I Will Never Hide Who I Am

Following the murder of 11 congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, in what the Anti-Defamation League called the largest mass killing of Jews in US History, I could not find any words to say. There are no words to make sense of such hate. There are no words to calm the fears that so many in the American Jewish Community feel right now. Through 2000 years wandering in exile, we experienced oppression, ostracization, excommunication, and murder because we were Jews. But the Jewish community has experienced more freedom here, more safety here, and more success here than ever before. And it was here, in America, the land of the free, that on last Shabbat, we were murdered for being Jewish. So I couldn’t find any words to say. There were no words from our tradition, no teachings of rabbinic literature, no verses of Torah that made sense of this moment.

Then I was reminded of words from US history, the words of President George Washington. Washington was touring the country following the establishment of this new government, to buy goodwill from Americans who were still trying to figure out what it meant to be American. Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Yisrael — now known as the Touro Synagogue — is the oldest synagogue in this country. That Jewish community from Newport, Rhode Island sent a letter of congratulations to President Washington in advance of his visit there. He famously replied:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.  

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

In Parashat Chaye Sarah, the Torah reading that we read this past Shabbat, our biblical patriarch Abraham prepares to bury his beloved wife and find a burial place for her. In doing so, he refers to himself as a ger toshav. He tells the Hittites: “I am a ger toshav; I am a resident and I am a stranger.” He lived among the Hittites, but didn’t quite feel like he was home. He still felt different. He still felt like an outsider.

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

When much of the wave of Jewish immigrants came to this country at the turn of the twentieth century, or prior to or immediately following the Holocaust, or as refugees from the former Soviet Union, long after George Washington wrote these words to the Jewish community of Rhode Island in 1790, they came here – we came herebecause of the promise that this country gives to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance. And that in order to be an American, we must strive to be good citizens.

Last Sunday evening, I stood in downtown South Orange with so many of you at a candlelight vigil mourning those murdered in Squirrel Hill. I did so wearing my tallit, my prayer shawl. Standing among a dozen clergy including many rabbis and cantors, I was alone in wearing a tallit. Because you don’t wear a tallit when it is not a worship service. You certainly don’t wear it at night. In fact, the only time we wear a tallit in the evening is on Kol Nidre, as we begin our Yom Kippur fasts and we experience a spiritual death of sorts. After feeling a sense of communal lose not just another instance of gun violence and not just another mass shooting with a murderer using an AR-15a loss of innocence, a loss of feeling safe and secure in sacred space, I donned this tallit. I intentionally wore a tallit at a time when we typically do not, in public space where we typically do not, as a statement that we will never hide who we are and we will never deny what we believe.

Our people have had to hide all too often throughout our history. There are the Marranos and Conversos of Spain who who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the inquisition and continued to practice Jewish ritual in secret, whose descendants continued to practice certain Jewish rituals, but had no idea that they were Jewish. There are the children of the Kinder Transport, where parents saved their lives by putting them on trains to other parts of Europe and England, saving them from the Nazis; they were raised as Christian to save their lives until the Nazis were defeated. There are those of us who fit into society as much as possible, refusing to stand out because standing out would call attention, standing out would invite further Anti-Semitism and bigotry towards us.

Maybe even in our own communities, we have felt a little bit like a ger toshav at times. But I wore my tallit to declare that I will never be a ger toshav, I will never feel like I do not belong in this country because I am Jewish. I will never be a stranger in my own community. My American identity will be strengthened because of my Jewish identity. And my Jewish identity is strengthened by being American.

There are those of us who came to this country to build a better life and world for our families. There are those of us who are first- and second-generation Americans. I myself am a fourth-generation American. But it doesn’t matter where we were born, or what religion we practice, and it doesn’t matter the language we speak or the color of our skin. Our differences, our uniqueness, makes us Americans because President Washington promised that this is a country that gives to bigotry no sanction. Yet those words from this country’s first president seem so so foreign to the realities of today, where those in power stoke the flames of hate. We will not hide here. But we are fearful when the highest office in the land condones bigotry, rather than promises to give bigotry no sanction.

In our Torah, Abraham is uncertain if he is fully accepted as a resident of Canaan among the Hittites. He refers to himself as a ger toshav because he believes that this is how others see him. No matter how many generations we have lived in a place, we worry, will we always be an outsider. We are worried that we will be stereotyped as cheap with a hooked nose, or referred to as a “globalist” who controls world banking and media empires. We are haunted by chants of White Nationalists declaring “Jews will not replace us” with the flames of their torches in hand illuminating the hate in their eyes. We are scared that our scared spaces will become fortresses, as if this is the only solution to them being safe spaces, because of deranged murderers and words of hate that are espoused that encourage them. 

Abraham ended up being surprised. Bereshit Rabba, the midrash on the book of Genesis, says that the Hitties referred to Abraham as their king, their prince, and their god. But most importantly, Midrash HaGadol suggests that Abraham knew where to bury Sarah because he found all of the Hittites mourning her there, wailing just as he had wailed, crying because her loss was a loss for them as well.

The first calls I received on last Saturday night was from local elected officials, apologizing in advance if they were calling me before Shabbat was over, but wanting to reach out to offer condolences and to see if we were okay. The next calls and texts were from Muslim and Christian clergy colleagues asking what could they do to stand with us. Then there were the hugs and tears shed, and the tightly gripped hands held of neighbors, and the emails and Facebook messages of many who asked if Shabbat services were only open to those of the Jewish faith or if they could join us, to sit with us, to stand with us, at this moment. We are here, a week later, doing exactly what the Tree of Life Synagogue did. Celebrating Shabbat. Praying together as community. Celebrating a Simcha. But we are not alone. And we are not afraid. Because we are not outsiders.

Abraham was worried that his neighbors viewed him as a ger toshav, but his neighbors reaffirmed for him that was not the case. I am not a ger toshav. I am not a stranger. We are not. And I refuse to respond to hate with fear. I respond with love, with love of community, love of all that it means to be a Jew, love of standing up for those who may be different than I am, and love of others who stand with me who stand with us. 

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. 

That is all the affirmation we nee to stand united against Anti-Semitism and to stand united against hate of any kind. That is all the affirmation we need to be reminded that we are Jews and Americans. That this is our home and we will never hide who we are. None of us shall ever be a ger toshav here. Instead, let our world be just as President Washington promised two centuries ago, learning from the example of our patriarch:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May it be so. Amen.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

1 Comment

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One response to “I Will Never Hide Who I Am

  1. Lita Poehlman

    Thanks Jesse, you always find the right words for the right times. Miss you! Love to the family. Shalom, Lita

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