poles desperately wanting to confront and reconcile the trauma of their past. Three million non-Jewish Poles as well as three million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, so Poles were victims too. For many of us in the Jewish community, there is a very strong desire to perpetuate the narrative that all Poles drink in antisemitism with their mother’s milk; that they always have and always will hate us. There is no doubt that many Poles were complicit or silent, but some scholars estimate that over one million Poles acted in some way to save and protect Jews, including many doctors, like Dr. Eugeniusz Łazowski, known as the “Polish Schindler, who saved 8,000 Polish Jews in Rozwadów from deportation to death camps by simulating a typhus epidemic. Over 6,000 Poles have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations. The Polish Resistance was one of the largest in Europe and thousands of Poles were murdered by the Nazis for saving and hiding Jews. Like Claus von Stauffenberg, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, these people all stood up.
Pittsburgh and Poway have possibly changed forever American Jewish complacency, as we confront the reality that those same forces of hatred exist today and that antisemitism is real here and throughout the world. Journalist and writer Bari Weiss calls contemporary hatred of Jews “a three-headed dragon,” with serious threats coming from the extreme left, the extreme right and fundamentalist Islam. Clearly we cannot ignore the threats, especially from White Nationalists with stated violent manifestos, and we know there are groups right here. It is hard to ignore the FBI report of a 37% spike in anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2017, with almost 2,000 antisemitic incidents in both 2017 and 2018.
I honor the work of our security team under the leadership of Yonatan Gold, who received a Homeland Security grant for $100,000 to keep us safe, including armed police presence at services and Hebrew school, and other measures for our facility’s security. This is our new normal and we need to be realistic and vigilant. Of course, any of us who have been to synagogues in Europe, have experienced airport type security for years. Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Berlin, Istanbul, London, Brussels have all had attacks against Jews, and Jewish cemeteries all over Europe are regularly desecrated. In my native UK, 40 percent of the Jews there say they would consider leaving if Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn were elected Prime Minister, which is not outside the realm of possibility. The scandal of systemic antisemitism in the left wing Labour Party, which has had many Jewish members for decades, has been so alarming for British Jews, especially progressives who have been displaced from their political home. (Although my friend Jon with whom I spent that day in Prague and who runs an organization that focuses on statistics, says that current research suggests that only about two percent of Brits hold dangerous ideologically antisemitic views.) Most of us reel at the calls from the left for BDS, total boycotts of Israel. We know that antisemitism is often thinly disguised as anti Israel sentiments and, let’s face it, for all of its challenges, where would we be as a people be without the Jewish State? Progressive American Jews have been appalled and confused by the alliances between leaders of the Women’s March and the blatant antisemite Louis Farrakan, and now Jews who vote Democrat have been accused of stupidity, disloyalty or both. There are so many missing details in this bleak, rough sketch of contemporary reality. I am concerned about some of our possible reactions in realigning ourselves with old tropes and narratives. They have always hated us and they always will. Nowhere is safe for Jews anymore. Those radical young democrat socialists here in America all hate Israel and they hate the Jews. All Muslims and all Arabs want to drive us into the sea. I could go on and on with examples of how our fear and reactivated trauma can create these reactions that dismiss whole groups and nations as other, as enemy. That’s so dangerous. In fact, the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh showed something very different. Immediately after that attack, Muslims, Christians, the Pittsburgh Steelers, elected officials across the aisles, locally and nationally all showed up in solidarity in the most extraordinary and moving ways. There were interfaith vigils all over the world, including the one I attended in London, attended by the Muslim Lord Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn who I sat next to, and others. It was the opposite of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin and other German cities, where so many civilians participated in the acts of violence carried out against the Jews, or watched as bystanders. So many Americans of all religions and cultures recognized profoundly that the attack on a synagogue on a Shabbat morning while Jews were at prayer, was an attack on all of America and the values and freedoms that we cherish. We all need to stand up in solidarity when any group is the target of hateful speech and hateful acts, just as so many of us in the Jewish community did by showing up to the Islamic Center of Boulder after the horrifying shooting in New Zealand, and just as our Muslim brothers and sisters showed up to our vigils after Pittsburgh. In the face of new threats from violent nationalists, here and elsewhere, who are undoubtedly being emboldened by those in power, we cannot retreat into our tribal caves and tweet out our defiance and outrage, our certainty that Poles, Czechs, Germans, Muslims, Palestinians, righties, lefties all hate us and we have to fight. Yes, there is awful bigotry and hatred in some of these groups and there are also courageous, loving and good human beings who are ready to stand with us in solidarity, as we must stand with them when it is our turn.
When I visited Babi Yar, the ravine in the forest on the outskirts of Kiev in Ukraine, where 33,000 Jews were shot in two days in 1941, I was very struck by the very simple memorial there of a small stone with a few Hebrew words from Genesis 4:10:
ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃
Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!
The words are God’s rebuke of Cain after he murdered his brother Abel.
So much blood cries out from the ground from the past few years
The blood of nine African American brothers and sisters cries out, as we remember the shooting in the AME church in Charleston
The blood of fifty one Muslim brothers and sisters cries out, as we remember those attacked at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The blood of seventeen sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community cries out with as we remember the gay, lesbian and transgender murders over the past 12 months in the US
The blood of twenty two brothers and sisters in the Latino community cries out, after the murder this summer in El Paso, Texas
The blood of twelve Jewish sisters and brothers cries out from Pittsburgh and from Poway.
לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ
Do not stand on the blood of your fellow.
This prohibition from the Book of Leviticus is often taken as the ethical principal not to stand idly by while blood is spilt. There’s a lot of standing during Yom Kippur. We stand when we say the vidui, confessing transgression, we stand when the ark is open with Torah scrolls shining their light and truth at us. And we need to stand up in our lives, standing in solidarity with others and standing up for ourselves and who we are. The week before Rosh HaShanah, we read from the Torah, Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – you are standing here today – all of you. Many Reform congregations read this passage on Yom Kippur, hayom, today. Here we stand! Today!
New York Times writer Bari Weiss published a book in September called How to Fight Anti-semitism, in which she holds nothing back in presenting the realities past and present, but her strong conclusion is so important in its passionate assertion that positive identity, standing up, is more important than anything else. Weiss says:
“Our history teaches us…that those who, rather than appealing and screaming, choose to build, to educate towards cultural and national revival, to defy antisemitism not with Jewish pleas and Jewish hand wringing, but with Jewish learning, Jewish observance, Jewish strength and Jewish achievement, such are those who bring our people survival, salvation, a future…”
“Non Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism. She quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks saying: “What is more attractive than people confident in themselves, grateful for their historical legacy and proud of their culture?”
As a rabbi, I have experienced this many times when I have been in a position to offer a Jewish voice, a Jewish prayer or ritual in a non Jewish space, seeing the grateful way it is received. Recently, I blew the shofar in downtown Boulder at the Climate Strike and at Boulder City Council at the moving signing ceremony of Ramat HaNegev as our sister city. It was moving to see the reactions.
Yes, we know that there are, sadly, places where it just isn’t safe to walk around the streets wearing a kippah, a magen David or other easily identifiable Jewish symbols, but generally, we need to stand up for who we are rather than hide. Yesterday, I spoke about the transcendence of self and identity into a universal realm. We also need the particular expressions of our Jewish soul.
My friends, Yom Kippur can be a very heavy day with our communal accounting and confessing, and we live in a heavy time of history and who knows what 5780 and 2020 will bring? As well as the vulnerability of facing our own imperfection and mortality, we also have to face what is happening in our world, but let’s acknowledge the transgression of all those times we have had a negative, defensive, reactive Jewish identity rather than a positive one.
For the sin we have committed before you choosing shame rather than pride.
We need to be strong advocates for the Jewish people, not just to be anti antisemitism, not just standing in defiance, but in celebration, joy and dignity; just as we, at other times, support and share other cultures and faith traditions celebrating their own sacred gifts. Reb Zalman used to teach that Jew is a verb, to Jew. Some of us Jew every day, some Jew every week, some once a year. Let’s Jew more this year, take on a new practice, light Shabbat candles every week if you don’t already, learn some Hebrew, a new prayer, have a meal in a Sukkah, shake a lulav, dance with us on Simchat Torah or one of our musical Shabbat services, come to a class, try Thursday morning minyan, offer a ride to someone who can’t get to services, help serve food at Community Table. Learn about this rich, creative, dynamic tradition. Bonai Shalom is alive in its integration of tradition, creativity, depth and innovation. See yourself intimately woven into this Jewish story. Stand up.
Bari Weiss says;
“In these trying times, our best strategy is to build without shame a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but that are self aware, meaningful, generative, humane, joyful and life affirming. A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul and in the souls of everyone who throws in their lot with ours.”
Let’s not forget the moral courage of Stauffenberg and the other German officers, the resistance of Jan Kubis and Jozef Gobcek and so many more, the Poles who risked their lives to hide and save Jews, the righteous among the nations. All who stood and stand up in solidarity, choosing love over hate, choosing life. Let’s honor today’s Poles and other Europeans who, in spite of despotic governments are drawn to Jewish life and Jewish culture, to healing and reconciliation. Let’s be safe and realistic, while at the same time forming alliances and being in solidarity with marginalized groups and people everywhere. Let’s each find that beating heart of a vibrant Jewish life, for us to stand up and be a part of continuing, against all odds, to tell this magnificent story.