Sermon: Never Again (Parashat Bo) (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

When I sit down to write a sermon, I don’t just start to write.  I think, I make notes, I look through newspapers and websites to see what’s going on in the world, and I, of course turn to the weekly parsha for inspiration.  I read other people’s thoughts, I try to pick a topic that I’m passionate about, and I try to talk about something that can be inspirational, or at least have some sort of practical application.  This week, I did all of those things as usual – I found many themes in the portion that I could talk about, I found a wealth of issues that my friends and colleagues are concerned with, and I thought of a good handful of ideas that pique my own interests… and yet no matter what I came up with, it just didn’t seem good enough, it all seemed trite this week.  Ever since the attacks in Paris last week, I have known that I would need to address them, and yet I looked for every reason not to – I looked for any other possible topic to discuss.  This is just an issue that I don’t feel equipped to handle.

When I first moved to London a little over a year ago, one thing that struck me is just how much security there is at every synagogue and Jewish organization here.  Security guards, locked gates, intercom systems – it was something that I had never experienced before.  The only time that we regularly had any kind of security at any of my previous synagogues in America or Canada was on the high holidays, and that was mainly to help with all of the extra cars and pedestrians.  Sure, after 9/11 security was beefed up a little bit, but it was temporary, and it was nothing like we have here.  My home synagogue in Toronto shares a parking lot with the mosque next door, it’s a situation very similar to the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue and the East London Mosque.  The only issues we ever had with each other was over parking spaces, and during the first Iraq war, when there were scud missiles falling on Israel and there was some fear brewing in the community, the Imam came over and assured my rabbi that their whole congregation was there for us and supportive of us if we needed anything at all.

Blatant anti-Semitism is not something that I’ve had to deal with all that much in my lifetimes, and I’ve only ever encountered security issues while visiting Israel.  I feel very naïve to it all.  I tried to help myself prepare for this sermon by reading as many articles as I could find on the situation, but that only made it worse.  I felt like I was being tossed from one side of the spectrum to another, the far right to the far left, extreme conservatism, extreme liberalism, victim blaming, excuses, wild accusations and attempts at explanations, none of which made any sense to me at all.  I read one article that compared the attacks to the Orthodox men who refuse to sit next to women on airplanes.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m disgusted by this thinly veiled misogyny and infuriated by how our religion is being maligned by those who profess to be the most observant among us… but no, this is not a form of religious extremism that can be, even remotely, compared to terrorism and murder.

I read another article that says that all Jews in Europe should have easy and immediate access to guns, in order to protect themselves – going so far as to say that the Third Reich would have never happened if every Jew in Germany and Poland had been armed in the 1930s.  I read articles that said that being a target of terrorism is just a part of life, an occupational hazard, if you will, of being a Jew in Europe, and if we don’t like it, then maybe we should just move.  I read articles that said that there has never been a time in history when it was safer to be Jewish here.  I read articles that said that there has never been a time in history when it was less safe.  Yes – never in history.  Neither of those statements seem logical at all.  And so, the more I read, the more confused I became.  I couldn’t find the moderate voice.  I couldn’t find an accurate report of the facts.  I couldn’t find anything that helped me to know what to say.

And so I turned inwards, I thought that maybe I could draw upon my own feelings to help me figure out what to talk about today.  I tried to quiet my head and listen to my heart, and what I found is that I’m angry.  I’m angry about what’s going on in our world right now.  I’m angry that people are killing others.  I’m angry that religion, which is supposed to help people lead rich, beautiful lives, is being used to destroy.  I’m angry that a brilliant designer in Israel felt the need to create a new kind of Kippah – a kippah made out of human hair, so that Jews could still keep their heads covered when travelling without anyone being able to see their head-covering.  I’m angry that when the New York City council was presented with a motion to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, anti-Israel protestors interrupted the session shouting ‘Palestinian lives matter.’   Of course Palestinian lives matter, but what does that have to do with Auschwitz?  I’m angry that the politics of Israel are constantly confused with the religion and ethics of Judaism.  I’m angry that I can’t trust the media to help me understand what’s going on.  I’m angry that people are being attacked while praying, while travelling on busses, while going about their daily lives.  I’m angry that women, gay people, transgendered people, are living in fear.   I’m angry that anyone is living in fear.  And yet I personally don’t feel that fear.  I think that I’m just too naïve to truly feel the fear.

So this is where I was left, confused, angry, and naïve… and I don’t think that confused, angry and naïve is really a great combination when trying to deliver a message, and so I stopped trying to think of what to say, and started to think of what to do.  This week we will commemorate and celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  I am unwilling and unable to compare the situation in Europe and the Middle East today to the Shoah.  I am unwilling and unable to say, as some have been doing, that we are on our way to another holocaust.  But I am willing to say that 70 years ago when my family, when your family, walked to freedom, they carried with them the message of ‘never again.’  Just like in our parsha this week, when we are told that we will never again live in Mitzrayim, we have also made the promise that we will never again live in Auschwitz.  That has to continue to be our mission, not just for us, but for all people.  We all know the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemöller – 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. As important as this message is, we have to be able to take it a step further.  It’s not good enough to speak up for others just so that others will speak up for us.  We have to speak up, we have to act, because it is the only way that we can ever hope to bring any kind of justice to our world.  Wednesday morning, the day after Holocaust Memorial Day, I am taking part in the launch of Tzelem, a new initiative started by a Leo Baeck student to bring Rabbinic and Cantorial voices to issues of Social and Economic justice in the UK.  I have spent the past few months helping to organize this group, and will continue to work with them to try to make a difference in our society.  Child poverty, hunger, mistreatment of workers, are just some of the issues that we are going to start to tackle.  Is this going to solve the all of the issues in our world?  No, of course not.  Not even close, but it feels to me like the right reaction to evil…. that the best way to fight evil is to push for more good.  That’s the Jewish way, we do what we can to help others, and we try to turn our own suffering into positive change.  It seems like a tenuous connection, but all I know how to do is channel my anger into something good.

So, no, I still don’t know what to say to you this morning, but I do know what to do.  Continue to fight for justice, continue to push for equality, and continue to hold up my end of ‘never again.’