Tending Our Garden

Rosh HaShana Sermon by Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman

We are about to mark the one year anniversary of the horrific Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh shooting. On October 27th, I along with many others in the Jewish community woke up to a reality that we thought was no longer possible in the United States as a Jew. A few months earlier we were frightened by the events in Charlottesville and many of us, myself included, saw it as an isolated event that targeted all minorities, not just Jews. Squirrel Hillel forced me, and our larger community, to face a new reality: our places of worship were now potential targets of antisemitic hateful individuals.

I’ll never forget the email I received from a colleague and friend in Israel:

“I have been thinking about you and our friends throughout the States since I heard the terrible news about Pittsburgh. I know this must be particularly difficult for you as a community leader. We remember very clearly you mentioning that when there are attacks and other tragedies in Israel, you talk about it, you feel the pain from afar and you reach out to your Israeli peers to tell them that they are in your thoughts. Today, sadly it’s our turn to reach out to you. We want to let you know that we are heartbroken from across the sea and are thinking of you and your community. Sending strength and love from Jerusalem.”

I was brought to tears by the end of the email – our roles were reversed. And then, just six months later another hate-filled individual entered in the Poway Chabad, outside of San Diego, and attempted to kill those praying in the synagogue. Another synagogue was targeted and another person was killed. Twelve Jews killed in the last six months praying at a synagogue. There were many in our community that now, louder than ever before reminded us of what they had been saying all along was now becoming normalized in our national rhetoric. We needed to protect our Jewish institutions. And overnight there were armed guards at almost every Jewish institution around the country.

I’ve been wearing a kippah my whole life and for the first time, I started to think about what it meant to wear a kippah all the time. I thought more deeply about what it would mean to have my three sons wear kippot to their public schools. Would they be picked on, teased or even worse physically assaulted? Was I putting them in danger because of our commitment to our tradition?

And even closer to home, last semester, we finished the year being witness to upsetting and hurtful comments shared during an ASUC student senate meeting. I don’t need to review and rehash the awful language said during the meeting, but it was a reminder that while we have been accepted and included in so many ways, there are still spaces and times that we all continue to feel the hate people have toward Jews. In fact, after the unfortunate episode, I began hearing from more and more of you about the continued challenges you experience from the greater UC Berkeley community as a result of the strong and important leadership you have at Hillel.

Some of you probably have noticed that we’ve begun having a security guard at every Shabbat and at our weekly BBQs. We can’t ignore the new reality we are living in. We are challenged with both holding onto being audaciously welcoming to any and every student AND at the same time making sure that students who enter the Berkeley Hillel building feel safe and secure.

And through it all, the Jewish community has come together, supported one another, and showed the power of our community. We use our tradition to comfort one another. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette embraced our tradition on the cover of the paper and printed the beginning words of the Mourner’s Kaddish. Seeing that headline reminded me of how important and meaningful our tradition is. It was a reminder of what I loved about our tradition and what we are protecting when we take these precautions to allow our community to celebrate the vibrancy of our tradition and rituals.

We need to fight this ugly antisemitism, protect our community and unfortunately place guards at our institutions. And I can’t stop wondering— what are those guards doing outside? What are they protecting? Are they protecting something more than just the people that come into the building?

Throughout my time as a rabbi and in fact all of my life, I’ve loved the celebration of Judaism. It has always been sweet to me. In fact, my earliest memories revolve around sweetness. Collecting candies thrown at the bar or bat mitzvah child and coming off the bimah with pockets full of that Sunkist candy; walking down the pews and handing out that candy to what seemed to a 5 or 6 six-year-old as ‘elderly’ congregants. It brought a smile to their face and always made me happy. Judaism to me was sweet and filled with beauty.

Rabbi Yohanan interprets a verse from the book of Isaiah about the happiness we have from sowing the fields next to water and allowing the cattle to freely roam the garden. The garden that we are sowing next to the water is the beauty of our tradition and the water is the Torah. Thousands of years of rabbinic literature, the celebration of our holidays, the joy of Shabbat, acts of loving-kindness, that is our garden. Sowed, planted, tilled, cared for, and always watered over thousands of years to give the fruit and the flowers of our tradition. The garden is what we are protecting when we secure our synagogues and buildings. The beauty of our garden that has lasted and nourished us for so long.

Like any garden, we need to tend to its needs. While I wish it was something I can just plant and walk away from, it needs us to engage with it. A garden needs us to care for it, to weed it, to prune it and to continually water it. And while we care for our garden we need to make sure that those critters and rodents don’t tear down our plants and flowers. We need to protect the work we’ve put into the plants.

And if all we do is protect that garden, spend our time building fences, block out the beauty of the flowers, the garden will disappear. It will wilt, shrivel and ultimately fade into the dirt that gave it life. If our time and our energy is solely focused on the protection of the garden, we will have nothing left. We need a balance between tending to that which we love and needs our care while being able to protect it from those that want to destroy it.

And while we hold these two sometimes diametrically opposed positions, our intentions might be in the right place; there is a secondary outcome to focusing all our energy on protection. It doesn’t only ‘secure’ the garden but it also affects us, it changes us.

Recently I was in shul, reading Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s book on antisemitism and noticed someone come into the shul that didn’t seem to ‘fit’ in. Being immersed in this book about antisemitism, remembering shootings at synagogues and the rise in antisemitism I couldn’t stop myself from questioning who this person was. Why were they here? Was I in danger? What would I do if they tried to do something? After spinning in circles in my mind, I had to force myself to climb out. I had to remind myself that not everyone is out to get us, that the beauty of our community is that it welcomes all individuals who want to be part of it.

It was no different than our classic liberation story and why we are commanded to remember the stranger in our midst. In the book of Exodus, the Jews are described as a numerous people, favorable to the Pharaoh. It is only later when the Pharaoh becomes nervous, as the numbers of Israelites continue to grow, he neglects his empire that has been built for hundreds of years and does everything to protect his tradition. And only then does the Torah explain that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. It was Pharaoh’s shifting focus, from pride to fear, that led to his heart being hardened.

When we create an identity that becomes so focused on fighting for something and neglects that thing we are fighting, we are changed; our heart is hardened. We look at others with skepticism, we see ourselves alone, and we remain always on guard. It leaves our souls tarnished, unable to welcome the stranger. We begin to move in a direction of fear forgetting what we are protecting.

I’m standing here today knowing that we are facing an unprecedented rise in antisemitism in our community. It is real and it hurts.

And what will be if all we focus on is this growing antisemitism? Bari Weiss recently wrote a book about fighting antisemitism and said we cannot allow ourselves to become a community and people that are viewed and seen as the anti-antisemites. We need more. We have more. We have a garden that has been blooming and blossoming offering us fruits and flowers for thousands of years – and it needs to be tended.

I was told of a story that a former colleague shared about how he describes the way Jews swim. When people swim one says to the other let’s go for a swim and we’ll have fun together. But when Jews swim one says to the other,  “Hey, join me in the pool and let’s not drown together.”

Who wants to swim if all they are doing is trying not to drown? Not me. I want to have some fun in the pool. Can we get to a place before we swim we might say, “Hey, join me in the pool and let’s swim and have some fun! And by the way, let’s not drown.”

How do we do this? Protect our garden and be engaged in it and ensure our identity is about the garden and not the fences? What are you going to do this year to tend to the garden of our tradition?

I believe our tradition has withheld the test time, not because we have been persecuted but because of the depth, relevance, and meaning it brings to those who engage with it. We need to push ourselves to hold the importance of calling out, and combating the hateful speech, actions, and antisemitism when it rears its ugly head. And for every time we speak about this, we need to remember and celebrate the beauty of our tradition. Hold both sides with you at all times.

What will it look like if our community can be seen and known by the Jewish students and non-Jewish students as a community displaying the rich tradition and culture it is. Not simply a community that is battling antisemitism.
We cannot be sustained by simply building fences, standing guard and protecting our garden. I want to challenge all of you to tend to our garden and engage with it. Celebrate it and protect it. Work to stop the hateful speech around you and continue to learn and discover. Take on a new Jewish practice. Try on a new custom. Every time you feel the tinge or push to protect and stand up for our tradition do so, and at the same time, double down and engage even deeper, celebrate even deeper. May this be a year protecting the garden of our tradition while tilling and engaging with its beauty to ensure it continues to bloom for generations to come.