One of the benefits to living on an island like ours is that we can often feel sheltered from the chaos that grips the rest of the world. It is easy to let the cares of life dissipate as we stare out at the beautiful turquoise waters that literally surround us. But every so often, something happens and we are jolted back to a reality wherein life isn’t as peaceful as the lapping sound of ocean waves suggests. And so it was for my family this last week. Last week, the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in suburban St. Louis was desecrated. As someone born and raised in St. Louis, this act of likely anti-Semitism hit close to home. Was my mother buried in this cemetery? Were other relatives? Who would do such a thing? Why now? And then, not a week later, a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalized. Barrie was frantically searching for the name because Philadelphia is where her family–her grandparents–are buried. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we figured out that the graves of our loved ones were free from harm. But then we both looked at each other. These graves belonged to someone else’s mother, someone else’s grandfather. And just how long would the graves of our loved ones remain untouched?
Sadly, the United States has seen an undeniable increase in anti-Semitic activity since the new year. Since January 9, for example, there have been over 80 bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country. Multiple universities have reported swastikas being written on walls, doors, and desks. My own alma mater, the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, OH was even targeted, with a giant swastika being painted on the campus sign. With such a rise of anti-Semitism not just in the United States but worldwide, it is our job as Jews–even island Jews that remain more or less sheltered from what is playing out nationally–to pay attention.
And, we must urge our government officials to take a stand. As Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, recently stated, these actions “reflect the growing boldness of American anti-Semites [and] such incidents cannot be ignored or dismissed as aberrations; they must be loudly and unequivocally condemned from all quarters.” We cannot grow complacent and just think that these things happen from time to time. That is dangerous thinking that we, as Jews, are all too familiar with. We must also, however, take note of the wonderful aspects of humanity that become visible in light of such hateful behavior. The day after the St. Louis cemetery was vandalized, a fundraising campaign–“Muslims Unite to Repair Jewish Cemetery”–was started and raised over $25,000. Churches and mosques have opened their doors to shelter children evacuated from JCC daycares and preschools. And around the world, Jews and non-Jews alike are having conversations with their children, with their coworkers, with their schools, about diversity, and acceptance, and the rejection of prejudice and hate.
In these times, the prevalence of anti-semitic acts can feel overwhelming. It can feel like a darkness coming over us. But that is why we must be the light. As Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In these coming days, may we seek out and be the light the world needs.