Yom Kippur 5771: Reclaiming Our Right To Be Tough, Strong Jews

As I mentioned yesterday, the Imam behind the Ground Zero mosque claims to be afraid to move the location of the mosque.  He is afraid that the radical Muslim world will be outraged and react with anger, or worse, violence.

When the pastor up in Gainesville threatened to burn the Koran last week, powerful US officials, even the FBI got involved to stop the burning because the act would illicit a horrible reaction from Muslims – a reaction that would threaten our soldiers overseas and perhaps even us at home.

Remember the slogan for E.F. Hutton, (the old US stock brokerage firm):   “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen”?  Well, whether we like what they have to say or not, when the radical Muslim community speaks – especially from a place of anger – people listen.  The world listens!  And the world acts to calm the anger.

There is something to be said about this.  Granted I am totally opposed to the violence and murder that is often a part of the anger that comes from the radical Muslim community.  But, this being said, I am in awe of the powerful voice that comes from this community when they feel wronged.

Did you know that the Gainesville pastor threatened to burn the Talmud too?    Let’s say he did – what would we have done?  I can tell you: not much.  Some of us would have kicked and screamed.  But, for the most part, there would have been silence.  I dare say many Jews wouldn’t have really cared.

We’ve got horrible anti-semitic incidents going on all over the world all the time – whether it the beating deaths of Jews in Europe, the hate speech coming from political leaders in South America, the lies being told by celebrities like Oliver Stone, the two bomb threats phoned in to Dor Dorim and B’nai Aviv this past week, or the violence and bloodshed in the Middle East.   And what do we Jews do with all of this?  We remain silent.

We’ve got Israel’s very existence in jeopardy – the fate of six million Israelis in the hands of President Ahmadinejad and his nuclear bomb – and yet we go about our lives as Jews in America – carefree.  When it comes to standing up for ourselves, we Jews are pretty pathetic.  And to me, this is a sin.

We don’t like controversy. We would rather just go about our lives and stay out of the fray. It started centuries ago in the Jewish ghettos of Europe where we were persecuted, tormented and killed because we were Jews.  We got used to living in fear and somehow, along the way, forgot that we had the power to fight back – except for a group brave souls who did fight, following the footsteps of their brave forefathers.  We submitted.  Hid.  Avoided the oppressors.  This made it safer.  Until they went looking for us.

The Holocaust annihilated six million of us.  Gone.  Destroyed us.  But we were not done.  We came back.  And many came here.  Our grandparents, parents, some of us.  And for the first time in a long time, we lived in relative safety and security.  But we did not want to rock the boat.  Did American Jews rise up and demand that their government do something about the Holocaust?  Do we turn out in droves today to demand that Iran be stripped of every possible chemical and tool it could use to make a nuclear weapon?  When a swastika is painted on one of our synagogues or a politician makes an anti-Semitic remark, do we cry out as an American Jewish community?  When Israel is attacked over and over again for defending herself, do we take to the streets and protest?  Do we make it explicitly clear to the world that you better not mess with us?  As a community, we don’t do this.  Some of us raise our voices.  But most of us do not. We don’t have the time.  Or the desire.  Life here is good.  It is easy to be Jewish.  Or maybe we just don’t have the guts. Inside of us, we still have that fear – the fear passed down to us from our grandparents and their parents…it is best to be quiet and just not draw too much attention to ourselves.  It will pass.

Spending time in Israel this summer made me realize just how apathetic we are as a community.  Apathetic – and darn lucky that we can be apathetic.

In America, when a Jewish kid gets ready to go to college, he is often handed a credit card and a car key and sent off to a posh university with new sheets and a comforter for his dorm room.  His biggest concern is – will he pass his first semester at college?  Or worse, how is the party life on campus?

In Israel, as a kid finishes high school, he is always handed a gun and keys to a military vehicle and sent off to a bare bones military barrack with no comforts of home.  His biggest concern is – will he live to see his next birthday?

Walking the streets of Israel and seeing young Jewish soldiers, men and women carrying machine guns – made me count my blessings to be an American Jew.  I can’t imagine knowing that my oldest kid would be off to the military in 9 short years.  No guarantee that she would survive the experience.  At the same time, seeing these soldiers made me realize how much we have lost as American Jews.  How wimpy we have become.  How we have lost the strength and courage of our ancestors – King David and Solomon, the rebels of Masada, the Maccabees, the leaders of the Jewish Resistance during WWII, the early Zionists, even our relatives who risked it all to travel to America.  While they did, we don’t have to fight to be Jewish today.  So we’ve lost, in many respects, our Jewish strength.  Our Jewish muscle.

There is a Yiddish/German expression – Muskeljuden (created by Zionist leader Max Nordau in the late 1800’s) – Muscle-Jews – an expression that is used to describe strong, powerful, assertive Jews who are willing to take their lives and the lives of their community in their own hands and do what they need to do to protect the Jewish people.  American Jews have lost the concept of the Muskeljuden.

For the most part, we teach our children to avoid violence and confrontation.  The typical American Jewish parent would be horrified to learn that their child smacked another kid at school.  The typical American Jewish family opposes the very idea of guns and weapons.  So very different from Israeli Jews.

Sadly, I have learned that not many of us are willing to stand up and defend our Judaism.  Many of us are not willing to put our lives on the line for our Judaism.

“Are you willing to call yourself a Jew during the good times and the bad times?” I ask this question to every one of my conversion students before I accept them into the Jewish community.  They all say “yes”.  If they didn’t, I wouldn’t convert them.  But, when I pose this same question to Jews who were born Jewish and explain that calling yourself a Jew during the bad times might threaten your life – I often get a very different answer.  What would your answer be?

“Are you willing to call yourself a Jew during the good times and the bad times?” I am shocked and saddened by the number of Jews who have told me that they would not be willing to openly call themselves a Jew or to openly stand up and defend their Judaism during the bad times.  Many tell me that they would hide their Judaism or, worse, give it up if need be during the bad times.  “Its not worth it,” I’ve had Jews tell me.  When you think about how many Jews have died to insure that we are sitting here alive and well today; when you think about all that is incredible about our faith, our history, our culture – I think you will understand that I find the response “its not worth it” to be a sin.

Most Jewish parents today, we are raising our children to be tolerant and accepting of other cultures, religions and races.  This is great!  The problem that I find is that while we raise our kids to love and accept everyone, if someone says something bad about Judaism, Israel, or Jewish people – we don’t give our kids the tools needed to respond.  We’d rather they ‘turn the other cheek’.  But, this is a Christian concept – not a Jewish concept.  It is great to be accepting of others – but when you can’t stand up for yourself – either because you are afraid or too ignorant to know how to – something is wrong.  And something is wrong with our American Jewish community.

Judaism teaches us that we are obligated to stand up for and defend ourselves from those who are out to undermine, harm or destroy Judaism.  We can defend ourselves in many ways.  We need to learn and be ready to stand up for Judaism and Israel by speaking up and expressing the facts.  We need to have courage.  We need to realize that we have the right to express the truth about our religion and our spiritual homeland.  We need to know what that truth is.  And we have an obligation, an obligation, to be proud of who we are and what we stand for.  We must stand with the Jewish community and support Jewish causes and – when we have the financial resources – travel to Israel.  We must push ourselves to correct those who speak poorly of Judaism and Israel.  We need to make a stink when our kid’s school attempts to penalize students when they choose to attend Rosh HaShanah services instead of going to class.  Most importantly, we must live wonderful Jewish lives – by living our Judaism – we strengthen our Judaism.  And strength is the best defense there is.

Yes, Judaism loves peace.  But Judaism is not naïve.  Jewish law explicitly states that we are required to stand up to those who threaten our existence.  War is bad.  But, Judaism teaches us that sometimes, war is necessary.  That is simply the truth.  To think otherwise is naïve.

War is what Israel and her citizens deal with every single day.  She is a country at war.   Israeli soldiers are on the defensive constantly because they know that the enemy is out there waiting to attack.  The soldiers in Israel openly carry guns – even when they are not on duty – because their job is to protect the Jewish nation from those set on destroying us.  The other side is waiting for Israel’s soldiers to put down their guns – waiting for an opportunity to strike.  But Israel’s soldiers know better.  They are highly trained to defend themselves and us.  And no one makes any attempt to hide the fact that they are there, actively protecting the Jewish State.  For those of you who have been to Israel, you know what I mean when I say that the sight of armed Israeli soldiers in the street is extremely comforting.

This summer Cheryl, the kids and I traveled down to the Negev, the Israeli desert, on the exact day Israel was attacked on the border with Lebanon.  That afternoon, Abigail and Jonah were playing in a park, very close to an Israeli air force base.  As they played having no care in the world, an Israeli fighter plane took off, broke the sound barrier, and raced up to the Lebanese border.  I knew where the plane was off to and what it was doing.  That plane and the pilot that was flying it – probably a kid not much older than our bar mitzvah kids – was insuring that my kids could play safely in that desert playground.  It was amazing.

Every day, Israel is under attack.  And every day, Israel defends herself.  Every day Israeli soldiers put their lives on the line – and too often we lose some of them.

Too often the world condemns Israel for being Musklejuden   – strong Jews who defend themselves with one of the strongest, most well trained militaries in the world.  Israel’s attempts to stop rockets from being fired from Gaza into her cities, or halt the flow of terrorists from the West bank by constructing a security fence, or preventing ships loaded with weaponry from entering Hamas controlled Gaza are all completely justified, moral and necessary for the very survival of Israel.  But the world screams when Israel acts. Where is the outraged, worldwide Jewish voice at these moments?  Where is the anger?  The mass protests in the streets!?  What about when a European Jew is beaten to death in the street simply because he was a Jew or when the crazed world leader starts spewing hatred about us or when a celebrity begins to trash our homeland?  Where is the Jewish voice at these moments?

There is a American cartoonist in a hiding today for declaring, rather foolishly: “Draw Mohammad Day”.  She had so many threats against her life that she has, at the FBI’s urging, changed her identity completely.  No one knows where she is.

When the radical Muslim world feels threatened, look at what they do!  Again, I am not suggesting we as a community react with violence.  Not at all. I oppose that completely.  But, do you know how often in cartoons, tv shows, movies, books, political speeches, the media – how often we are wrongfully portrayed as disgusting, violent monsters!?  Why isn’t Mel Gibson afraid of the Jewish community? Why do we tolerate the abuse?  It is time for us to act.  I am suggesting that we act – not irresponsibly – not immorally – not violently – but do something, say something that shows the world that we will not tolerate this type behavior any longer.

The problem is here in South Florida, in New York and Los Angeles – we feel disconnected from the craziness.  We don’t have to worry – at least that’s what we think.  BUT the fact is – we do.  Because one day, in the not so distant future – Iran will have that bomb.  And with the push of a button – Israel could be history.  Another six million Jews could be gone in a flash.  No matter how well trained our soldiers are – they can’t stand up to a nuclear weapon.  And God forbid, if this happens, how will you feel?  How will you feel if there is no Israel tomorrow!?  What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask you: “Grandma/pa what did you do to stop Iran from hurting Israel?”  What will your answer be?

This Yom Kippur, determine what you will tell your grandchildren if they were to ask you what you did to stop Iran.

Upon returning from Israel, I decided it was time to find the MuskleYid (musskel-yid) hidden inside of me.  I have begun training with a former high-ranking, Israeli soldier – a security expert who runs a self-defense program here in South Florida that helps train many of our law enforcement officers.  He is basically putting me through Israeli boot camp.  It is hard work.  Physical work – but more significantly, hard mental work.

I am, for the most part, a nice Jewish boy. Nice Jewish boys, I’ve always thought, don’t go out of their way to stand up for themselves especially if it means putting themselves in harms way.  Through my ‘boot camp’ experience, I am learning otherwise.  I am being pushed out of my comfort zone and learning from an Israeli soldier that I am obligated to put my neck out and stand up for myself, my family and my people.  This is not something that is part of our contemporary American Jewish mentality.  But it really should be. There is nothing about it that is violent or reckless.  This is about being responsible.  It is extremely empowering – and reminds me that being Jewish is not about being the victim – it is about proudly owning our faith and insuring her well being as we move into the future.  And a nice Jewish boy can be a Muskleyid.  (I am happy to say that my teacher will be coming to Ramat Shalom this year and offering self-defense classes for our community.)

Being a Muskleyid means that you “get” that every Jew needs to stand up for every other Jew – loudly, strongly, forcefully.  Because we are all in this together.  There is simply no excuse to do otherwise.  We were once a brave, strong group of Musklejuden.  We need to reclaim our strength.  We need to learn how to stand up for ourselves.  We need to learn to be vocal.  We need to learn how to express our outrage.  We need to learn our facts so we can stand up to the opposition.  We need to learn not to turn the other cheek – but to do the Jewish thing: actively, responsibly and appropriately stand up for ourselves as needed.

There is no reason that pastor in Gainesville shouldn’t fear the reaction from the Jewish community if he burned a Talmud.   Why not let the nuts associated with that Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka Kansas know that the next time that they choose to come to South Florida to picket synagogues and JCC’s  – as they did recently – they will be met by a very powerful group of Musklejuden?  When celebrities and political leaders across the globe decide to trash the Jews, let’s not forget that we, as a community, have the responsibility and the power to make them think twice before they bad mouth the Jews again.  And when the media distorts the truth about Israel and her right to defend herself – lets insure that we raise our voices and let the cry of Jewish voices be heard across the globe.

I know talk like this feels so un-Jewish.  But, it is not.  It is what has allowed the State of Israel to survive countless attacks, it is what has allowed the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years, and it is what we must do as a people as we move forward and face the challenges that lie in the future.

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