My 2019/5780 Yom Kippur Sermon
This past summer, Cheryl, the kids and I traveled from Israel to Poland where we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, our first time visiting concentration camps. Some of you have been – including some of our teens who went on the March of the Living. To those of you who’ve been, I never fully understood why, upon your return, very few of you were able to put into words what you experienced – that was until I stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau in July. There’s nothing there that can be described with words. As the late Eli Wiesel said: “it cannot be communicated, it is unexplainable. To me,” Wiesel stated, the Holocaust and everything surrounding it “is a mystical event. I have the feeling almost of sin,” he said, “when I speak about it.”
In Wiesel’s book Night, Eliezer, the narrator and a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau, teaches us that the essence of the Holocaust’s horror was silence. “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence,” explains Eliezer, a “nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.” Wiesel explained: “If I could communicate what I have to say (about the Holocaust) through not publishing, I would do it. If I could, to use a poetic image, communicate a Silence through silence I would do so. But I cannot. Perhaps I am not strong enough or wise enough,” he claimed. We know, however, that Eli Wiesel was both very strong and very wise.
We’re taught to remember the Holocaust. We say forcefully: “Never Again!” But, how do we effectively describe what we’re taught to remember; how do we capture in words what we should “Never Again” allow to happen, when what happened is a brutal silence so deafening, so all consuming, so suffocating that words can’t do it justice?
In this terrible silence, one of Eliezer’s fellow prisoners plays his violin. Eliezer says, “he was playing a fragment of a Beethoven concerto. Never before had I heard,” continues Eliezer, “such a beautiful sound. In such silence.” Thankfully, the Jewish people, today, we have the desire to live. We’re blessed to know that the world is once again filled with beautiful sound. Because of this, we know we must remember; we are committed to “Never Again” so that the awful silence of the Holocaust never returns.
But, as I stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau this summer, it hit me: the silence Eli Wiesel describes is still there in all of its indescribable, deafening emptiness. An emptiness that reflects the complete pulverization of Jewish culture, the obliteration of 6,000,000 Jewish lives. Gone. Nothing. Not even an echo of the screams that ripped through what remains of the gas chambers and barracks. No sense of a spiritual presence of those innocent souls whose suitcases, eyeglasses and other possessions can still be seen in display cases or scattered around the grounds of the camps. No souls linger in this profane silence. I like to think that we’ve said Kaddish so many times for the 6,000,000 that their souls are at peace, soaring far, far away from the all-consuming emptiness of Auschwitz-Birkenau. But, I also know that no soul would want to linger in the spiritual vacuum that is the horrid silence created by the Holocaust.
Every once in a while, a bird dares to break the silence of Aushwitz-Birkenau with a chirp but, unlike the violin played by Eliezer’s fellow prisoner, the bird does not add beauty to the nothingness. If anything, the chirp just sounds out of place. The sounds of cameras clicking, tourists talking, and diners eating at the restaurant housed at Auschwitz-Birkenau (yes, there is one), these jarring sounds aren’t simply out of place, they tear at the silence, shredding it, making it even more potent, even more unholy than it already is at its core.
When we say “Never Again,” we’re referring to anti-Semitism and the hatred, abuse of power, propaganda, ignorance, apathy, turning away those in need, refusing to take a stand and help, ghettos, labels, lies, denials, cowardice, justifications, torture, murder and the systematic annihilation of our people. But, as I stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau, I realized that when we say “Never Again,” we’re ultimately referring to the silence, the silence that overpowered morality and led to our people’s destruction; the silence of international apathy that reverberated across our planet as the smokestacks of Auschwitz-Birkenau blew what was left of us towards the heavens; and the silence that remains today, the silence that is the gaping hole left by the 6,000,000 and the generations that never had a chance to fill this world with holy noise. “Never Again” will we be silenced!
As we gather together in our sanctuary on this the holiest day on our calendar, as we gather together as a people who live by the slogan “Never Again,” there are dangerous groups and individuals who are hellbent on silencing us once again. They’re doing everything possible to spread the sickening silence of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the sickening silence of the Holocaust beyond the barbed-wire fences of the decrepit concentration camps – where, let’s be honest, it was never really contained – with the hope that they will finish what the maniacs in Europe started ¾ of a century ago.
These dangerous groups and individuals are using hate, violence and intimidation in an effort to shut us down. Their anti-Semitic attacks continue to torment Jews throughout Europe. And here in the US, our Jewish community is under attack. The FBI reports that among all religion-based hate crimes, Jews remain the most targeted group even though we are less than 2% of the US population. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), last year, was the third-highest year for anti-Semitic incidents since the ADL began tracking attacks against Jews 40 years ago. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL reports that actual physical assaults against our community have more than doubled year after year and the number of victims of anti-Semitic incidents has nearly tripled. This past year, we saw a 13% increase in attacks connected to extremist groups or ideologies. None of this, Greenblatt says, is normal. “This is,” he says, “something we have not seen for decades. For generations.”
Last year included the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on the US-Jewish community: the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where a gunman murdered 11 and injured 6. And this year, the Poway Chabad in Southern California was attacked. A gunman killed one person there and injured 3. And this summer, one person was shot and injured at Young Israel of Greater Miami.
Over the past several months, Jews in Brooklyn are being attacked on a regular basis. Jews in Brooklyn! In New York City. NYPD report a 59% increase in attacks against Jews. Synagogues across the country have been threatened. Last week, the windows of a Brooklyn synagogue were shattered while congregants were inside for Rosh HaShanah services. Some synagogues in Boston faced attempted arson attacks and one in Chicago had a Molotov cocktail thrown at it. Threats have been made against Jews. Swastikas continue to deface our schools. Jewish kids are being taunted by fellow classmates giving the Nazi salute and declaring “Heil Hitler!” Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Jewish museums and memorials have been vandalized.
In our own neck of the woods, Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center was threatened three years ago and just last year. Days after the shooting at Young Israel in Miami, Young Israel in Bal Habour received a threatening package. A few years ago, Kol Ami’s website was taken over by Team System Dz, a pro-ISIS hacking group. Jews were assaulted in a Dunkin Donuts in Miami last December. Earlier this year a man was arrested in Miami Beach for threating calls he made to a restaurant in which he said he was going to “explode the Jewish community.” In July a high school principal in Boca was reassigned after refusing to state that the Holocaust was historical fact. Early last year, I received an anti-Semitic threat on Facebook. I reported it immediately to the FBI who took it very seriously. Within hours, they tracked down the individual who made the threat in another state. Within a short period of time, they also discovered that he threatened Qasim Rashid, a Muslim Virginia State Senate candidate, on Twitter. The individual is now facing federal charges. I’m happy to report that from this horrible incident, Mr Rashid and I have formed a friendship and hope to work together to remind Jewish and Muslim communities of the importance of coming together for our own safety and well-being.
All of these attacks are done to intimidate us with the hope that we will go away, cease to exist, be silent. The sick and twisted minds that commit anti-Semitic crimes want the obliterating silence of Auschwitz-Birkenau to spread all over the world. They don’t want any more Jewish gatherings like this one where we can raise our voices in prayer and song. They don’t want Jewish celebrations. They don’t want Jewish schools where values can be shared with the next generation. And, ultimately, they don’t want Jewish people who embrace these values because we threaten their sick and twisted minds.
In response to their hatred, we say “Never Again!”
But is “Never Again” simply a slogan we say, a Jewish catchphrase? What do we mean when we say it?” Do we really believe it? And if we do, how do we act in ways that ensure “Never Again” means “Never Again?”
I got a call a few weeks ago from a woman who regularly attends Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur Services with her husband and kids. “Rabbi,” she said, “We won’t be seeing you at services this year, so I wanted to wish you a Shanah Tovah.” “Where will you be this year?” I asked. “I’ll be home,” she said, “in Plantation, but there’s no way you’re getting me to go to synagogue. It’s too dangerous these days,” she said. My attempts to change her mind failed. Fortunately, I ran into this woman recently. Again, she wished me a Shanah Tovah and explained why she wouldn’t be coming to services. Then she told me about a great movie she saw at a movie theater and how wonderful her kids are doing – both of them attend Broward County public schools. I know she shops at Walmart and goes to concert and visits other public venues.
We all know too well that no place is immune to violence these days. But, we can’t stop living our lives. We shouldn’t stop going to Walmart or the movies or school or any other place we shop, seek entertainment or learn. We also need to keep going to our spiritual homes. I explained this to the woman after she told me about the movie and her kids. I told her we Jews need to go to our synagogues. If we stop going because of the haters, they win. And that awful silence of Auschwitz-Birkenau, that silence that eviscerated the vibrancy of what was, it will slowly begin to swallow us because if you don’t come here, we’ve got one less voice making holy noise with us. We can’t afford that. “You matter,” I told the woman. “You as an individual play a role in keeping the silence away.” I’m grateful she’s here today with her family.
We need to show up and, in doing so, show them that they’re failing. We also need to pass laws and implement procedures that keep us safer. We need to demand that our leaders stand with us, condemn hate and refuse to align themselves with those who embrace it.
We also need to protect ourselves. The Torah teaches us that we’re obligated to build a fence around the Torah – to keep it and her people secure. You’ve noticed the extra security as you’ve come into services. You might’ve also noticed our new camera system which will soon be linked directly to the police department. If you’ve driven by the synagogue in the evening, you can’t miss this place now – we have a new outdoor lighting system. There are other security measures you won’t notice – intentionally. Under the guidance of our security company, the Plantation Police Department and the FBI, our security committee, run by William Freund, is working hard to ensure that we’re doing everything possible to make our facility safe and comfortable for all of us. Synagogues and Jewish institutions across the country are doing the same thing. We have no choice given the world we live in and given that we’re determined to stand strongly in opposition to those who seek our demise. We’re all seeking funding from Jewish agencies, the federal government and generous individual donors to cover the exorbitant costs associated with enhanced security. None of it – including the extra Plantation police officers outside – is free. But it’s worth the cost.
Last year, I asked for your help with the roof and how grateful I am that you came through. The year before, I asked for your help with scholarships to assist our own families in need and, again, you came through. Thank you.
As you probably know, we proudly run this place on a shoestring budget. Our roof is repaired, but now I need a new playground for our Early Childhood students and our computer system needs to be replaced. I still need money for scholarships to help families in need. But, given the rise in anti-Semitism and the recent attacks at the synagogues in Pittsburgh, Poway and Miami, after the attacks this summer in El Paso and in Dayton, after speaking with law enforcement and security experts, I had no choice but to enhance our security. Yes, it’s sad that I had to do it. Yes, I’m angry that I had to it. Yes, it frustrates me that I had no line item in my budget to pay for these enhancements. No, I do not think, given everything I know from those on the inside, that we’re doing too much. The safety and well-being of everyone who calls this place their spiritual home is of the utmost importance to me. It’s costing us tens of thousands of dollars. But I won’t put a price tag on our safety. And I know William Freund and our Board President, Doug Hoffman, feel the same way.
There’s a story about a rabbi who went to a wicked town. He came to save it from sin, from destruction. He preached to the people. “Please do not be murderers. Do not hate others. Do not threaten. Do not vandalize. Do not be silent when you see others act poorly. Do not be indifferent.” The rabbi went on preaching day after day, sometimes talking calmly, other times shouting loudly. No one listened. But he went on preaching for years. Finally, someone asked the rabbi, “Why do you keep preaching? Don’t you see it is no use?” He said, “I know it is of no use, but I must. And I will tell you why: in the beginning I thought I had to speak up and shout out in order to change them. I know that I can’t make this happen. I do know, however, that speaking up and shouting out ensures that they will not change me.”
Our increased security is our version of the rabbi’s preaching. It won’t stop the insanity out there. It also won’t change our warm and welcoming nature. But, it will, to the best of our ability, keep them from harming us. I’ll figure out how to fund a new playground and pay for a new computer system. I’ll do whatever I need to do to help our families in need remain connected to our community. Right now, I need those of you who truly believe in “Never Again” to help me fund the security enhancements we need to ensure that their hate will not silence us, to ensure that we can comfortably bring our children, our parents, our friends to Ramat Shalom knowing that we’re doing everything possible to keep the love that grows here free from the vitriol out there.
I thank you in advance for your generosity. Every dollar counts. If you’re able, I would encourage you to bump up your pledge from last year so that we don’t incur any debt related to our increased security and we can complete the enhancement process quickly.
As you hand in your pledge cards, our Children’s Choir will be filling the sanctuary with joyful noise – singing loudly and proudly – as they should in their synagogue.
G’mar Tov – may we inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life.