Fighting for Justice Means Fighting for Us Too

In a recent episode of her provocative podcast “Adventures with Dead Jews,” Dara Horn unpacks the wildly successful 1947 film Gentlemen’s Agreement, arguing Jewish acceptance into normative Christian society is conditional. A scene from the film helps to underscore Horn’s point. In it, Gregory Peck’s character Phil Green, pretending to be Jewish to write an exposé about American antisemitism, has a conversation with his young son Tommy. Tommy asks his dad: “What are Jews anyway?” Phil’s reply: “…Remember last week when you asked me about that big church, and I told you there are all different kinds of churches? Well, the people who go to that particular church are called Catholics, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Protestants, and there are people who go to different churches, and they’re called Jews, only they call their churches temples or synagogues.”

The problem with this framing is it subsumes shuls under a Christian category and ignores the reality that synagogues are authentic expressions of Jewishness, not “Jewish churches.” I write a lot in this column about Beth Am’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood where I live. But, in my neighborhood, which I love and whose residents are generally supportive and appreciative of our presence, from time to time I encounter two forms of Jewish minimization. The first is seemingly benign: people do refer to our building as “the Jewish church.” Whenever this happens, I simply correct people. “Churches are Christian,” I say. “Synagogues are Jewish sacred places for gathering.” Most of the time people are happy to be corrected. Sometimes, they’re clearly perturbed they must learn a whole new word when the word they previously knew to describe all houses of worship is shown to no longer be sufficient.

But, sometimes this minimization equals full-on erasure of Jewish identity and self-determination. I was reminded of this recently when a nearby neighbor who identifies as a Hebrew Israelite began to shout and shame Jews outside the shul. To be sure, the Hebrew Israelite ideology doesn’t necessarily equal hate, but the Southern Poverty Law Center does designate four specific Baltimore-based “Israelite” groups as hate groups. This man’s toxic views, expressed belligerently and without any regard for the humanity or dignity of his neighbors, must be called out for what it is: antisemitic.

But, most conditional acceptance (and therefore tacit rejection) of Jews is much more subtle. From the annual Christmas tree at the public Baltimore School for the Arts where my daughter attends High School, to de minimis attempts at interfaith gatherings to provide food I can eat, to prayers offered at these events which non-Christians cannot affirm because they are offered in Jesus’ name, being Jewish in practice is a consistent challenge.

One final example. I was asked by a Baltimore interfaith clergy consortium of which I’m a part to host an in-person retreat at Beth Am. I explained that the two days they were considering, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, were important Jewish holidays and simply wouldn’t work for us. “The following week would be fine,” I indicated, “and we’d be honored and delighted to host.” The response: “Hi Rabbi Burg! It seems like September 28th is when the majority of members will be able to attend, several will be out the first week of October…. I hope you can attend!” He then informed me a Bishop from the group had graciously offered to host. When I replied that I would be leading services and would be unable to do so, I received no response. The gathering proceeded exclusively with Christians.

The late British Rabbi Lionel Blue is said to have quipped, “Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.” The joke, of course, is that so much of the time we have to work harder to be accepted, because others work so little to accept us. Gone are the policies that excluded Jews from universities, from jobs and from neighborhoods. But what remains are the small indignities, the ways the majority culture encourages our having to pass, to abide by their gentlemen’s agreement.

A version of this post will appear in Jmore

Cities of Kindness

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says, “If you believe something can be broken you must also believe it can be fixed.” Many of those seeking a more just society feel fatigued right now. As the pandemic rages on and new variants rear their ugly heads, as climate change exacerbates global droughts, floods, fire and famine, as systemic racism continues to infect American culture and policy, there is simply so much brokenness. It can all feel overwhelming. This makes Rebbe Nachman’s message even more important. The promise of repair can be a salve for the persistent pain of injustice.

One way to refresh ourselves in such a climate is to focus on good that can be done, compassion which we can access and share. Consider this story (as detailed, among other places, in US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s book Together) which begins with tragedy, with the family of Edward Jaievsky fleeing Nazi Germany for Argentina and then emigrating to the United States, and settling in Anaheim, California. And then more tragedy: Edward, who had become a doctor of holistic medicine, was on vacation with his family when a car accident claimed the life of his six-year-old daughter Natasha. The family was overcome with grief, but when they began to go through her things, they found drawings and writings about compassion, rainbows with messages like, “put your heart into kindness.” Natasha’s father, Edward, created a poster and hung her colorful art all around Anaheim with the message “make kindness contagious.”

A city councilman named Tom Tait who saw these posters and was struck by their simplicity and beauty. No corporation had sponsored or branded the message. The only attribution was the scrawl of a child’s handwriting at the bottom: “My wish is to help people.” – N.J. Tom did some investigating and discovered that N.J. was Natasha Jaievsky, and he learned her story. He was touched by the little girl’s message, particularly against of a backdrop of political discourse that was becoming increasingly vitriolic. Six years later, there was a vacancy in the mayor’s office. Tom decided to run on a platform of kindness – and won by a substantial margin. Tom’s contention was that cities could heal through the power of kindness.

Tom’s vision of a city animated by kindness proved both viable and effective. He launched the Million Acts of Kindness initiative in the Anaheim school district. When they met the district-wide goal of one million acts of kindness, the demonstrable results of Tom’s efforts were clear: Bullying in the schools was dramatically reduced. Suspensions were cut in half.

“Everything gets better if everyone is a little bit kinder,” said Tom.  His efforts to make Anaheim into a city of kindness led to visits around the world with mayors of other cities looking to tap into the power of compassion to keep their communities safe and resilient. The US State Department even invited him to speak on behalf of its Bureau of Counter Terrorism to officials in Germany. The topic was (not kidding) countering extremism through kindness. Tom recalls one conversation with a former neo-Nazi in Dusseldorf who explained that while it was his search for connection that led him to join a white supremacist group in the first place, it was unexpected acts of kindness by the very people he had been taught to hate that convinced him how wrong he had been.

“Kindness is Contagious” read the poster created by Dr. Edward Jaievsky. A simple and pure act of a six-year-old girl inspires her grieving father to share her message of compassion with their city. A politician struggling to move that same city toward a sustainable and achievable vision of collective responsibility stumbles upon the posters and runs for mayor. Over several years, a city is transformed into a safer and more compassionate place. That same politician travels to Europe and meets a young man whose toxic worldview had been challenged by kindness – the same place which Natasha Jaievsky’s family, two generations earlier, had had to flee because of that same ideology. As Anne Frank, another girl who died tragically and too young, once wrote: “In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.”

A version of this post will appear in Jmore.