By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO
I have been hearing from many, many people in the Jewish community over the past few weeks and the words most repeated are sadness, fear, and isolation. I feel this as well. I have been fighting the urge to harden my heart. It is easy to do as a way of self-protection, but despite inhuman acts, we can’t sacrifice our humanity. That would be the ultimate loss.
While I am not willing to harden my heart, I am going to strengthen it with resolve. Despite the graffiti defacing our building, the dangerous chants at rallies, and the violent rhetoric on social media, I refuse to give in to fear. We must face it while not becoming numb to the human suffering of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
What is happening now is a defining moment for our generation. It is a tectonic shift, not a little flare-up. It is what happens when extreme ideologies supplant basic humanity and common decency. When unconscious bias becomes conscious and explodes unfettered into the open on campuses and streets. When violence is celebrated and not mourned. When hate speech is accepted as free speech.
So many lines are being redrawn, relationships being reconsidered, and assumptions challenged. We must not be silent, keep our heads down, or accept it as a new reality. This is no time for apathy. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” We are witnessing the face of hate across the world, and we must not accept indifference. Indifference is complicity.
At a time of unspeakably barbaric acts, I have been inspired by the simple acts of kindness I have seen— people from the JFS resettlement team who themselves have fled terror and war have reached out to me. I have been brought to tears by their compassion. And I have been touched by the thoughtfulness of very busy people who have called just to check in and offer words of support.
The importance of community has never been more clear. We need to find our people so we can process without needing the answers, be angry without having to explain our anger, and grieve without grieving alone.
Personally, I have very old friends on both sides of this conflict—we have known each other since we were young—one a professor in Haifa and another a human rights lawyer living in the West Bank. The three of us are in touch almost daily. The trembling in their voices is the same. The confusion is the same. The sadness is the same. I worry for their safety. Nobody is being spared by this violence even as we try to shield our children from the worst of it.
Sadly, as a Rabbi and the head of a Jewish organization, I am used to being targeted, but for many people in our community what is happening around us is disorienting and frightening—it has moved from the background to the foreground of our lives.
My wife is Israeli, and all our children have Hebrew names. Our children are each having different experiences and finding their own paths. I grieve every time I speak with them. Our middle son wears a necklace with the Hebrew word chai, life on it. Someone asked if I was going to suggest he tuck it in his shirt for a while. I wondered about it myself. My answer is “no.” I will not judge him if he makes that choice for himself, but I will not suggest it. Despite our historic and current trauma, this is not a time to hide and be quiet. This is a time to have courage and encourage our children to do the same.
In challenging times like this, we can gain strength by being active and not passive—by learning from and leaning on the stories of our ancestors. By telling our stories and pushing back on simplistic narratives and thoughtless comments.
Recently, someone commented to me that the most brilliant aspect of the Passover seder is it is written in the first person. We are to see ourselves as part of the Exodus narrative. Our story is eternally written in the first-person present tense—we are not spectators we are active participants. We must not be bystanders and read the story of our people in a passive voice. This is a time for us to own our story and speak our truth with pride and courage. To acknowledge our fear and anxiety but not let it be our master. To transform fear into focus. And confront the moment head-on.
Today more than ever I am going to remember our story, and not allow others to erase it. We each have a role in this narrative, and it is for us individually and communally to discover what that is. And above all, we can’t allow our anger or fear to blind us to our core humanity.
I leave you with this poem:
If they show me a stone and I say it’s a stone.
The’ll agree it’s a stone.
If they show me a tree and I say it’s a tree.
They’ll agree—it’s a tree.
But if they show me my blood and I say blood, they’ll say it’s a color.
– Amir Gilboa
We can never say it is just a color.