Monday, June 25, 2018

July 4th at Temple Israel of New Rochelle

Dear chevrei (friends),

In just a few days, July 4th, Independence Day, will be here and with it, the usual gaiety and frivolity that comes with celebrating a glorious moment in American history – world history, actually. I love the 4th of July. Unlike other patriotic holidays, such as Labor Day and Memorial Day, which sadly have lost their meaning to most Americans, as I have lamented in the past, I think this day is still true to form: outright celebration. And rightly so! We’ve earned it. The Declaration of Independence, and the chain of events it set in motion have truly changed the course of human history and I say that without even an iota of hesitation. The United States has been the catalyst for such good, positive and progressive change in our world, it would take volumes to recount.

Of course, we’ve not had a flawless history. How could we? Our foundational documents, the Declaration and the US Constitution, left an entire race in the category of property and women as second class citizens. Those issues, thankfully, were remedied over time. As were so many others. What is special about the 4th of July is not merely that it marks the beginning of American history on the calendar, but that it marks the beginning of the history of a uniquely American way of meeting the world’s challenges – audaciously and radically for the better – that progress serves all, rich or poor, man or woman, black or white.

I’m not my usual euphoric American self this year. Our uniquely American spirit has been diverted off of the trajectory of our history. This year’s 4th of July cannot celebrate our progressive society, we’ve become so regressive. As I write this, the news is filled with horrific images and sounds of children separated from their parents as they desperately seek to enter America as a safe haven – the same reason, one way or another, we all wound up here. But, this, sadly, is only the latest example of a regressive set of policies that seem so palpably un-American. We are a country of immigrants and refugees and now we’re turning our back on that heritage. My children are Americans of Russian-Polish-Hungarian-Rumanian-Syrian-Israeli descent. This 4th of July, how can they celebrate what has become of the melting pot? We’re also a country that has worked hard to build a shared society, with civil rights for all, yet, now, it seems the idea of racial equality is under attack at every turn – from Nazis with torches marching in the streets to Nazis running for the US Senate. What has been creeping out of the shadows these days is nothing to celebrate on this 4th of July. It is also feeling particularly hard to celebrate the end of British tyrannical rule over our American ancestors when our current democratic allies are dismissed at every turn in favor of the glorification of today’s tyrants, despots and dictators. Jefferson must be rolling over in his Monticello grave!

What is most distressing to me is what this all means for us Jews. I’m not a Henny Penny who’s wont to claim that the sky is falling and that there are anti-Semitic bogeymen lurking around every corner – just the contrary. Part of what makes the 4th of July such a great day for the Jews is that it was the first domino to fall in what would be the most flourishing and free space for us to live openly as Jews in the history of the world – more so even than ancient or modern Israel! America has been good to the Jews and the Jews have been very good to America in return. An open progressive society has benefitted us as much, if not more, than any group who has made this country home. Until less than a century ago, our Reform ancestors referred to this country as The New Promised Land, eschewing Zionism since we’d already found the ideal homeland, according to them.

If the sky isn’t falling, it’s got some big cracks in it, that is for sure. While we Jews know what progressive American freedoms have meant for minorities, we also know, all too well, what happens when open societies turn regressive. It ended self-rule in our ancient homeland 2,000 years ago – nearly wiping Judaism out altogether. It led to the end of the Golden Age of Judaism in Spain, bringing centuries of the Jewish good life to an end – by the sword, forced conversion or expulsion. It led to the Shoah, in the heartland of the Enlightenment, Germany and Austria, nearly exterminating the entire European Jewish community.
Will that happen here? I certainly hope not. In the past, I would have said never. I’m not so sure any longer. The tell-tale signs are piling up all around us these days.

So what should we make of this 4th of July? I’d start by re-reading the Declaration of Independence, it is an amazing document, still. Read it through your own eyes, today. Celebrate that it is ours, uniquely ours, and then think about how you can work to help our country live up to its ideals. After all, that statement of principles was just a piece of paper. It was the people that made it come to life. The first Americans. We, the newest Americans, are just as responsible for ensuring its vitality into the future. So this 4th of July, I’ll still be celebrating, but also thinking about my role in living up to Jefferson’s words: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” I’m not one for overthrowing the government. But altering it? I’m all in. It’s the American thing to do.

Rabbi Scott Weiner

Note: The Temple Office, Kehillah School, and Camp Pinebrook will be Closed on Wednesday, July 4th in observance of Independence Day.