Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the Rabbi David Lyon
“I did not leave tonight’s Sabbath of Comfort service pessimistic; but rather with a lot of hope.” The Honorable Sylvester Turner, Mayor City of Houston.
On Friday, November 2, 2018, after the tragedy in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel opened its doors to everyone to experience an hour of Sabbath comfort and peace. Like Jews around the country in their synagogues, we came here to find what we needed in this time of turbulence. Our needs were complex. We needed comfort, consolation, reassurance, hope, peace, and much more; it was plain to see it in the faces of men and women who wiped away tears from their faces.
America has always held the promise of accepting the “huddled masses…wretched refuse…[and] the homeless.” We were once the people referenced in “The New Colossus,” this poem by Emma Lazarus, a Jew, which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Years ago, after anti-Semitic attacks in Paris, a community leader there lamented, “In WWII, the pessimists went to New York City; the optimists went to Auschwitz.” America has been our hope for so long that we sometimes forget our tenuous beginnings here, which included rampant antisemitism in the early to mid-20th century. Only lessons from our parents and grandparents made their history real to us. But, now history is repeating itself. Stoked by irrational fears and unsubstantiated claims, Jews, blacks, immigrants, and LGBTQ are victims, again. Will pessimists go to Israel, and optimists stay at home?
If we wish to stay at home, we have no choice but to learn well from the lessons of history and live by them. Voter turnout this past week demonstrated that we can, because the democratic process works. Everybody who voted exercised their duty to participate in our democracy. The next step is to advocate for remedies against irrational fears and unsubstantiated claims that threaten us and our neighbors. There’s never an acceptable time or place for antisemitism; it’s antithetical to our survival. There’s never a time for xenophobia; it’s antithetical to our religious moral duty.
At Beth Israel, two of our committees are focused on our passion for Israel and our vital interest in social justice in America. Beth Israel’s Israel Advocacy Committee works tirelessly to educate and engage us on Israel, politically, socially and religiously. And, Beth Israel’s ABIDE Committee (Advocacy at Beth Israel for Diversity through Education) works equally hard to educate and engage us on matters of justice that are rooted in Jewish history and reflected in struggles in society, today. Both committees should make us feel genuinely optimistic about Israel’s security and sovereignty, and about America’s commitment to Jews who have called this nation home for more than 200 years.
No one is exempt from participating in the work that must be done. Jewish agencies that work on our behalf, including ADL, AJC, AIPAC, and JFNA, play a significant role in defining contemporary issues and acting on them. Support one and engage. But, the synagogue, the only institution that develops Jewish identity from a young age, advocates for us while it engages us in meaningful education, inspired worship and significant community service. Support one or more and engage often. There is no place to hide from one’s Jewish responsibility to create the environment where we, our children, and our grandchildren should thrive. There is no reason not to step up and participate in spreading genuine optimism through real work during a time of turbulence where pessimism can take root and despoil this nation and our future in it.
Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and other faith traditions joined arms with city leaders and dignitaries on our bimah on November 2nd, to demonstrate that peace is most important to all of us. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “I did not leave tonight’s Sabbath of Comfort service pessimistic; but rather with a lot of hope.” We all did. God bless America. God bless the Jewish people and all God’s children everywhere.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST, and he is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com.