Rabbi Penzner offered these words on Shabbat Zachor, March 19. On Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath immediately preceding Purim, we are told to remember (Zachor) Amalek, the ruthless king whose army attacked the Israelites without provocation on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. This year, the topic of anti-semitism was very current, with the report of the taunts by students at Catholic Memorial to the Newton North basketball game. At the end of the discussion, Susannah Sirkin told a story that moved everyone in the room. Be sure to read to the end!
I awoke to the radio last Sunday morning as usual, and heard the shocking news: at a basketball playoff game in Newton on Friday night, students from Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury had taunted Newton North players and fans by chanting “You killed Jesus.”
By now you’ve heard the story, how the students at North had provoked the Catholic Memorial students with apparently homophobic chants of their own. You undoubtedly heard that the interim principal of Newton North, Mark Aronson, spoke with Catholic Memorial administrators, who put an end to the chants. The students were reprimanded. Aronson reported that after the game, several hundred students shook his hand and personally apologized to him.
In fact, most of the reporting we heard in the first 24 hours was all about antisemitism in Newton, how the schools and the mayor were responding to it. You probably also heard the denunciation by Cardinal O’Malley, and the statement released by theArchdiocese of Boston the next day calling the students’ behavior “unacceptable.”
What struck me about those reports, as it may have struck you, was the lack of interest in the source of the chants, the students at Catholic Memorial. Why was everyone talking about anti-semitism in Newton, when the chants came from students in West Roxbury? I wondered whether these students, our neighbors, believed that Jews only live in Newton? Did they have any idea that there is a synagogue less than a mile away from their school?
Ashley Adams shared his opinion yesterday that this incident is not only useful for educating the students, but it’s an important reminder to us that anti-Semitism has not disappeared from our midst. This is the lesson of this week’s special Torah reading for Shabbat Zachor. Do not forget! Remember what Amalek did to you! Remember the hatred and destruction of Jews fomented by anti-semites.
For some in our community, this chant unearthed long-buried fears and childhood incidents when they were the targets of epithets, taunts, and hate-filled accusations like “the Jews killed Jesus.” I myself heard those words when I was about 7 years old from a Catholic neighbor I thought was my friend. Should we be worried that our neighbors in West Roxbury are thinking these thoughts about us?
The more I wondered about what the students said and where it came from, the response became abundantly clear to me. Especially in our current climate of demonization, with political and religious disagreements devolving into punching innocent people and picking fistfights, we need to talk to each other. Justice cannot endure unless it is built on relationships of understanding.
I immediately reached out to the Jewish leaders of JCRC, AJC and ADL. I was aware that, to the credit of the administration of Catholic Memorial had reached out to the ADL immediately, apologizing and asking for help. When I spoke to Robert Trestan of the ADL on Tuesday, he described the curriculum that ADL has developed to increase awareness of antisemitism. He also emphasized that Newton has been dealing with anti-semitic vandalism lately, so that is where they plan to concentrate their efforts. He also emphasized how much he respects the leadership of Catholic Memorial and their sincere desire to use this as a learning opportunity.
I offered something that no one else seems to have thought of. I respect the work of the ADL, but I don’t believe that a curriculum is enough. And I don’t think that the awareness campaign should only be targeted at students.
What I suggested, with the support of our co-presidents, is to invite students, parents and teachers to come on a field trip to see Jewish life right here in West Roxbury, and to meet the Jews who are their neighbors.
This will not take place soon. It may not happen until next fall. But I argued with the ADL director that the effort is worth taking time to plan for a future date when all the furor has died down. I described the work we did at Gann Academy several years ago during the Hyatt Hotel boycott. I learned that Gann was holding its prom at a boycotted Hyatt in Cambridge. Because I only discovered this on the day of the prom, I contacted the head of school on Monday. Over the course of six months, we planned an all-school event to discuss the boycott. I came with a Hyatt worker to speak to the students. Afterward, they broke up into small groups. The prom committee decided not to hold the upcoming formal there. (The boycott ended in 2014.)
I am hopeful that our congregation can unite behind this idea and commit to engaging with dialogue with our neighbors in the coming year. I am hopeful that we can extend a warm welcome to the Catholic Memorial community. As offended and frightened as this incident may make us feel—no matter where we live, I believe that we can open our doors to them in a sincere and honest effort to get to know each other, to learn about each other’s traditions and backgrounds, and to build bridges of understanding. We may be surprised and disappointed to learn that this effort is necessary. But that is the message of Shabbat Zachor—do not forget—do not fool yourself into thinking that others have forgotten. In each generation, it is up to us to reach out anew, to set aside suspicion and to remind one another of the underlying human bonds that unite us, whether in our neighborhood or across our country.
Post-script: At Shabbat services, Susannah closed our discussion with the following story, which illustrated the power of getting to know others, asking questions, and being in relationship.
A few weeks ago I spent a morning with a renowned international photographer at a police headquarters in a regional capital of an African country that has suffered war, pillage, rape and displacement for decades. Our goal was to portray a new generation of police officers, men and women trained and dedicated to protecting women and children from sexual assault. As the photo crew stood along a dusty sidewalk capturing on camera the weekly exercises complete with a marching band and a long line up of police standing proudly in formation in their new blue uniforms, someone noticed that the name sewn onto the chest of one officer read, “Adolf Hitler.” My colleague approached me and asked me if I had seen it. Glancing over toward the tall officer watching the parade before him, I was shocked to see this name, its resonance shaking me to the core.
As soon as I regained my composure, I went over to our friend, the colonel we work with most closely in this province, and asked him if he was aware of the name emblazoned on his officer’s uniform. Our friend was horrified and immediately went over to speak with the man. Moments later he returned and informed me that the name had been immediately removed and that the officer was “trembling.” Assuredly, he had been severely reprimanded.
As the band played on and the exercises continued, I stood in thought, wondering what had transpired in these brief moments, imagining the next repercussions for this officer, like most of the police in this impoverished country-- under-educated, ill-paid, and possibly at immediate risk of being fired, or worse. I wondered what on earth would prompt an African policeman to wear this heinous name on his shirt. Was it his given name? Did he have any idea who Hitler was? Would punishment teach him anything? I asked the Colonel if we might speak to this man, and moments later we were standing in a courtyard, learning that the man’s name was not Adolf but Christopher, that he seemingly had no idea that Hitler had slaughtered millions (including members of my own family, I explained, holding back tears), and what’s more, considered Africans an inferior race.
The man listened attentively as the colonel carefully delivered on the spot a perfectly crafted mini-lecture on the Holocaust, describing the concentration camps and crematoria, the clarion call of “Never Again,” the founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The colonel noted that Hitler was more despicable than the most notorious and despised war criminal in the region. He stressed that wearing such a name was exactly the opposite of what anyone in his police force would want to be associated with. When officer “Christopher” asked me what he should do now, I replied, “Tell everyone in your unit why you removed that name.” As Purim approaches, this lesson of what it takes to obliterate a hateful name is a bit more real and a bit more involved than grinding a noisemaker.