Holy Day sermons respond to hate crimes, concerns about Jewish identity, community

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With recent hate crimes sparking fear among Jews, many area rabbis will use their High Holy Day pulpits to examine bigotry's impact on Jewish identity and American society.

Far from focusing on locked doors or increased numbers of security guards, rabbis will probe such issues as criminal punishment, parental responsibility, Jewish commitment and community.

The Days of Awe start at sunset tonight.

Rabbi Alan Lew plans to emphasize the power of supporting one another in a time of collective crisis. This year, he said, "there's really going to be a more conscious feeling than usual that we are offering healing to each other, helping each other."

Lew, the rabbi of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, has noticed a decided insecurity among Jews in his midst.

"People are just nervous. People are very jittery," he said. "To their credit, they don't seem to be reacting so far by trying to run away from their Jewishness. If anything, I think they're coming in larger numbers."

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, a Jewish Renewal congregation in San Francisco, will talk about the Los Angeles-area Jewish community center shooting and other acts of "societal craziness" as rooted in a deepening but sometimes invisible spiritual crisis.

The core of that crisis is people's difficulty finding a "sense of caring community and mutual interconnectedness," he said. "Instead, each of us is faced with a societal ethos of 'looking out for No. 1' and a message that our worth comes solely from how much money and how much power we have been able to accumulate."

Living in a society where one's identity is measured by money or power can lead to a sense of desperation and hopelessness, Lerner said.

"The shootings at the JCC are only the tip of the iceberg of the violence and abuse that permeates a society filled with people in pain, often blaming themselves for their failures, and unable to make sense of their own lives."

Like many rabbis, Mark Diamond has already talked about the Sacramento synagogue arsons and JCC shooting. But he believes much of what he said bears repeating at the High Holy Days.

"Despite our feelings of impotence and fear, America in 1999 is not Nazi Germany in 1939," he stressed. "I certainly take comfort in the enormous outpouring of support from the Jewish community, the unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism from prominent people, ordinary citizens."

But Diamond, the rabbi of Oakland's Conservative Temple Beth Abraham, will also reveal his personal grappling with the issue of capital punishment in light of recent hate crimes.

The Bible is clear in its eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth stance. Yet later Jewish law essentially did away with capital punishment.

"Now I have to wonder if the time has come to rethink my own assumptions of capital punishment, if a man like Buford Furrow [the suspect in the JCC shooting] should be put to death for his crimes," Diamond admitted.

"Our ancestors were very clear in Torah times there was such a thing as monstrous evil in the world, evil that can only be dealt with by eliminating it."

The subject of fear will also be on the lips of Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman. Specifically, he will talk about boldness — both the kind that allows one to march into a JCC and shoot young children and the kind that allows Jews to stand firm in the face of such threats.

"Even though there are people who hate us, we are coming to shul," said the leader of Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. "We are not going to be afraid to do what we have to do."

Though he will not sermonize about hate crimes this year, Rabbi Ari Cartun wrote about them in this month's bulletin for Palo Alto's Reform Congregation Etz Chayim.

He noted that the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading of Abraham nearly sacrificing son Isaac to God has special meaning as Jews come to services this year — since anti-Semitic violence ups the ante of religious expression.

"We who continue to be Jewish do so warily," Cartun wrote. "Perhaps no other year in American Jewish history so resonates to this story. While sitting in High Holy Day services, think: Why am I doing this? What am I saying by voting with my body to be here?

"What can I tell my children, my Jewish friends and my non-Jewish friends about my Jewish vision and commitment?"

Rabbi Raphael Asher of Walnut Creek's Reform B'nai Tikvah will explore rage and hate crimes as a function of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. Focusing on paternal responsibility, Asher will suggest that men re-examine their relationships with their own fathers and how those bonds affect their sons.

"We as Jewish men need to re-examine what it means to be covenant keepers," reassuming ritual and ethical obligations in the Jewish community, Asher said.

Diamond will also address the crucial connection between parenting and a healthy society.

"I look at many small examples where we as parents have distanced ourselves from our children," he said. "We go out to dinner and instead of spending quality time with our family, we're all on our cell phones. Little League games are being marred by verbal abuse, and generally it's not the kids. It's the parents."

When the Littleton, Colo., shootings took place this spring, many parents said they would have known whether their children had been making bombs in the garage or visiting hate sights on the Internet.

"I'm not so sure," Diamond said. "It's something we all need to be thinking about as parents."

And as Jews.

"Our response must be to continue to teach…tolerance and understanding," Diamond said, "to respond to wounds of war with prayers of peace."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.