“I’m really tired of living in historic and unprecedented times. I would like to go back to precedent, please.”
This is a text I received from another rabbi-educator in Manhattan last week, as we discussed how to handle yet another potential threat to our students.
Six weeks after the horrifying events of October 7th, six weeks into a time of increased fear and insecurity for Jews worldwide, many of us are still waking up to a feeling of dread. We know we’re likely to read or hear something scary on the news, but we don’t know when, or where, or what it will be.
These are, for many of us, unprecedented times. The Upper West Side has long felt like a Jewish haven, but in the last month, many of us have questioned whether it is safe to be “visibly” Jewish. I’ve asked myself these same questions, wondering whether my camp swag with its Hebrew lettering might not be the best choice right now, or if I shouldn’t tell people I meet that I am a rabbi. We don’t know how to live through this because we haven’t needed to.
And also, in the scope of Jewish history, this is a moment with much precedent. Judaism is a several-millennia-long story of survivorship and of embracing our heritage and rituals despite opposition. Open almost any Jewish text and you will find stories of Jews living Jewishly despite antisemitism, often despite the threat or promise of death to anyone who dared flex their faith publicly.
The Talmud recounts the story of Rabbi Akiva, who took to teaching Torah in the town square after the Romans outlawed it. A man named Pappos ben Yehuda came to Rabbi Akiva and asked him, “Rabbi, aren’t you afraid of the Romans?”
“If we are afraid in our natural habitat, our source of life,” Rabbi Akiva answered, “ then all the more so we would be afraid in an environment that would cause our death. Torah is our life and the measure of our days; if we abandon it, we will only have more to fear.”
This is a lesson we have seen across Jewish history: choosing to continue to embrace Judaism even when threatened is an act of holy resilience. From Spanish Jews lighting their Shabbat candles under the table during the Inquisition to Jews baking matzah in the Warsaw Ghetto, our people have held fast to our traditions and to our community through every era, and we have not only survived but gone on to thrive.
I’ve been asked many times over the last six weeks how we’re preparing kids to face rising antisemitism. While we are indeed hosting special programs for teens and college students, mostly what we’re doing is what our ancestors have been doing for thousands of years: not letting the hatred of others dampen our love for each other and for our tradition. We’re teaching kids to love Judaism, and to love being part of the Jewish community.
Facts will not change minds about antisemitism, and it will not give children (or adults) a reason to hold fast to Judaism despite the very real danger and fear.
If the goal of antisemitism is to erase Judaism, then the antidote to it must include doing Judaism. Loving our tradition, living out its values, feeling a personal connection to the Jewish people and our history: these are the things that have sustained our people through generations of threats.
I want our children to see this rich, loving, community-oriented side of Judaism as their natural habitat, their source of life. If we abandon that which we hold most dear about Judaism in order to face those who hate us, we will only have more to fear.