For Jews around the world, the 10 days beginning with Rosh Hashanah, our new year; and concluding with Yom Kippur, our day of fasting and mindfulness, are the most sacred of our holidays. The High Holy Days, as we refer to this time in our lunar calendar year, occur sometime in the fall. Although I most often celebrate our yearly holidays with my Door County Jewish community, I spend at least one of the two High Holy Days with my son and grandson on the East Coast. This year I shared our new year, 5780.
Jewish New Year celebrations are sweet as we eat foods flavored with honey. Our round loaves of challah represent the calendar: the months, weeks and days that provide our lives with structure. It is a time to be joyous.
During the days leading up to Yom Kippur, we reflect on our past year’s transgressions. Commonly referred to as a day of atonement, I prefer to look at the possibilities of the coming year: how I can make positive changes in my behaviors, how I can bring about reconciliation between myself and the people around me.
But as my family walked into the synagogue for our New Year service – with a patrol car parked in front of the building – I felt fear. With much trepidation, I put one foot in front of the other, clutching my young grandson’s hand as we moved forward to take our seats. Before beginning the service, the rabbi announced evacuation routes, in case we needed to exit in an emergency. Without saying the words aloud, it was assumed the instructions referred to, “if we were under attack.” With only one door to enter the building – to limit and observe all people who were arriving – alternate doors were available for an expedited exit.
I couldn’t help but recall last April’s attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue in California, where a crazed 19-year-old killed one person and wounded three others. And on Oct. 27, we will honor the victims of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. On that day one year ago, 11 died and seven were injured. I felt both fear and anger at the loss of innocent people as they gathered to share their faith. As we departed services on that sunny New Year day, the police car with a patrol officer inside was still parked outside the synagogue.
Our Door County Jewish community gathered for Yom Kippur this past week, and the question of our safety was a serious consideration. Do we need to be fearful in our lovely community? I am beginning to wonder and worry a bit. It goes without saying that Jews are under attack around the world. According to Tel Aviv University’s Kanter Center, “There is evidence of anti-Semitism going more mainstream.” The center catalogued 387 attacks on Jews around the world; 100 of those attacks occurred in the United States. The report noted that the majority of the attacks took place in democratic countries.
Our synagogues, stores and neighborhoods are under siege: targets not only for the radicals, but for anyone who finds some illogical reason to hate us. But why? Prejudice is defined as “preconceived judgment or attitude; an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, group or race.” Throughout time, Jews have been the scapegoats for anything and everything. Most recently, Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s economic failure, and he proceeded to eliminate six million of them – an inconceivable number – to rid the world of the offenders.
So how can we end the senseless murder of innocent men, women and children? Where and how do we begin to make change happen? I don’t have the answers, but I do feel strongly that education and open dialogue are a beginning, essential to a better understanding of who we all are in this world. Sadly, those who are pointing their guns and pulling the trigger – destroying countless innocents based on the color of their skin, their sexual preference or their religious beliefs – have denied their victims the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
My hope for the new year is that we see serious change in the attitudes of people who hate without reason, deny the Holocaust ever happened and spray-paint our synagogues with swastikas. I hope you will all take time in the months to come, during the coming holidays and beyond, to begin a conversation with someone who holds beliefs that are different from your own. We need to mend the seams of the frayed fabric of our country, consumed as we are with the divisions within our government.
Last Sunday, my grandson and I had a five-year-old’s conversation about Yom Kippur. He was leaving for Hebrew School, and I would be driving back to Wisconsin. I explained that on this holiday, we thought hard about how we might have hurt people in the past year and what we can do to make them feel better, to be kinder. Driving home, I recalled our talk and realized with a sudden clarity that this child represented the future: a future alight with understanding and, yes, love. So let us listen without prejudice and respond with thoughtfulness. It is a simple beginning.