Rosh Hashanah 5778 — An Ever-Dying, Never-Dying People

This past summer, Pam, the kids and I had the truly extraordinary experience of traveling in Israel together as a family. There are so many stories I could share, but I don’t really want to run the risk of making these High Holy Days into “what I did on my summer vacation!” That said, I would like to share one particular experience and a story I came away with, as I think it is directly relevant to the themes that have been in my heart.

Towards the end of our trip, I had arranged a tour of the Ayalon Institute in Rechovot. A few of you recognize the name – some of those who were with me on my Temple Isaiah trip or recent Federation trips have toured this very special place.

Most tour groups do not go to the Ayalon Institute. It’s off the beaten track — you approach through dense traffic to the Tel Aviv suburb of Rechovot — past malls and car dealerships and through a nondescript office park. Eventually, you arrive at the inauspicious looking gates of a run down former kibbutz. Concrete and stucco structures are crumbling with age, and if you are lucky, you find your way to the ticket office.

The Tel Aviv traffic was such that we completely missed our English language tour and had to wait for the next tour group and guide an hour later. By this point, the rest of my family — including Pam, who had never been here before — were really wondering why it was that I was “wasting” one of our last afternoons in Israel here in this strange setting instead of returning to the beautiful beaches or one of the amazing looking water parks we had passed. However, as our tour guide began, we were transfixed by the story.

The Ayalon Institute was the site of a kibbutz in the pre-State years, a small group of young people farmed the land and established their community on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Working in the fields; washing the clothes; taking care of the children; feeding the community; baking the bread. All of the regular activities of a typical small kibbutz in those days. However, the goings-on at ground level were really just a cover for what was happening twenty-five feet underground.

Kibbutz Hill1 was just that — a kibbutz built on top of a small hill — albeit one that had been hollowed out and reinforced to create an underground factory where forty-five of the kibbutzniks spent all day long producing in absolute secrecy the bullets used first by the Palmach and later by the IDF — the only ammunition they had access to.

The story is extraordinary in and of itself — and I cannot recommend highly enough adding this out-of-the-way stop to any trip to Israel. The bullet-producing machines are enormous hulks of metal, industrial belts and contraptions. Produced in Poland, they were smuggled out of Europe over the course of several years and through a circuitous route that is beyond belief. The bullet production had to be concealed from the British military, which was enforcing the unravelling British Mandate in Palestine — trying to maintain some form of order between the Jews and Arabs while protecting British interests. The kibbutz had placed over one secret entrance to the bullet factory an enormous laundry setup, and over the other an industrial bread oven weighing several tons. Part of the way the kibbutz supported itself was by doing the laundry of the British troops — so, when they say that the factory was operating under the noses of the Brits, it is a literal statement.

Between 1945 — when the production of 9mm ammunition began — and 1948, when the factory was transferred from its clandestine location after the establishment of the State of Israel, these 45 young people produced over four million bullets secretly, concealing their work even from their fellow kibbutzniks, as the sensitivity of this operation was paramount. In the most direct of ways, their efforts were the deciding factor between the establishment of the State and its destruction by a host of enemies encircling it.2

On our tour, we descended below ground to observe the factory, the test range and even the areas where the workers got artificial UV light treatments to conceal the underground nature of their work — so no one would wonder why it was that their skin remained so fair if their cover story was that they went out to work in the fields every day.

However, it was the final story that our guide told us that moved me the most. He talked about a particular participant on a tour a few years back, an elderly woman. She became overcome with emotion, and was not really able to explain what she was experiencing until she returned with this tale.

She shared that she was a survivor of the Holocaust, and she had spent they last two years of the war as a prisoner, forced into labor by the Nazis. She had sat all that time at the very same model machines producing 9mm bullets for the Nazi war effort under threat of death if she and the other young women refused. There was silence in the room.

The woman went on to recall that the whole time that she was in forced labor, producing these bullets, the Nazis would torment her and the others — telling them that there were virtually no Jews left in the outside world, and that the bullets they were producing would be used to do away with the few that remained. She was 14 years old at the time.3

And, cut off from the world — in the madness that was the whirlwind of the Shoah, she believed them. So much so, that when she was liberated by American troops4, the first question she asked was whether it was true, were all the Jews really dead. Coming to the Ayalon Institute, she recognized that at approximately the same time that she was forced by the Nazis to produce their bullets, there were Jewish young people underground in this space producing the ammunition that would defend the Jews against their enemies, and ultimately win Independence for the Jewish state.

Just an incredible story.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these stories, the juxtaposed young woman in forced Nazi labor, and the kibbutznik risking her life producing underground bullets. I’ve been thinking about the fragility of Jewish existence — the sense that we are, as one historian has put it, an “ever-dying people.” I want to take a step back, but not before pausing on that phrase, which was coined by Simon Rawidowicz (1897-1957), a Polish-born Jewish academic who escaped first to the UK in 1933, then taught in America until his untimely death in 1957. Rawidowicz gives us one of the most provocative ideas of an approach to Jewish existence — the concept of the Jews as an “ever-dying people.

Already in the ‘50s, the 1950s (!), he writes the following:

“He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora that did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain. Each always saw before it the abyss ready to swallow it up. There was scarcely a generation that while toiling, falling, and rising, again being uprooted and striking new roots, was not filled with the deepest anxiety lest it be fated to stand at the grave of the nation, to be buried in it. Each generation grieved not only for itself but also for the great past that was going to disappear forever, as well as for the future of unborn generations who would never see the light of day.”

A thought about why these words are deeply on my heart at this particular moment in our year, in our history, in our nation and among our people.

I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s. Following the silent years that came after the unimaginable anguish of the destruction of the Shoah, the Holocaust, decades during which no one was to speak of nor to ask about what happened “there.” These floodgates had opened by the years I was beginning to learn and shape my Jewish identity. I say this in the darkest of humor — but if I went to Sunday School in second or third grade and had not been shown graphic images of skeletal Jews, images that would keep a young child up all night, I was not totally sure that I had actually been at Sunday School.

I overstate the issue – but others who experienced those years of American Jewish religious education will likely agree that the very rationale for literally everything we did was “so that we don’t give Hitler posthumous victories.”5

As a result, I believe that the rabbi I am is shaped by a particular pendulum swing, a reaction-formation — one that has likely over-compensated for the understandable emphasis on the horrors of the Holocaust in the forming of Jewish identity in my generation. In a recent conversation with a modern orthodox colleague who is roughly my age, we noted that we are the generation of rabbis who have tried to form and fashion a positivity-based Jewish identity in the communities we are shaping. No more the doom and gloom of Holocaust, anti-Semitism, a long-history of persecution and exile! We want our kids to LOVE being Jewish; to CELEBRATE the joy to be found in prayer and song; to IDENTIFY with the success of the State of Israel, to see it as contributing in outsized and positive ways to all of humanity. Ours is a generation that seeks to inculcate a sense that “It’s good to be a Jew!” in contrast to the stock Yiddish phrase: Es iz schver tsu zein a Yid — “It’s hard to be a Jew.”

And just to be completely clear about this here, I need to state and double-down on this: I fervently believe, with all of my heart, that it is GOOD to be a Jew. If not, I certainly could not spend my working days (and many nights) “laboring in the vineyard” of Jewish communal life! But, I also have to admit — and I think this is a moment to acknowledge — it’s also HARD to be a Jew. It has always been… but in this very moment, in the unusual times we are experiencing, I need to own up to the fact that it is HARD, sometimes UNPLEASANT, and even SCARY to be a Jew as we enter the New Year of 5778.

The conversation I referenced with my orthodox colleague occurred just a day after he had travelled to visit the Reform synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia following the hateful displays of anti-Semitism, racism and white-nationalism that plunged our nation into another examination of the painful, shameful history of America which is — not — history.

It is painful to be a Jew when we recognize that the Klansmen and Neo-Nazis of today feel no shame, nor need to use either the cover of night or the veil of masks and sheets to conceal their identity as they march through the streets, bearing semi-automatic weapons and proclaiming “Jews will not replace us.” As the neo-Nazis gathered in front of the synagogue on Shabbat morning, the congregation inside was instructed that they would exit only through the rear of the building, and that only after they were given the “all clear” from the police.

If there is any good to be found in the events out of Charlottesville, it is in the knowledge that we as a Jewish community stood (and continue to stand) shoulder to shoulder with our partners in a surging movement against hate; a movement that will not make excuses or simply write off the perpetrators as some fringe lunatics — because we have seen that they are not a fringe, and in many ways they are expert at using the power of the internet, the press and public relations to forward their dark and evil messages of hate.

On the Shabbat following Charlottesville, I preached on President George Washington’s “Letter to the Jewish Community of Newport, Rhode Island.”6 In it, Washington repeats a phrase which will shape our nation’s conception of religious liberties and the protection of minority populations. He writes:

“…the Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”

I want to share a short segment of what I said that Shabbat for two reasons. First, I have grown only more convinced of the need for action and activism in the month that has passed since Charlottesville. And second, quite frankly the sanctuary wasn’t nearly this full on Friday, August 18!

That Shabbat, and today on this cusp of a New Year, I will reiterate:

“I refuse to despair after the events… in Charlottesville — and …I refuse to cede the notion of what our country is and who we aim to be to those who would embolden hate, encourage division and flame the fires of ancient violence.

“We, as a Jewish community, have known real discrimination and persecution – and seeing the swastika and hearing the chants is a reminder of deep, trans-generational pain. And it is the reason why we have historically stood with every community that has sought to expand the definition of who is deserving of the great protections that our nation has offered us over the years. And it is why we will continue to stand together with our allies in claiming and assuring the self-evident promises of America.

We will stand with communities of color;

we will stand with immigrants;

we will stand with the LGBT+ community;

we will stand with our Muslim neighbors;

we will stand with Native Americans;

we will stand with the poor, with women, with the disabled;

we will stand with anyone that is being discriminated against – and we will stand up for ourselveswhenever and wherever we need to stand.

We will stand on the side of right, and that will always put us in good company.”7

Now, to be truly honest about the surge in anti-Semitism in this country and around the world, I need to acknowledge some difficult truths — ones that emerge from my admittedly Liberal approach to these questions. Because the venom and vitriol, the shrill chorus of one of the world’s oldest hatreds comes not only from those at the extreme right of our divided society.

Anyone who honestly pays attention to this question will have to acknowledge that this year has provided us with an ever-increasing number of reasons to worry and fear as a result of the furthest left-wing voices as well. In point of fact, our divided world is less of a line-based continuum of left and right, and more of a circle that almost touches where the furthest right and left just about meet each other. And the place where they can typically find common ground is a virulent and vile hatred of Jews.

One shocking example of this was the ejection of three Jewish women from this past June’s Chicago Dyke March. Why were they repeatedly harassed, ultimately physically removed from this protest march of thousands of individuals promoting solidarity with those of all sexual identities? They marched with a rainbow flag, which bore a Jewish star at the center of it. One of those ejected, Lauren Grauer, reported that she had been marching with this flag which she borrowed from her synagogue (where her sexual identity is celebrated and accepted) for over a decade. But, this year, she was told that the presence of the symbol, the Star of David, “made people feel unsafe,” and that the march itself was identified as “anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian,” – so she would either have to put away the flag or leave the march.8

This is perhaps one of the most glaring examples of the hypocrisy of this season’s intellectual buzzword: “intersectionality.” By this theory, one can only partially understand the discrimination faced by an oppressed group if one belongs to a marginalized group. The only difficulty is, in the politically correct milieu of today, it would seem that Jews cannot qualify as a “marginalized people.” Jews are seen purely as part of a white power structure. In fact, as far as most on the furthest fringes of the left are concerned, to be a Jew is to be the very essence of the oppressor.

The rainbow flag bearing a Jewish star cannot be tolerated because it is too much of a trigger-point for those whose “safe space” is violated by its very presence. However (they would claim), the kefiah of Yasser Arafat, the image of Marwan Barghouti as a freedom fighter ought not to arouse any negative emotions, since they are leaders of a truly margninalized people. This despite the fact that both were directly responsible for scores of terrorist attacks targeting innocent civilians, including children, simply because they were Jews.

Frequently on the left, the anti-Semitism is masked in an inexplicably acceptable garb of anti-Israel sentiment. But make no mistake about it — this is usually a smokescreen for the base and basic hatred of Jews that has been with us for centuries.

Recent reports included an unofficial, but widely distributed, guide produced by Tufts University students, the “Disorientation Guide.” In it, the students advise their incoming peers about what is “really going on” at their campus. Tufts University Hillel is described there as “an organization that supports a white-supremacist state.”9 The organization is also taken to task as “exploit(ing) black voices for their own pro-Israel agenda.” This stems from an event on the issue of gun violence where Hillel brought the parents of Trayvon Martin to speak to various groups on campus. One Jewish student who worked on the guide commented that he had visited Hillel only once in his freshman year, and had never been to Israel. But he stood by the assertions of the Disorientation Guide, particularly if it made people uncomfortable. Now, there is lots of criticism to be leveled against the government and State of Israel – most of it coming directly from Jewish Israelis -— but to conceive of this nation of literally every skin tone as white-supremacist would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive. And Tufts is only one of a number of elite universities around the US where these types of guides are published and where the thin veil of anti-Zionism is used as a tool to excuse left-wing anti-Semitism on a regular basis.

There is little new here. I experienced a similar sentiment on my PC college campus in the early ‘90s. But the emboldening of both left- and right-wing anti-Semitism has me worried. Not necessarily worried in terms of my own physical safety, our well-being as a community — though it is worth noting that Temple Isaiah has never paid more attention to our safety and security preparations than at this very moment.

But, between the anti-Semitism that exists in the world, the internal and external fissures in our Jewish community that threaten to tear us apart on lines of political ideology, religious denomination, Diaspora-Israel relations and a host of other issues – there is reason to worry. As we enter 5778, it’s not easy to be a Jew.

But, back to the thesis of Simon Rawidowicz, who coined the phrase “ever-dying people.” One striking element of his argument is that the very state of believing, behaving as if we are the very last Jews is one of the animating forces that has kept us vibrantly alive through two millennia of Diaspora wanderings. And the history of this people in that time is not all doom and gloom. In point of fact, it is often a tremendously uplifting history of monumental contributions to the advancement of humanity; critical moments when a Jewish idea animated the world and brought greater wholeness to society; moments of creative expression, scientific advancement and intellectual contribution that makes this tiny people so consequential. Rawidowicz would have us believe that one key to all of this is living with the (false) impression that we are the very last. He writes the following:

“Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew. We, the last Jews! Yes, in many respects, it seems to us as if we are the last links in a particular chain of tradition and development. But if we are the last — let us be the last as our fathers and forefathers were. Let us prepare the ground for the last Jews who will come after us, and for the last Jews who will rise after them, and so on until the end of days.”10

Sitting twenty-five feet underground in the bullet factory at the Ayalon Institute, our guide ended the tour by asking if there were any questions. So stunned by the final story of the survivor were we all that there was absolute silence. Until… until our son Noam got up to ask a question. Now, those of you who know and love Noam may be aware that he sees the world at a different angle. But often he also reveals an unbelievable ability to get to the heart of the matter. So, we were intrigued to hear his question. He stepped up to the guide, after uncharacteristically quietly paying attention to the whole story we had just heard, and asked “… Now, is it time to go to the beach?!?” And, yes, having been moved by this story of survival, that is exactly what we did.

It’s hard to be a Jew. It’s good to be a Jew. It’s ours… to be a Jew. To be the people who hold our deepest pain historically with us at all times; and to be a people of optimism, called by the prophet “Asirei Tikvah – Prisoners of Hope.”11 We are the ever-dying, never-dying people of Israel.

As we enter 5778, I wish for you and your families, from me and mine, L’Shanah Tovah U’Metukah – A Good, Sweet and Healthy New Year!

  3. Michtav MePenina Hefer – from Ayalon Institute communications “Epilogue – From Holocaust to Rebirth”
  5. See Emil Fackenheim, 614th commandment, in To Heal the World
  10. Simon Rawidowicz, “State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity: Essays on the ‘ever-dying people.’”
  11. Zecharia 9:12