Insight on White Supremacists, and an Action Plan

Image: Dayton police released photos of the weapon and drum magazines used in the attack on August 4, 2019. (From

There is a remarkable article in a recent issue of The Atlantic. Yara Bayoumy and Kathi Gilsinan interviewed Christian Picciolini, a reformed white nationalist. They wrote A Reformed White Nationalist Says the Worst Is Yet to Come.

Picciolini joined a neo-Nazi hate group more than 30 years ago. Now he works to help people leave such groups. In the interview, he made some connections that I found really helpful in understanding what we are up against. I recommend you read the article, but here are some high points that stuck with me:

  1. The standard against which the violent white nationalists gauge their success is Timothy McVeigh, the anti-government terrorist who blew up an Oklahoma City federal building and killed more than 100 people in 1995. High body count is the point. In Dayton, the attacker used the equipment pictured above to kill 9 people and injure 27 within 30 seconds – more than one person hit per second.
  2. Revisions in the gun laws will help to limit the violence, but they will not solve the problem. Right now guns are the easiest way to kill large numbers of people. McVeigh used a car bomb and Islamic terrorists have used cars and airplanes as weapons, to name just a few deadly options. We need to get weapons of war away from hate groups, yes, but we also need to recognize that they will adapt.
  3. Racism and white supremacists have been part of the USA from the beginning, but conditions have changed. With the advent of the Internet, it is no longer necessary to recruit new members in person – young men looking for meaning in life find this philosophy online, and radicalize without ever meeting anyone in person.
  4. When we watch the videos with the attached ads, we are funding the hate groups. Many of these groups and individuals make their operating funds via advertising attached to their videos. So think twice before clicking on their websites, their videos, and any other such media.
  5. People who leave white nationalism behind do so because they have an emotional experience that changes their perceptions. For instance, they get to know someone from the targeted group. Arguing with racists does not change their minds, no matter how many facts are at hand. Experiences and time are what open hearts.
  6. Picciolini says, “There aren’t programs being funded to help people disengage from extremism.” In other words, our government is doing exactly nothing to counteract this movement and its ideology.

The quote that knocked me off my feet was this:

Typically what I found is, people hate other people because they hate something very specifically about themselves, or are very angry about a situation within their own environment, and that is then projected onto other people.

– Christian Picciolini, quoted in A Reformed White Nationalist Says the Worst Is Yet to Come , in The Atlantic, 8/6/19, accessed 8/10/19.

If this is true, then the meanest haters out there are filled with misery and/or anger. Nothing I say is going to persuade them of anything, because they will simply read it into their narrative. Dealing with actual violence or plans for violence is a job for law enforcement, and we need to insist that law enforcement step up their game.

Finally: some action items for myself – feel free to join me in any of them that appeal to you:

  • I am going to write and call my elected officials and ask for funding for research and programs for helping people untangle themselves from extremist groups.
  • I am going to insist that my representatives press the FBI to put a priority on white nationalist domestic terrorism.
  • I will continue to contribute money to organizations that track hate in America.
  • I will control any urge I have to make snarky comebacks to any such people I encounter on social media. Nothing I say in that environment is going to change their minds; it may serve to harden their position. Instead, I will work to encourage the good I see, taking as my inspiration from Hillel’s advice below.
  • I will correct false information I see spread about, but I will do it calmly and politely. I will not engage.
  • I will continue to search my heart and my behavior for my own racism and participation in racist systems.
  • I will maintain my awareness that all of us who are hated by white supremacists are in this together. I will not let that awareness be disrupted by side-trips into other political issues.

Hillel used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.

Pirkei Avot 1:12

Parashat Behar: Take that, Tacitus!

Image: Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 66-120 CE. (Wikimedia)

One of the oldest criticisms of Judaism and Jews is that we are a lazy people. In the ancient world, everyone lived on a 24/7 work schedule. There were no weekends, only a few major religious holidays, depending on the religion. That applied to everyone, from the Pharaoh to the lowliest serf: everyone had a job to do, and they worked at it without ceasing. Anyone who didn’t work that way must be lazy.

“Jews hold sacred what everyone else calls profane, and permit what everyone else thinks immoral. They sacrifice rams and bulls as an insult to the gods of the Egyptians. They are lazy and rest one day of the week, and one year out of seven.”

– Tacitus, 1st c. CE

Tacitus would have been horrified by the commandments in Parashat Behar, because this week we receive the message that we are supposed to observe not only the Sabbath, but keep every 7th year as a Sabbatical YEAR, and worse yet, every 50th year a Jubilee year! In Sabbatical years, the land must rest: no crops would be cultivated. Instead we would live on stored produce, and in the Jubilee year, all debts would be forgiven.

Tacitus would probably have said, not only are these people lazy, they’re crazy, too.

In truth, we are not certain how strictly Sabbatical years and Jubilee years were kept. We do know that the release of borrowed funds was a problem. The wealthy were unwilling to lend when there was a “get out of debt free” card on its way, and both the poor and the entrepreneur needed to be able to borrow. Economies cannot grow without some form of debt.

In the first century BCE, Hillel devised a solution for the debt problem, which he called the Prosbul. Debts ran through the rabbinical court, so that no one person held debt against another. That way, the rich felt they could lend and the poor could find capital. We can infer that before that time, people were serious enough about Sabbatical and Jubilee years that it created a problem that had to be solved by the rabbis.

Such is the wonderful flexibility built into the systems of halakhah, Jewish law. As Orthodox thinker Blu Greenberg writes, “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” Torah is not intended to be a straightjacket. The job of rabbis is to help the Jewish people live lives of Torah, and sometimes that means looking at an old rule, and either finding a way around it, or changing it altogether. We don’t do that lightly – I’m sure that the Prosbul was a scandal in its day! – but no society beyond the most simple can grow without a way to grow the money supply.

So, Tacitus, we aren’t lazy. Just the reverse: we are an enterprising people, who have learned how to get our work done in six days, and devised ways to live according to Torah and still have time to rest and to be, time to praise and to love!

Ask the Rabbi: “I’m studying for conversion, and the rise in anti-Semitism scares me.”

Image: My Jewish congregational family, gathered in the shelter of a chuppah for a blessing. (Photo: Temple Sinai website.)

“Dear Rabbi Adar, I’ve been studying for conversion for the past several months, and the rise in anti-Semitism really scares me.”

The questions usually arrive without question marks. It’s not hard to see the question in there: “What am I getting myself into?” or even “Why would any sane person sign up to be part of a people who are so hated?”

When I get these notes, I try to answer honestly: Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s getting worse. No, I don’t know what will happen in the future.

The other thing I emphasize is that this is not a test. It is OK to be scared. It is OK to say, this is too scary and it’s not for me. It is also OK to say, yes, it’s scary but I choose to continue on the path to Judaism.

One of the things my rabbi said to me when I was a candidate back in the 1990’s has stuck with me ever since: “You don’t have to become a Jew for us to think you are a good person. You are already a good person, without conversion.” What pushed me forward was my own desire, my own need to become part of the Jewish family.

I have never regretted becoming a Jew. I give thanks every morning that God has made me a Jew, and the Jewish people were willing to have me. At the same time, I won’t lie: we are living through a frightening time in history. Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence are a part of American life at the moment.

The last thing I say to people who send me these notes is: Go talk to your rabbi. Tell them about your feelings and confusion. You will not flunk Judaism for saying that you are uncertain. It is in confronting those fears that we sort out who we want to be, what we want for our children, what we want for our descendants. There is no single right answer, only the answer deep in your own heart.

Go sit with the Jews, when you feel shaky. It may seem counterintuitive, but as a people, we draw strength from one another. When bad things happen, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than with my mishpakhah, with my Jewish family. Whether that’s in my synagogue, or someone else’s synagogue, or at teh Jewish Film Festival, I feel better when I am surrounded by my people – and that’s how I know for sure that they are, indeed, my people.

After Poway: Feelings and Coping

Image: A single candle flame. (Image by Pezibear from Pixabay)

Here we are again, dealing with feelings from an attack on a synagogue. This time the synagogue was in Poway, a sunny place outside of San Diego, CA.

  • Some of us may be thinking, “I have always known about anti-Semitism. But this is hitting me very hard.”
  • Some of us may feel afraid to go in a synagogue.
  • Some of us have Gentile relatives who mean well but who do not understand why this shooting is so personal for each of us.
  1. This shooting came exactly six months after the shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. We were still digesting that event; now it has happened again. Stress accumulates.
  2. This attack was not an isolated incident. Not only does it bring back the memories of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016.
  3. Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
  4. Education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that an attack on a synagogue sets off fears of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and some anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons with symbols like swastikas.
  5. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events may heighten the feelings of fear and perhaps even abandonment.

What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?

Here are the things that help me cope:

The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:

The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17

This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the founding of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to many years of cordiality between the Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S.

Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that would surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.

Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. Many Jewish institutions will be offering opportunities to come together – take advantage of those. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and get instructions. Many synagogues will have extra security procedures in place.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing and strengthening ourselves. Especially if your Jewish education focussed on the Holocaust and not much else, this is the time to learn more about Judaism – to learn about our rich civilization and our strengths.

If Gentile relatives or friends do not understand your upset, you can offer them resources to educate themselves. They do not have a frame of reference for this, other than perhaps Holocaust movies. Send them a link to my article, A Message to My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh. Also, a more general article like Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From? may give them a better context than pop culture offers.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-SemitismTen Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.

Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.

Today All Jews are Chabad

Image: Police tape at a crime scene. (geralt/pixabay)

Today a man walked into Chabad of Poway, CA and started shooting. At this writing, the alleged shooter is in custody, one woman is reported dead and three others are physically injured. The emotional injuries, of course, expand in waves from the event: everyone in the building was certainly traumatized, all the Jews of San Diego have been threatened, and all the Jews who belong to synagogues everywhere have felt it like a wound.

My son sent me a text message from Santa Barbara: “Mom, do we know anyone at that synagogue?” I messaged him back, “It was at Chabad. As far as I know, I don’t know anyone personally, but today all Jews are Chabad.”

Today all Jews are Chabad. Six months ago we were all members of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Last night I was at my synagogue home, at a very similar celebration: Shabbat and the end of Passover. We were haimish and happy, innocently enjoying the end of one holiday and the count to another. Now I think with a shudder: what if?

And you see, that is what the shooter wanted. He wanted me (and you, and you, and you) to think “what if?” – that is the goal of the terrorist. He wants me afraid to go to synagogue. Other terrorists want Muslims to be afraid to go to the mosque, and want African Americans afraid to go to church. The bombers of Sri Lanka wanted Christians and tourists to be afraid to be in Sri Lanka. Those who shoot or bomb in public places want to flaunt their power: “I can kill you. I can make you afraid.”

I can offer only one solution to this poisoning of the world. We must identify with the victims, and be very specific about the perpetrators. We must be one with Muslims of Christchurch, NZ. We must be one with the Christians of Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. We must be one with the black church members of the American South. We must be one with the children who huddle in corners while the guns go on and on and on. We must be one with all in the world who dive for bomb shelters, all who cringe at every explosion, all the hurt, all the damaged, all who carry injuries.

We must have no tolerance for hate speech, and make no excuses for anyone who speaks hatefully. Their words manipulate the people who will act upon those words while the speakers wash their hands. Their words validate the hatred and the violence, be it done with guns or with bombs or with knives. Their words pull the triggers and wire the bombs; it was that way in Mississippi in the 1960’s, and it’s that way with the wave of hate crimes against people now.

When we speak hatefully of any group of people, we are doing the work of the haters. When we listen silently to hate speech, we are validating the speaker and whoever may listen. When we rebuke the speakers of hate, we are speaking up for the injured of every faith and every identification.

.לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am YHVH.

Leviticus 19:16

I pray for all the mourners and the injured of Chabad of Poway. May they, along with the mourners and the hurt from every act of terror be gathered under Your shelter of peace. May we all be healed from our wounds; may we relearn innocence in speech and deed. Amen.

Postscript: I’ve begun hearing from the Jews I know in Poway, and they’re having a tough time. Please keep them in your thoughts.

On Jews and Whiteness

Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.

I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:

from BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:

Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”

Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”

One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.

Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.

Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:

“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.

But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.

I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?

Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?

We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.

We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.

On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.

Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.

Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the daily service

A Message for My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh

Image: White votive candles arranged in the shape of a Star of David. (Photo: FreedomMaster/Shutterstock)

“My Gentile relatives do not understand why I am so upset,” a convert said to me, “They keep saying, ‘But you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh!’ and I can’t make them understand.”

You may be puzzled by the degree to which Jewish friends feel personally threatened by the shootings in Pittsburgh, or by the length of time they feel anxious about it. This is one of the things about minority status: things hit close to home, even when the event is far away.

Many of your Jewish friends have had other experiences of anti-Semitism that were personally upsetting and this event has re-stimulated feelings from those earlier experiences. My synagogue was vandalized on Rosh Hashanah last year. My rabbinical school was vandalized before that. My friend Pamela Waechter was murdered in the 2006 shooting at the Seattle Jewish Federation. Those are just a few of my personal experiences: your Jewish friends have had other experiences of things people have said to them or things done to people or institutions they loved. Pittsburgh came on top of whatever they were already carrying.

Some of your Jewish friends may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations. Intergenerational trauma has been documented in the decendants of Holocaust survivors and in the decendants of people imprisoned in POW camps during the American Civil War. Your Jewish friend may also be affected by family memories of trauma – we tend not to talk about those a lot, but you would be surprised how many of the Jews you know have family stories about fleeing death.

Judaism is like an enormous extended family. Anyone who receives a Jewish education learns Kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh, “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Rabbi Melanie Aron explains this concept by citing a story from the tradition:

“The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.” – Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 11

As a result, when there is trouble for Jews anywhere in the world, all Jews feel it. The best analogy I can offer is the way Americans felt frightened and angry after 9/11, even if they had no personal connection to any of the victims, even if they lived far away from any of the cities involved.

What can our friends do to support us? If you are not Jewish, but you have Jewish friends or relatives, give them a call or an email or a shout-out via Facebook and tell them they are in your thoughts. Be aware that the Pittsburgh shooting felt like both a personal loss and an existential threat to many of us. Offers of prayers and support are welcome.

As you would with any other shocking loss, keep the advice, theological statements, and political commentary to a minimum. “Where were you when you heard about it?” is a good question. “I wanted you to know that I care” is great. Letting them know that you are willing to listen to their fears without judgment or one-upmanship is wonderful.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join the ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center or donate to them. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-Semitism. Ten Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways against all forms of hate is a very tangible way of letting your Jewish friend know that you understand.