On Not Letting Fear Define Us

(L-R) Rabbi Avi Bukiet, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Rabbi Bill Hamilton, Rabbi Rachel Saphire, and Rabbi Marc Baker ⁩leading the Tree of Life Community Remembrance at ADL's "The Good Fight"

Nahma Nadich

This week, the last message from Acting Executive Director Nahma Nadich. Next Friday, look for a special message from Jeremy Burton, who will be back from sabbatical.

One year ago, eleven Jews woke up on Shabbat morning, went to shul, greeted their friends, put on their tallitot (prayer shawls), opened their siddurim (prayer books), and prepared to immerse themselves in prayer. But shockingly, they were brutally murdered by a killer, proclaiming his hatred for Jews and all that we stand for. That devastating tragedy broke our hearts, shattered our sense – perhaps only an illusion all along – of our safety in this country. It stunned and terrified us.

Last Sunday, I joined with 400 members of our community to mark the first yahrtzeit of this calamity. We at JCRC were among the dozens of organizations co-sponsoring The Good Fight, ADL’s forum on confronting antisemitism, today and tomorrow. We recited kaddish in memory of the victims, learned about the many faces of this ancient and modern hate, and together – high school students and adults alike – we resolved to stand tall as a community in the face of this threat.

Among the speakers was Deborah Lipstadt, who recently published a seminal book on antisemitism. I heard the noted Holocaust historian speak several years ago, but now she sounded different, more somber. Now we had all lived through the unthinkable; violence taking the lives of Jews worshipping at the Tree of Life, and six months later, at the Chabad of Poway. Antisemitism in America was no longer limited to nefarious underground networks of haters; it was now on full display in acts of violence in the streets of Brooklyn, arson in our own community, and lives lost in shuls. We are at the point that, as American Jews, we are no longer concerned only with the welfare of our people in foreign lands – we are now afraid for ourselves.

All of which makes the message I heard from Dr. Lipstadt even more surprising – and more urgent. She told us that the prescription for fighting antisemitism isn’t to focus on the threat, or to barricade ourselves against the danger, but rather to “show the haters that I am a Jew.” It is on us to know what we are "the bearers of" worrying about the stranger because we were strangers, letting the land lie fallow and be rejuvenated, repeating the word justice to remind ourselves to run after it, earning the reward of a long life for honoring our parents.

At JCRC, we have a deep appreciation for the wisdom of that message. We respond to antisemitism not only by preparing for crises and ensuring that Jewish institutions have the means to stay secure, but also by engaging our community in myriad opportunities to act on their Jewish values: welcoming the stranger by standing with immigrants, valuing human life by combating gun violence, pursuing justice by addressing social and economic disparities.

Dr. Lipstadt’s message resonated for me for another reason; it is one I’ve heard my whole life. My father Rabbi Judah Nadich, z”l, was a distinguished rabbi who served the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan for 30 years after first serving as rabbi here in Brookline at Kehillath Israel. But the defining position of his life was earlier in his career, when he was appointed Advisor on Jewish Affairs to General Eisenhower immediately following the liberation of the concentration camps. His responsibilities included visiting Jewish survivors in refugee camps, discerning their physical, spiritual, and emotional needs and doing everything in his power to make sure the American army addressed them. He spent his days with his fellow Jews, who against all odds had escaped the unimaginable and were now faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of going on with their lives, in a world that allowed their near destruction as a people.

For my father to emerge from this trauma consumed with fear about the dangers inherent in being a Jew, or with desperate worry about Jewish survival, would have been more than justified. But the deep love he felt for his people, the passionate joy he derived in living a Jewish life – and leading his community to do so – were only intensified by his witnessing the possibility of it all being eradicated.

For the rest of his blessedly long life, wherever and whenever he could, he bore witness to all that he had seen, and he preached this essential message (excerpted from a 1985 Yom Kippur sermon):

“… it is not enough only to be concerned with the survival of Jews. That must not be our emphasis or we shall lose the struggle. Our emphasis has to be on the survival of Judaism, then Jews will survive. The Holocaust is a searing pain in our hearts, but to brood over it is not the purpose for being a Jew; the anxiety to prevent another Holocaust is not the essential incentive to Jewish activity.  To feel the tragedy and to talk about it does not in itself make us good Jews, for then the Holocaust becomes a surrogate rather than a reminder; then the Holocaust becomes the entire content of Jewish life, and it cannot be if Jewish life is to be. 

 “We exist not in order to prevent our own destruction, but to advance our special assignment, embodying the ageless values that are our raison d’etrefor Jews,“Never Again” is a poor substitute for the purposeful Jewish living as a potent driving force to promote Jewish vitality.”

I shudder at the thought of what my father would make of the current state of affairs in his beloved country, at the scenes of bloodshed in American synagogues. But then I recall these words, and I remember his unshakable faith not only in God, but in the Jewish people. I’m buoyed by his conviction that living meaningful Jewish lives will ensure not only that we survive, but that we are heirs to a vibrant future, one that will animate our most cherished values.

This urgent message was echoed last Sunday in the words of one of our community’s rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Zion and JCRC Board Member. As a young woman, Rabbi Kreiman lost her beloved mother Susy Wolynski Kreiman, z”l, an esteemed Jewish educator, when she was murdered along with 84 other victims in the AMIA terror bombing in Argentina. This profound loss has informed Rabbi Kreiman’s life as a Jew and her leadership as a rabbi. And like my father, she is driven not by fear or trauma, but by the possibility of joy and redemption. The message she shared at the ADL event last Sunday was eerily familiar to me:

“Fear cannot be the driver of our life instead, we need to lead with hesed, love, generosity, compassion, resilience and hope. I invite us today, in honor of the victims and in honor of our own lives to ask ourselves, again and again, how not to let fear define us and how to summon love and hesed, how to summon hope to be our guiding beacon.”

May we heed the words of Dr. Lipstadt and of Rabbis Nadich and Kreiman in meeting this moment to choose hope over fear, to embrace the fullness of our Jewish lives, and to renew our commitment to build a world of love, justice and compassion.

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Shabbat shalom,

Nahma