בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.
Blessed are You, HaShem our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
When I was thinking about what I would talk to you all about today, one thing I kept coming back to was a sense of both familiarity but also of “newness”.
These feelings permeate everything at this time of year in general… Rosh Hashanah always feels both familiar and new. Who knows what the year will bring? Yet the same melodies each year remind us that we’ve been here before.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised… that this year in particular I’m seeing familiarity and also newness everywhere I turn.
Each time I set foot in this building I feel the sense of familiarity and also newness and I’m sure many of you do too. Familiarity because I was privileged to grow up in a wonderful community in London that inspired much of my initial commitment to my Jewish practice and while Beth Israel is not that shul, it exudes the same values that have made both this shul and that shul second homes to me.
More familiarity and newness.
I’m moving into a new house next week! So that’s new! But it’s literally next door… and that’s familiar!
I don’t know about you but I’m still getting used to being fully in person again. My work as the Hillel Director in Kingston is similar to that which I did prior to the pandemic but it is also new and different. I’m sure many of you feel as I do… we must get used to the fact that some things simply will never go back to how they were before.
One area of my work that I encounter more frequently than I would like is something that will be familiar to us all but never fails to feel like a brand new punch in the gut.
The late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, famously described Antisemitism as being like a virus. It’s “how it has survived for so long”, he said, “by mutating”.
So in the Middle Ages, Jews were persecuted because of our religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries we were reviled because of our supposed racial identity. Today, Jews are attacked because of the existence of our nation state, Israel. And denying Israel’s right to exist is undoubtedly a new antisemitism.
And just as antisemitism has mutated, so has its legitimisation. Each time, as the persecution descended into barbarity, the persecutors reached for the highest form of justification available.
In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science: the so called scientific study of race and this is still where we see the most violent forms of antisemitism on the right coming from.
Today’s day and age has given us the emergence of a new antisemitism from the far left, where the politics of inclusion are perniciously inverted to intentionally exclude Jews.
The noted academic and current US Special Envoy for Countering Antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt said in her book “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial” that “in an Internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are.”
On campus it’s probably fair to say that I work at one of the coal fires of antisemitism. In the past few years, at Queen’s, we’ve seen white-supremacist graffiti including swastikas daubed on campus and also repeatedly seen groups on campus wade into middle eastern politics in ways that clearly cross the line into antisemitism.
But while Antisemitism is coming at us from both the extreme right and left, it is that from the extreme left which is routinely excused, ignored and justified by those who claim to value equity. And this seems to happen time and time again… especially on campus.
Now it’s always important for me to note that we are lucky at Queen’s. But for a few rare though particularly egregious examples, compared to some other campuses in Canada and around the world, we have it pretty good, most of the time.
Of course the real reason that antisemitism, in particular, on campus concerns us so greatly is because we generally understand campus to be a microcosm of wider society. A university is meant to be a true melting pot, bringing the best and brightest together to think deeply, learn and raise the collective consciousness of humanity; where we’re supposed to learn the things we need to create the lives we want for ourselves. The conversations that happen on campus often feel like a litmus test for where society is headed.
And if the best and brightest can’t seem to get a handle of the rampant Jew-hatred that seems to be everywhere right now in the academy… how can we expect the rest of the world to understand it?
What I want to talk about today is how I’m approaching this challenge, as a Hillel professional,,, and maybe this will be helpful in your own thinking as well…
One of the first questions Jewish students ask us when they encounter Hillel is “what is ‘Hillel’? what does the word mean?”. Hillel bears the name of the noted talmudist, Hillel the Elder, who lived approximately 2000 years ago in both Babylon and Eretz Yisrael. Hillel was noted for his maxims and proverbs that still inspire us to this day.
One of his most famous sayings was:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, when?”
― Hillel the Elder
I view this quote, which comes from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors) Chapter 1, as the imperative of our time. Here we have Hillel providing us a blueprint for the continued strength of the Jewish people. A simple roadmap for how we can ensure our continued perseverance in the face of those who would seek to harm us. The whole quote can really be summed up in three principles:
Pride. Accompliceship. Action.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, used to say “For the Eternal People, it’s never a long journey, and the important thing is not to be afraid!” We are the inheritors of 3500 years of Jewish memory. Our people have faced down hate, discrimination, displacement, expulsion, genocide and so much more. Every single person who is Jewish today, is Jewish either because someone who came before them made the decision to live, or they themselves chose to be Jewish and to live a proud Jewish life. To say no to assimilation. To proclaim “Am Yisrael Chai”!
If we are not the loudest champions of our rights, who can we expect to stand up for us?! The first principle we focus on is the amplification of Jewish pride. Just last week Queen’s Hillel held Jewish Experience Week (JEW) on campus. A campaign all about sharing how incredible the Jewish community is at Queen’s and beyond. These sorts of initiatives are designed to help Jewish students feel more comfortable expressing their Jewishness publicly. One of the results of antisemitism is that we often seek to conceal ourselves and hide ourselves away for protection. I strongly believe that this is the wrong approach. It’s time to turn up the volume on Jewish life… to be loud AND proud about our Jewishness in the public square!
“And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Antisemitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum and those who discriminate against one group rarely limit themselves to that one group.
We need accomplices to work with us to fight antisemitism and we need to partner with others. Relational Advocacy is a model of activism pioneered by The David Project – which eventually morphed into Hillel International’s Israel Action Center, which has now become the Hillel U Center for Community Outreach.
Relational Advocacy empowers student leaders to build mutually beneficial and enduring partnerships with diverse organisations so that the Jewish community is integrated and valued on campus. Much of the decisions made on campuses that affect the Jewish community take place within the democratic structures of student government and due to the current campus climate it is impossible for Jewish advocacy to happen successfully without allies.
When we build broad coalitions with student government, clubs and communities, we are better positioned to respond when the wellbeing of Jewish students is threatened on campus.
Being an ally is considered one of the first steps in equity and social justice work. The term ‘accomplice’ encompasses allyship but goes beyond advocacy. An accomplice uses their privilege to challenge existing conditions at the risk of their own comfort and well-being. This is why we at Hillel cultivate relationships with student leaders on campus who can become both allies and accomplices to the fight against antisemitism.
The same principle applies beyond campus. Living in Kingston I imagine many of us have predominantly non-Jewish social networks. How many of us have actually spoken to our non-Jewish friends about the alarming rise in Antisemitism?
“And if not now, when?”
And if you haven’t spoken about this issue publicly before… maybe it’s time to?
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Antisemitism has always been a problem, that’s why it’s familiar remember! But it also consistently re-invents itself… the newness!
Now is the time for us to stand up and act. We may think it can’t get much worse but history has shown us time and time again that temporary comfort doesn’t guarantee safety in the long run. It is up to us. We can’t wait. The risk is too great for us not to!
At Rosh Hashanah we have an annual opportunity for new beginnings. It’s a time for growth, reflection and fresh starts.
Our sages teach us that we live in a broken world and this is one reason why Judaism is far more concerned with this world than the next. We don’t know what the world to come will be like but we do know how we experience this one.
The principle of Tikun Olam – healing the world – is one that all of us are obligated to. Each of us doing our own bit to bring the fractured pieces of the world back together to form a new, beautiful mosaic.
May we all merit to experience only good things this year.
May we have the courage to have pride in our identities.
May we have the humility to both know when to ask for help and to show up for others when they need us.
And may we have the strength to persevere, even when the task seems great.
Rabbi Tarfon “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.”
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
Wishing you all L’Shana Tova u’Metukah, a happy and sweet new year!
Watch the full congregation livestream here.
Director, Queen’s Hillel