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Thoughts on Charlottesville

I was a senior in High School when neo-Nazis attempted to march through Skokie, Illinois, home to a large Jewish population, many of whom were survivors of the Holocaust.  Though the march eventually happened instead in Chicago, an Illinois Appeals Court ruled that it could in fact be held in Skokie.  In their decision the judges said that although the march was clearly a provocation, it was “protected speech” because Skokie’s attorneys did not prove that the Nazi symbols, uniforms or literature would incite violence.  I wonder how that court would rule today.

The tragedy in Charlottesville was horrific on many levels, first and foremost being the loss of life.  We mourn with the family of Heather Heyer, a victim of hate and terrorism, and we mourn with the families of the two officers who died while protecting the ideals of our country.

I’m sure that you have been following the events and the statements about the events since Friday.  I was struck by the fact that the focus of the virulent alt-right hate speech had little to do with the stated purpose of the rally.  Instead, different minority groups were the real targets and we should not have been surprised that the Jews were included.  The rabbi of the small congregation there, Tom Gutthertz, told me that he simply cannot describe what it felt like to stand outside his synagogue with a few members and a security guard, staring at armed alt-right militiamen gathered directly across the street, and listening to uniformed neo-Nazis marching by, chanting “there’s the Temple. Zig heil!”  In the United States.  In 2017.

Yet Rabbi Gutthertz stressed the support he has received from the Charlottesville Clergy Alliance, and from the public at large.  This is a close-knit university town, and almost all of the extremists came from elsewhere to participate.  In the midst of our grief and anger, it’s important to keep in mind that while the alt-right hooligans are loud, hate-filled and dangerous, they are not very big and they are not growing.  We should not panic.  Which is not to say that we should be ignoring what is happening.

The truth is that these people are no more hateful now than they were last year.  The only difference is that they have been emboldened to act publicly.  They have crawled out into the light this year only because they have sensed since early in the presidential primaries that there are a few prominent Americans who will not slap them down.  They stand taller because they see that the President does not want to disavow them, and doesn’t really mean it when he is forced to.  His comments yesterday about “very fine people on both sides” make clear his belief that there is a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and those who oppose them.  That is horrifying in itself.

I’m heartened by the nation-wide outpouring of opposition from all parts of the political spectrum, opposition to the hate itself, and to the cowardly refusal of the administration to call it what it is.  The alt-right spews a virulent, disgusting, homophobic, anti-black, anti-Semitic ideology.  It is the same ideology which plunged us into WW II, and which many Americans died fighting valiantly to defeat.  To suggest, as the President did, that those who fight Nazis somehow bear part of the responsibility for the violence is a perversion of history, and an insult to their memories.

I’m heartened by the peaceful gatherings and the candle lit vigils which have sprung up across the country.  These moments reinforce for us the truth that we are not helpless in the face of barbarism.  When communities come together in solidarity we are reminded that the vast majority of Americans hold fast to the ideals which have made this country a welcoming place for Jews as well as many other groups.

This Friday night our Shabbat services will reflect on those ideals. They are already deeply embedded in our tradition, so it does not take much tweaking, but this week it’s important to focus more consciously on that connection.  And it’s important simply to be together.

I need to add one more thought.  Vigils and prayer services are powerful ways for us to reassure ourselves that the fabric of society is still strong.  But by themselves they are not enough to bring about the change we seek.  We can use these gatherings to calm our fears, and then we must use them as a way to galvanize ourselves to act.  The hatred on display in Charlottesville has been a small but persistent thread in our nation’s history; it will not be wiped out overnight.  Change will come riding in on the shoulders of all those willing to do the daily, on-going work required to create a just society.  Our prophets called us to this task, and over the weeks and months ahead I’ll suggest specific ways to heed their call in your own life.

We read in Deuteronomy “you shall not remain indifferent.”  We are blessed to live among millions of Americans who believe that and act upon it. I look forward to continuing to work with you in building the society our tradition envisions, and our children deserve.


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Why I’m Going to Cheraw, SC and why you should join me!

Rabbi David 11Dear Friends,
Many years ago I was speaking with a friend about his experience at the Million Man March, a call for African-American men of every socio-economic level to come to Washington DC and accept responsibility for their lives. He told me that the most powerful thing about the event for him was being surrounded by so many people who not only looked like him, but shared similar values. It’s something that he did not experience all that often. Here in Tarrytown, he felt he was often looked at askance simply because he was black. I told him that I sometimes had a similar feeling when walking in public wearing my kippah. He replied “Yes, but the difference is that you can remove your kippah whenever you want and blend in. I can’t remove being black.”


I have never forgotten that conversation. One of the many things that has allowed Jews to do so well in America is that we look like the majority. We can blend in. The events of the past year – the deaths of unarmed black men, and in particular, the shootings inside the Charleston church – remind me that 50 years after Selma, having black skin can still be a liability in America.


In 1965, protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery to highlight racial injustice. Among the marchers were many Jews, including Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then head of the Reform Jewish movement, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. As you see in the photo, they marched carrying a Torah in order to emphasize the biblical call for justice and to remind us that all humans are created in the image of God.
By the end of 1965 the Voting Rights Act, written in the offices of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, had been signed into law. And yet 50 years later, voting rights are once again under attack, access to education is uneven, and African-American parents have to teach their law-abiding children how to speak to the police to keep from being shot. I, on the other hand, do not need to have that talk with my kids, because I can remove my kippah whenever I want.


But I still want to express my anger at the continuing racism, and I still want to clearly show my support – as so many Jews did during the Civil Rights Movement – for the values of justice and equality which are central to Jewish tradition.


And that’s why I’m going to Cheraw.


This summer the NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, a 40-day march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, in order to draw attention to how much still needs to be done to combat racism in America. The Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Reform Jewish Movement are partners in this effort. I am proud to say that I will be one of over 100 rabbis participating in the march. I will be carrying the Torah along the route from Cheraw, SC to Raleigh, NC on Wednesday, September 2. And I plan to attend the Voting Rights Rally in Raleigh on Sept. 3.


And I’d like you to join me!


My sons are coming with me. A few congregants have already committed to participating with us. The plan is to fly out on the afternoon of Sept. 1, march on Sept. 2, attend the rally and then fly home on Sept. 3. If your plans for the last week of the summer are flexible, I encourage you to join us. If you can’t march that week, you can pick another date to go.


Here are some FAQs about participating in the march. If you decide to go, you should sign up here. And of course, please let me know you’re coming! To do that, or just to ask questions, send a note to rabbi@tba-ny.org or give me a call.


I was a little too young for the marches in 1965. I’m saddened that another march is needed, but I’m honored to be able to participate. I hope that all who march will feel, as Rabbi Heschel said, that “I was praying with my legs.”


Peace and Blessings,
Rabbi David Holtz
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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Though some Jews seem to have arrived in Morocco with the Phoenicians shortly after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the earliest hard evidence of a Jewish presence dates to the Roman period.  Volubilis, near present day Meknes, was a very large city that followed the typical Roman layout, and dates to the first century.  It allowed the Romans to control the fertile valleys between the coast and the Middle Atlas mountains which helped make North Africa a breadbasket for the empire.  In the ancient cemetery, archaeologists have found a Jewish gravestone, which may mark the burial site of one of the many Jewish refugees exiled to the far reaches of the empire after the unsuccessful Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE.

On a totally separate note, neighboring Meknes became an important imperial city under Moulay Ismail, whose reign began in 1672.  Driven in part by deep paranoia, his building program was extremely ambitious, and included tremendous city walls, a huge granary and reservoir to defend against lengthy siege, and a stable for 12,000 Arabian horses.  This is the breed that enabled the Muslims to conquer so much territory so quickly.  Today, the descendants of those proud horses can be found giving rides to tourists in the town market.  The owner of the horse in the picture below gave him the fine Arabic name of Mario.

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Welcome to Rabat

Jewish participation in Moroccan society goes back a very long way. When the Arabs arrived in the 9th century, many Jews were silversmiths. When the Arabs arrived, they introduced gold, and the silversmiths became goldsmiths. Thanks to their metalworking abilities, they were commissioned to mint the money. When they asked what symbol should be on the back, they were told, “something lucky,” so they put the magen David, the six-pointed star. This “lucky symbol” was part of the Moroccan flag until the French colonialists insisted on removing it. Today the flag has a five-pointed star, representing the pillars of Islam

Under most – though not all- Moroccan dynasties, Jews have fared well, or at least better than in other Arab countries. The Jewish quarter in most cities, the melah, was next to the palace. Here in the capitol, Rabat, the area still exists, but all of the city’s 110 Jews live in a newer part of town, near their synagogue.

During WW II, Morocco fell under the collaborationist Vichy government. The Nazis had two labor camps built near Rabat to gather Jews, and they delivered a shipment of yellow stars. King Mohammed V was told that they were for his Jewish citizens. He said, “we have no Jewish citizens; in our country we have only Moroccans.” When pressed further he said, “however many yellow stars you have, make fifty more for me and my family.” The Jews of Morocco never wore stars, and none were deported. His grandson, Mohammed VI requires school children to learn about the Holocaust, and students in Casablanca visit the Jewish museum (the only one in any Arab country) to learn of the 2000 year-old Jewish presence. We made that visit today, and saw artifacts from 62 different communities, including a Torah scroll from an 1100 year-old synagogue in the Sahara!
All this evidence of Jewish-Muslim co-existence gives me hope that one day it could be recreated throughout the Middle East.

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Hello from Morocco!

After an uneventful flight on an aging Royal Air Maroc plane, we arrived early this morning. Once settled at the hotel, we went out for a stroll, and ended up in the Ancienne Medina (the Old City). Wandering in the souk (market), my eye caught this sign (below) down a small alleyway, marking the home of a 19th century rabbinic scholar. It’s evidence of the long-standing relationship between Jews and Muslims here in Morocco. More about that tomorrow. The Jewish community here dates back 2000 years, and now includes descendants of Berber tribesmen who were attracted to Judaism. A second major wave of immigration – about 40,000 people – came from Spain with the retreating Muslims in the 1480’s. It should surprise no one that there was conflict between the original Jews and the new immigrants, and the separation between the two remains.

From a high of about 350,000, the current Jewish population of Morocco is 5000, of whom 3500 live in Casablanca. This city boasts 28 functioning synagogues, 6 kosher restaurants, 18 kosher butchers, a network of Jewish schools, and old-age home and more. I’ve been here only 14 hours, and I’m very impressed!


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