We are in an unprecedented time in American history, when hate, anti-Semitism, prejudice and most of all intimidation, violence, and xenophobia are being exposed. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “While some of us are guilty, all of us are responsible.”
Last Thursday, over 300 people of all faiths and communities came together on a wintry night to support and pray and say no to violence and threats of any kind. Outside the Jewish Community Center of Springfield, nearly a week after a bomb threat and evacuation of the entire JCC campus, an interfaith rally gathered in support of the Jewish community.
This was a large crowd yearning to transform fear to love and to action. I trembled in a place that suddenly felt like home — not so different from the JCC in Columbia, South Carolina, where I grew up — and was honored to climb up to the stage to speak as a rabbi among other community and faith leaders and legislators. The cantors led us in the song by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
Shortly before leaving Northampton for the rally, I had the responsibility of talking to my fifth- and sixth-grade Hebrew School students over their snack break about our safe spot in case of an evacuation. This is not normal.
While waves of 120-plus recent bomb scares and evacuations to Jewish Community Centers and Jewish schools throughout the country, Jewish cemetery vandalism, painted swastikas and personal threats has so painfully bombarded and shocked us as Jews, the Jewish community has known anti-Semitism rising up throughout our history, even if not like this before in America.
But the Muslim community, immigrants, undocumented workers, refugees, people of color, GLBTQ people, transgender people, poor people, women, and more, have all faced and continue to face this and worse oppression, violence and discrimination now and in recent history here. Our culture and nation has not yet created a safe haven for all peoples, even before this election.
We must stand in solidarity to garner moral courage, to fight all forms of hate and discrimination, and we must continue to do so through connections, outreach, caring, education and activism. We will not be overcome with fear or inaction.
This past weekend on the full moon, the Jews observed the holiday of Purim — which celebrates the bravery of Queen Esther and the resistance and survival of the Jews in Persia some 2000 years ago against vile discrimination and violence.
To save the Jewish people, Esther has to out herself as a Jew to the king and plead for her people’s lives in the face of evil Haman, who masterminded the king’s decree to humiliate and annihilate them. She asks not only the entire Jewish population to fast with her for three days, but also all her Persian women supporters inside the palace to fast with her in spiritual and physical solidarity — not unlike the interfaith support and marches springing up in our time.
Esther’s fast is still observed in Judaism, right before the holiday. The traditional Fast of Esther before the holiday even starts may be just the moment we are in now: to awaken the strength, support and hunger to gain the moral courage to fight hate with love, to challenge oppression in all its forms — in order to transform ourselves from people on the sidelines to people of action and moral courage — and not just for ourselves, but for all people in peril and all who face injustice.
From Esther’s story we remember that strength results when support comes both from within our own faith or identification group and from beyond it with allies, supporters and cousins — with solidarity and connection we gain the moral courage to fight hate with love, to challenge oppression in all its forms, and to transform ourselves from people on the sidelines to people of action and moral courage. That is what we share in common.
I am proud that Jews are responding to proposed and real Muslim bans by signing petitions that they will sign as Muslims if there is a Muslim registry and protest, such as when I was honored to participate with hundreds of rabbis in New York City last month protesting Islamophobia and the immigrant (Muslim) ban, including Rabbi Justin David of Northampton among 19 rabbis who were arrested.
The Muslim community fundraiser for the Jewish cemeteries hit its goal of $20,000 within six hours over three weeks ago and has now raised over $161,000. This makes me cry every time I check in on the fundraiser, and literally gives me hope to wake up in the morning ready to work.
And I pray my people continue to pour out our dollars too as passionately — such as the donations of $18, $36 and $72 to the fundraiser for the Tampa mosque which was burned by arson. Jews give in multiples of 18 which symbolizes “life” or “chai.”
To all of us I say: Let’s keep giving more. Reaching out to support. Not just with signs but with phone calls and forging new relationships. And showing our gratitude.
The holiday of Purim mixes raucous celebration with radical, life-saving seriousness. To paraphrase an inspiring conversation I had over Purim lunch with activist Professor Jennifer Taub, there is no choice but to charge forward with urgency — and to do it with joy. Let this be a daunting but joyous responsibility: we get to be in the world for this change together.
In the words of the Rev. Alison Harrington, who is a leader of the sanctuary movement, we stand today with the “sacred conspiracies of life” — we stand with each other.
We are Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, all faiths and peoples willing to stand up for each other in the way that cousins and sisters and brothers are meant to feel and act. We get to do it right this time and let’s pray we will model a new kind of interfaith love and support that will spread to Israel and Palestine and the Middle East and the world.
Rise up, resist, come together, reach out in friendship and support, turn our inner fears upside down into fierce and unrelenting passion for justice and love.
Say no to hate. Yes to life. Yes to love. Love always wins!
Rabbi Riqi Kosovske is the rabbi of Beit Ahavah ~ the Reform Synagogue of Greater Northampton in Florence. This column is adapted from her remarks at the interfaith rally to support the Jewish community held March 9 at the Springfield Jewish Community Center.