Sermon for Yom Kippur (2023): Bridges Stronger than Walls

By Rabbi Arnowitz

Last year our son had the privilege of visiting Poland on his Leffell senior class trip. They spent a lot of time seeing places where, at one time, Jews thrived. The annual trip was run by Rabbi Harry Pell, the Assistant Head of School and an old friend of mine and Tami’s. In one of his correspondences with parents he told us about a visit to the Szydlow (pronounced Shidlov) Synagogue and wrote, “When we daven the Mincha afternoon service there, I often wonder if anyone has davened there with a minyan since Leffell last visited.”

It is a poignant reflection and made all the more so when you know the full name of the synagogue. It is the Fortress Synagogue of Szydlow . The fortress synagogue style of architecture was popular in Poland from Medieval times until, well, until there were no Jews left in Poland to build synagogues. It featured high, thick walls and narrow windows, as you might expect to see in a fort or castle from that time. Shouldn’t the fortress synagogue have protected the Jews? On occasion, it did indeed… but obviously not forever. As we know all too well, thick walls were not enough to protect the Jews of Poland from the horrors of Antisemitism and the result is that the Leffell class annual visit may be the only time that Jews come to “do Jewish” in that space.

As I considered fortress synagogues, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different this is from the model of hospitality we know from Avraham and Sarah, whose tent was famously open on all sides to welcome people from any direction. And as I watched the new barriers go up this summer around WJC, I wondered which model are we reflecting? I know that all of the efforts – the barriers, the new cameras, the alarm system, the security guards, and the coated glass – are making us safer in our building and I am so grateful for the work of our security committee, and especially its chair Mark Berger, for all of their efforts. I am grateful to the Federal and State governments who fund our security improvements with special grants. Sadly, as Antisemitism spikes in this country, these security measures are necessary and we should all be grateful.

And also, as the Szydlow Synagogue, now merely a museum to what once was, reminds us, it is also not enough. No walls are thick enough or high enough to protect Jews forever. Our very powerful Yizkor ceremony, our Holocaust Torah and the Shoah Memorial are all evidence of that. There is an important concept in Judaism that applies here and that I want to address today – being closed off when times call for being closed off, but also being open when times allow for being open.  Figuring out how and when to strike that balance is what I want to address today. It starts with a blessing about openings and closings that some of you may be familiar with.

You may recall that last year we spoke a lot about blessings, but I neglected to mention the perennial Religious School punchline that is the blessing for going to the bathroom, usually referred to as Asher Yatzar. Despite the beauty of the blessing and majesty of the human body, it often leads to episodes like the one described by a concerned parent in the Q&A column of the Texas Jewish Post last month:

My son recently came home from religious school after having learned that religious Jews recite a blessing after leaving the bathroom. Needless to say, the kids had a good laugh about it and it became the subject of many jokes. I would like to say something to explain it to him so it would be taken seriously, but I’m not familiar myself with this blessing. Could you please fill me in?

This letter could have been from any parent, or in my experience rabbi or camp counselor, who is faced with a sniggering third or fourth grader who can’t even think about the potty without chuckling.

The Asher Yatzar blessing is actually one of the most beautiful of the original blessings passed to us by the rabbis. Asher Yatzar, the bathroom prayer, is the only one that invokes God’s Throne of Glory – No, they don’t mean that throne of glory (I guess it’s not just kids who like potty humor) They mean the one in the actual supernal throne room. The blessing is so special because it is a fulfillment of the verse “from my own flesh I will see G-d.” The blessing goes:

Blessed are You, our God, source of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within our body many openings and many hollows. It is revealed to your throne that if one of them were open when it should be closed, or if one of them were blocked when it should be open, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence.

With all that talk about openings and closings, things flowing when they shouldn’t and being open when they should, you can understand why it would seem so funny to school children. But as I’ve grown, as I’ve aged, as I marveled at the miracle of birth and despaired at the downfall of the body, none of that seems so funny anymore and the prayer that was once a punchline suddenly becomes a profound truth. Everything really has to be just right – closed when it should be closed and open when it should be open for things to go smoothly.

This also applies to us and our synagogue today when it comes to Antisemitism. The truth of synagogue security is that the goal is to make a building look so uninviting, so well-protected, “a hardened target,” as the FBI has told us it is called, that an assailant would choose to go elsewhere – but the danger of high walls, of being the most closed-in synagogue, is it may give an impression of protection, and I believe we are safe here today, but as evidenced by the museums that are the Fortress Synagogue of Szydlow and so many other now destroyed fortified synagogues across Eastern Europe, walls and security measures are not enough.

The only true way to ensure that protection for us and Jews all over the country, is also to step out from behind our walls and to engage with others. To do everything we can to root out Antisemitism, to come out from behind our walls when we can and educate, and listen and build bridges, such that no building with a Jewish star on it is a target any more. For now, because of our measures, we can hope that an assailant will choose to go elsewhere, but that is obviously not enough. Our true task is to be rid of the assailants altogether or at least as much as possible.

You may have seen Deborah Lipstadt’s excellent Op-Ed in the New York Times last week. Ambassador Lipstadt currently serves as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat Antisemitism abroad. In her essay she argues that the best way to combat Antisemitism is for all of us to do more Jewish – not because they say we can’t, not because we are under attack, but because it is a beautiful tradition that we should raise up as a model for others. I couldn’t agree more. It is a message I’ve shared many times myself, including after terrible attacks on synagogues. And while I agree with Jewish practice as a response to Antisemitism, it isn’t quite enough. Embracing our tradition more tightly is wonderful, I don’t imagine any rabbi will tell you differently, but if we are only doing it behind our walls, among ourselves, it isn’t quite enough.

The only true way to remediate Antisemitism in this country, or anywhere, is to seek out and build bridges with other communities, especially the ones that seem to be breeding ideologies critical of Jews. It is to go out of our walls and teach others about Antisemitism and just as importantly to learn their stories, their histories, and how that makes them susceptible to adopting Antisemitic tropes. They may have very valid grievances against someone, but, as the cantor likes to say, they are delivering their mail to the wrong address. Let’s listen and help with their causes so that they will, God willing, listen and help with ours. Asher Yatzar isn’t just about our bodies, it’s about our communities – We need to be open when we should be open, so that we will need to be closed up less often. Like our bodies, it is the only way we can live.

It is this fact that makes the efforts of our SOJAC Committee to build bridges beyond the Jewish community so important. It is why the SOJAC Committee and I are organizing a synagogue trip to Alabama in April – to come to understand the story of the Civil Rights Movement more intimately and to hear from those who still remember the segregated south and the fight for equality, not to mention to understand how that battle continues. Registration is now open for that trip – flyers are outside on the table if you are interested.

It is why on February 7th my dear friend Rev. Dr. Antipas Harris will be my guest for one of our “Beyond the Bimah” program, the new series of in-person interviews I’ll be hosting once a month starting in December. Reverend Antipas was my partner in Norfolk when we founded Hands United Building Bridges, or HUBB, an organization dedicated to bringing faith leaders of varied backgrounds and ideologies together for dialogue, learning about each other, and about each faiths’ approach to the issue of race. Five years ago, on the Shabbat after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, almost every one of those faith leaders came to services at our synagogues and temples to show support, care, and love – to stand together. Several of them brought their members with them too and letters came pouring in. I know that something similar happened here too thanks to the important outreach and bridge building work done at that time here at the synagogue and by the AJC and Westchester Jewish Council. And I know these organizations are continuing in their efforts, along with the JCC of Mid-Westchester.

It was the genuine encounter and mutual growth that led to that sort of response – and I believe we were all safer and lived in a safer community because of it. After the pandemic, many of those relationships were left in tatters, and I think there is a link between the fraying of those relationships and the rise in hate crimes, and especially Antisemitism. I hope that Reverend Antipas’s visit will help spur our work in reaching out. By understanding the history, by learning about how others are experiencing the present, we can build those bridges for the inevitable moments of tension ahead.

It may sound overly optimistic to you that by reaching out and listening and sharing stories we can make a difference, but the truth of it is all around us. When entertainer Nick Cannon pedaled in Antisemitic tropes on his podcast, I was impressed how quickly the AJC’s Rabbi Noam Marans engaged him in a conversation. We are all quick to condemn and cut off, but Rabbi Marans approached the situation with an outstretched hand. The result? In 2020 Nick Cannon appeared on a Jewish program, AJC Advocacy Anywhere, and said “as a member of the entertainment community” to bring America’s Black and Jewish communities closer together. More than 15,000 people have viewed the program. In the one-hour conversation Cannon apologized for the blatantly Antisemitic language. He said, “I have no problem saying I was wrong. I had to step up and do what’s right.” It was openness and dialogue that made that possible. We are quick to condemn, but are we also open to education and acceptance of teshuva? We gain little by putting a metaphorical wall up when a bridge can really help.

We find many examples of this open model in Jewish tradition. There are a plethora od stories about engaging in dialogue with non-Jews, even ones who have negative views about the Jews. From stories in the Talmud about many of the ancient rabbis like Yohanon ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiva meeting and dialoguing with Roman Emperors and their families to stories from the Medieval period like Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari where a rabbi dialogues with the king. This is the heritage we can learn from for today.

90% of people in the United States acknowledge that Antisemitism exists, but most don’t think it requires any action. When asked if action were to be taken, what people would support, over 50% said that the Jewish people could handle this on their own. History has taught us that when we stand alone, that’s when tragedy strikes.

We need to know more about those purveying Antisemitism. Are we creating encounters with them? Are we creating opportunities where we can all listen and educate? Are we nurturing relationships with allies and bringing new people into the circle of awareness? There is an effort underway to help us start those conversations. Outside on the table, right by those flyers for the Alabama Trip, is a basket of pins that look like this. <show pin> They are the “blue square” emoji available on any phone. Please, take a pin and wear a pin and open yourself up to being asked what it is for and then discussing Antisemitism. You might be surprised about the conversations that ensue and with whom. This is a project of the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism – FCAS. If you’re not sure how you would handle a conversation like this, you can go to their website to get tips.

Let’s be only as closed as we need to be and as open as we can be. We may never be free of the terrible disease that is Antisemitism, but building bridges, teaching about our experiences and learning about others, will certainly go a long way to making us safer and happier. May it be that one day synagogues will no longer need fortifications, that our buildings can be as open as the tent of Abraham and Sarah. And until then, may we do the work of conversation, dialogue and upstanding to bring about that reality.

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