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Showing Up to Fight Bigotry

Showing Up to Fight Bigotry

A row of lit votive candles

Temple Israel of Alameda in Alameda, CA, was vandalized last week. Someone came by during the night Wednesday and broke two windows, and tried to break the glass doors of the synagogue with rocks. In the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, this was even more upsetting than it would normally be to local Jews.

Temple Israel is a small synagogue of only about 100 households. They have a part-time rabbi. They are about 15 minutes from my home, so I planned to get myself over there for Friday evening services to show solidarity with the congregation. Then the emails began to come in – our rabbi, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, was organizing our congregation, Temple Sinai, in Oakland, CA, to show up in a group. There was to be a vigil with the Alameda mayor and city council before Shabbat services.

As it turned out, it was a real community affair: lots of Jews, lots of friends of Jews, and lots of Alamedans who were furious that some lowlife had brought such shame on their town. We heard from all the community leaders: Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer, Vice Mayor Malia Vella, and our state assembly representative, Rob Bonta. The acting chief of police, too, gave his report, telling us that the vandalism was being investigated as a hate crime. It was clear to anyone present and to anyone watching the report later that night on television that the majority of Alamedans intended to send a message to bigots: bigotry is not welcome in their city.

Then we adjourned to the sanctuary inside for Shabbat services.

Even though a lot of people left after the vigil, the little shul was jammed with people. One member of the temple staff had asked me if I’d do a reading in the service, so I sat in the front row. When I stood at the lectern to read the blessing, I was so moved by the sight of the crowd that I had to comment on it. What I was thinking was actually from a prayer in the morning service: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

The man who speaks those words in the Bible, Balaam, goes on orders from King Balak to curse the Israelites, but he finds that he is unable to do so. Instead of a curse, he delivers a blessing. It is a beautiful blessing, and we repeat it in every morning service.

In much the same way, an evil person came to curse the Jews of Alameda with terror. Broken windows carry a dark meaning for Jews ever since Kristallnacht, a night of pogroms that was in many ways the opening salvo of the Holocaust. In breaking those windows, though, the vandal succeeded in bringing out the good people of Alameda and the surrounding Jewish communities to comfort and strengthen the Jews he had intended to terrorize!

The evening also reminded me of the power of showing up. The people who came brought comfort and strength to a community. I am strengthened in my resolve to show up, to be visible in my support, for all minorities who are suffering and terrorized in this present time. I am resolved to show up more often for more people: in this time of bigotry, Jews are targets but not among the main targets. We Jews need to show up for African Americans, for immigrants, for Muslims, and for others who are in the crosshairs of white supremacists.

This week I’m going to Sacramento with Reform California to lobby for prison reform. Our prisons are not places of justice. Although someone who commits a crime should pay a price for that crime, that’s not how our justice system is working today. If you are interested in learning more about that, I recommend 13th, a film on Netflix.

Tell us where you are showing up to support the oppressed by leaving your stories in the comments section!

Rabbi Ruth Adar serves unaffiliated Jews in the East Bay Area of California and teaches at Lehrhaus Judaica. She blogs at Coffee Shop Rabbi.

Rabbi Ruth Adar
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