How fast, we Jews, forget!

The shameful treatment of would be immigrants to our country continues. While I have no high opinion of Trump, an understatement, it is beyond my understanding why he nurtures this venomous hatred against these people who flee to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Is it all in the name of his white supremacist attitude, best expressed in the slogan of “Make America White Again?”

As a Holocaust survivor, I cannot help but compare Trump’s racism to that of Hitler’s who, in similar manner, sized up the threat of Judaism as a threat not only to Germany but to the world. One of his more famous antisemitic mentors, Richard Wagner, the great composer, expressed the threat of Judaism and the Jewish people by coining a new word: Verjudung, meaning something like “jewishing” the otherwise pure world…I hate to think what a totally white America would look, feel and act like!

Because of Jewish ethics and more particularly because of our past history in which we came to experience and hopefully to learn what rejection for ethnic reasons feels like and produces, Jews must not and cannot turn their back to migrants fleeing for life.

I am disappointed that on the local, national and international level few Jewish voices have been heard to condemn our governments’ treatment of these poor refugees at our southern gates. Have we forgotten what rejection feels like?

Here then are reminders:

Back in 1938 the plight of the Jews in Germany had become known. Rumors had it that Jews in Germany were sent to concentration camps. Auschwitz had not been built yet and so the worst had not yet happened. There was much talk about the necessity of creating safe havens for the Jews but talk did not suffice. There was need for action.

It was on President Roosevelt ‘s initiative that an international meeting was convened in July 1938 in Evian-les-Bains, France, to request commitments from the assembled nations to accept Jewish refugees from Germany.

And so 32 nations came together joined by 24 voluntary organi-zations that participated as observers. Also 200 journalists attended. Hitler endorsed the conference and even allegedly promised to help the Jews leave his country. It was reported that he said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [the Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The conference ended in failure. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic which offered help, none of the other participating nations made a commitment about accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. For Hitler this was a victory as it seemed to demonstrate that no one desired an influx of Jews to their country. Useful propaganda!

Two months after Evian – the Sudeten was given to Hitler by British prime minister Chamberlain. 120,000 formerly Czech Jews became stateless. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied and 180,000 more Jews came under Hitler’s rule. Then came Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On September 1, 1939 WW II broke out. Holocaust and 6 million Jewish dead followed. Have we, Jews, learned anything from Evian? Do we not remember?

Our treatment of the refugees at our southern border is a test of American humaneness and civilization and we are flunking it.

The story of the Saint Louis Ship should be an other reminder for us Jews of our history of a people fleeing from destruction and being refused to be given a haven of safety and a secure life.

During WW II the ship, the St. Louis, owned by the German Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) was a German luxury ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 trying to escape the Holocaust. The ship’s destination was Cuba in the hope that the refugees would debark and settle there. Having arrived there, the ship docked in Havana’s harbor but the refugees, with the exception of some Spaniards, Cubans and US citizens with Cuban visas, were not allowed to disembark. US government officials interceded with Cuba but to no avail. What now?

The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, a seemingly very decent human being, now took the ship to the US and to Canada, trying to find a nation that would accept these Jewish refugees fleeing for their life. Both nations refused the ship’s landing in their respective harbors.

In view of these refusals, no alternative was left for the captain but to return to Europe. The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and France accepted a few of the ships’ refugees. Unfortunately, the Nazis in their lightning fast war caught up with these Jewish refugees who thought they had escaped the clutches of Hitler. Statistics show that 254 of those who were forced to return to Europe were murdered during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest died in various slave labor camps, in hiding or in attempts to evade the Nazis.

Let me end this blog by reminding ourselves that we Jews, too, were once on the run from death. Should not our empathy for these folks at our southern border motivate us to speak out loudly against their mistreatment?

I do not understand that Melania Trump, a mother herself, has not been willing or able to speak out for a more humane treatment of these suffering folk. Jared and Ivanka Kushner, both allegedly Jews, have remained silent. I do not understand that the fathers and mothers, employed by ICE, lend themselves to such inhuman treatment as separating children from their parents.

America, where are we headed?!

The Ancient Synagogue: Mini-Essay # 2

In the last essay on the subject I indicated that the exact time and place of origin of the synagogue can no longer be determined. The rabbinic sources do not offer us any clues on the subject. ,

Nothing prevents us, however, from making educated guesses. The suggestion that the term “synagogue,” designating both a Jewish assembly and a specific locus of that assembly in terms of a building, first originated in the Babylonian exile, i.e., after 586 BCE, in response to the need of those deprived of the Jerusalem Temple where they used to pray and teach, makes most sense. After the exiled Jews’ liberation and return home from Babylon in 538 BCE and the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple in 515 BCE, these Jewish folks retained the by now established institution of the synagogue. The residents of Jerusalem and visitors to the city were once again able to attend the reading of Torah in the Temple while those outside of Jerusalem attended Torah readings in their respective local synagogues. This arrangement was further consolidated in the Persian period, especially with the work of Ezra in the 5th c. BCE. But there are, as can be expected, variations of this explanation.

Most excavated synagogues in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights, date from the Roman and Byzantine periods from the 3rd to the 7th c. CE. Synagogues dated to before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE are at Gamla, Masada and Herodium.

What we know about the early synagogue, its congregational functions which, in turn, determined its physical layout, comes to us from Hellenistic Jewish writings (Philo and Josephus), early rabbinical writings, archaeological and epigraphical material and the New Testament.

From both Mishna and Tosephta we learn that there was a synagogue within the precincts of the Temple itself. It was located in “the hall of hewn stones.” Its purpose was seemingly “for the reading of Torah” and it was adjoined by a “house of study.” Both Jewish and New Testament sources attest the existence of several synagogues outside the Jerusalem Temple.

One of the most intriguing Greek inscriptions found in excavations on the hill Ophel SW of Jerusalem reads as follows:

“Theodotos, son of Vettenos, priest and archisynagogos [synagogue leader], son of a archisynagogos and grandson of a archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of the Torah and study of the commandments and the guest house and the rooms and supplies of water as an inn for those in need when coming from abroad, which his fathers and the elders and Simonides founded.”

Many synagogues dating to the talmudic era and onwards had annexes to the main structure, suggesting that they also functioned as a type of hostel or community center.

This said, I want to point to the similarity of function between those ancient ones and our synagogue.

The long ago established twin meaning of the term synagogue as assembly of Jews and the physical locus of assembly has been maintained to this day. The activity of the twice weekly formal reading of Torah and that of Shabbat and festival readings continues to be observed. The study of Torah and other Jewish texts has been an ongoing activity ever since the founding of the synagogue. And there is, of course, our synagogue building, newly refurbished.

Given the deterioration of our country’s political life these two last years and our president’s ongoing hate-mongering against refugees from Central and Latin America fleeing to save their lives, many synagogues and churches have declared themselves “places of refuge,” sheltering these women, men and children against forced deportation by our Immigration and Customs Enforcement organism, better known by its acronym I.C.E. I am proud of the many churches and synagogues in our country, having annexes similar to those described (above) in the ancient Theodotos inscription, that follow the Hebrew Bible’s admonition on the establishment of Cities of Refuge (Hebr.: ‘arey miklat) or Sanctuary Cities where safety from unjustified pursuit is offered to innocents even today.

I am pleased that Congregation Beth Israel, our synagogue, supports the Sanctuary Movement.

Next time: ancient synagogue buildings, layout and interiors.

Refugees, illegal immigrants and Cities of Refuge (Part II.)

When Jews from Germany, occupied France and various other German occupied countries of Europe fleeing for their life came to the small town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south central France seeking refuge, Andre Trocme, pastor of the Reformed Church of France (Eglise Reformee de France) congregation and his wife Magda took them in and dispersed them among the congregants of the church who hid them from both the French police and the German SS and Gestapo. Le Chambon became a Sanctuary City for these refugees.

The people who hid these women, men and children on the run from the Nazi police put their lives on line in doing so. I lived and worked among these folk who were veritable heroes, risking their lives by defying both the French collaborator government and the German Nazi occupying forces. Books, articles and movies have been produced to celebrate their action and both a tree was planted and a commemorative plaque in honor of pastor Trocme and his wife Magda, as well as the good people of the little town of Le Chambon, were placed at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust authority into its Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.

During my five years in Le Chambon after the war, I preached and taught in the town’s Protestant church or temple, as it was called. On one of these occasions while having a conversation with some congregants after the church service, Monsieur Chazot, one of the men, came up to me and thanked me for the sermon. I, in turn, thanked him for the admirable actions he and his fellow congregants had done in hiding and saving the 3,500 refugee Jews who found a safe haven in the little town and its environs. Being relatively new in town, I asked Monsieur Chazot what it was that motivated him and his wife and many of the other town people to take the extraordinary risk of giving shelter and providing safety for the Jewish refugees who in desperation had come to find refuge from their persecutors’ antisemitic wrath. Without saying a word, Monsieur Chazot smiled and pointed his finger to the inscription engraved in stone over the church entrance. It read aimez vous les uns les autres or “love one another,” – a quote from the gospel of John 13:34-35.

I understood.

How did the Chambonais make it from this gospel text to becoming a safe haven for the Jewish refugees? The answer lies in the preaching of their pastor Andre Trocme, both a learned man, a biblical scholar and morally upright person, i.e,. a genuine Christian. Trocme knew about the the Cities of Refuge (Hebrew: arey miklat) cited in the Old Testament and taught that Le Chambon become such a city for the refugees fleeing Hitler and his ilk.

We read in Joshua 20:

“Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elder must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly…..’ “

In the case of Chambon, there is no question of fugitives having killed someone unintentionally and fleeing from the avenger of blood. It is rather the case of totally innocent people fleeing from Nazi police who are pursuing them with the intent of imprisoning and/or killing them for racist reasons. The motivation for providing these women and men a safe haven is, however, the same as in the numerous biblical texts that deal with such Cities of Refuge, namely their presumed innocence.

Against the above background let me now quote from one of our president’s tweets addressed to Californians who, in his opinion, would like to disengage from living in cities who joined the American sanctuary movement: sanctuary cities are “crime infested and breeding concepts [sic]…Sanctuary cities are undermining US laws.” (Trump Tweet, 4-18-2018)

While I and many other readers are at a loss of understanding what the president means by “breeding concepts,” I suggest we do not lose sleep over Mr. Trump’s disability of writing proper English.

I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the callousness of the president of our country as the 700 children come to mind who since October 2017 have been forcibly separated from their parents by I.C.E. I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the transformation that within a relatively short time has taken our country from a land of generosity to a land of narrow and selfish attitude, with an extreme xenophobic outlook, forgetting that our ancestors or we, with the exception of our native nations, have come here as refugees and immigrants.

I thank and congratulate all those who take the idea of sanctuary cities and places seriously and stand up for their inviolability and sanctity, providing safety for innocent women, men and children on the run from persecution and non-viable life situations.

Leviticus 18:16:

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I remember!

Refugees, illegal immigrants and Cities of Refuge (Part I.)

I remember!

My mother Anny (z”l) was one of seven children, five brothers and one sister. Ernst, one of her older brothers, was a non-practicing medical doctor who had married Gerda Kohn, daughter of the owner of a large leather factory in our town and subsequently switched his professional orientation from medicine to making leather. The two had a daughter, a very pretty girl, whose name was Hanne, a germanized form of the Hebrew Channah. Ernst and family were our “rich” family members. They lived in a fancy villa close to the river and owned a Chrysler automobile, driven by a chauffeur with a real chauffeur’s cap on his head. We, cousins of Hanne, considered it an honor to be invited to the villa on her birthday to an afternoon fancy, formal snack, to play with their little dog Quickie and some playing ping-pong on a real ping-pong table in their lovely garden.

The good life came to an end with Hitler. As the rumors of a war with Poland became ever more audible and believable, many of our Jewish population fled east toward the interior of Poland. So also uncle Ernst and his family left for the city of Lwow, German name Lemberg, now a city in the Ukraine, renamed Lviv.

Our nuclear family remained in Teschen (previously Cesky Tesin) because my father, highly educated, cultured but also naive as he was, felt we had nothing to fear from the Nazis, basing this totally erroneous attitude on the illusion that he, having studied law in Vienna, Austria, would be exempted from Nazi persecution of the Jews. Having stayed in town, we lost track of those who fled.

Our nuclear family survived the Holocaust. A few of those who had fled east were also lucky enough to survive. It is they who, after the war, told us what happened to uncle Ernst, Gerda his wife and Hanne their daughter, in Lemberg, the German occupied Polish city of Lwow.

Ernst, presumably, had purchased a set of Aryan identity documents, (in German: Ariernachweis), for the family. The GESTAPO, ever eager to hunt down Jews, often closed certain streets that were forbidden to Jews and then demanded identity documents from the folks who now were caught in their dragnet.

Despite uncle Ernst’s possession of Aryan identity papers, he had given to his wife and daughter a capsule of cyanide poison, just in case they were caught in a totally unexpected life threatening event. Just such an event did happen as all three of them found themselves in a street that had been closed, in which the GESTAPO stopped and demanded these so-called Ariernachweise from the pedestrians.

Uncle Ernst, for reasons unknown, carried with him both his Jewish and his Aryan papers. When forced to show his identity papers, he mistakenly presented the Jewish ones. With just enough time to signal his wife and daughter to swallow the cyanide, he was shot on the spot and both Gerda and Hanne, having swallowed the pill, died instantly.

Why tell you this terrible story?

Because I do not like uniformed men to stop folks in the street, demanding to see their identity documentation. When this was the case in fascist/Nazi lands, it was done by profiling on the basis of pseudo science elaborated by pseudo scientists, like Hitler himself: short or tall? hair color: dark or blond? hair texture: Caucasian, African or Jewish? shape of nose: straight Nordic or “crooked” Jewish? Skin color: white or colored? Etc. etc. Nazi pseudo science even insisted that the ratio between cranial longitudinal and lateral measurements of Jews showed a specificity connected to their “race” when, in fact, Jews are a religious-ethnic group and can not be identified by any racial specificity at all.

But this is what profiling is all about.

And this is also what refugees or first generation immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa are exposed to now. Mr. Trump’s refugee and immigrant phobia and love for walls has brought this about. Our judiciary, by definition an independent governmental organ of our United States tri-literal governmental structure of executive, legislative and judiciary has surrendered its independence and has fallen prey to the president’s pseudo-scientific orientation and consequences.

Thus I.C.E. ( Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is doing just that: stopping people in the street or invading peoples’ home privacy, looking for illegal immigrants, and when found, taking them into custody and deporting them.

Because I remember my uncle and his family’s death, I cannot help but remember.

And when I remember, it makes me feel very uncomfortable because the methods now employed resemble those of Nazism/fascism.

I don’t like police – our American police – to profile innocent folks in the street or to search for innocent illegal immigrants in private homes. These kind of actions are methods of a police state. This is not the kind of country the Statue of Liberty and the inscription underneath it represents.

Morality falling through the cracks.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…!”

This is a biblical exhortation in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) addressed to liberated Israel which especially Holocaust survivors must never forget. Remember!

Slaves have few if any rights. I and my fellow Jews under the German Nazi regime during WWII were slaves who had no rights and no recourse against coercion and violence, no appeal courts to which we could have taken our complaints about being mistreated.

Still in our hometown, after having been occupied by Nazi evil, but before deportation, we were never safe, whether in our homes or in the street. On many occasions we were simply taken off the street, corralled by the German police and then forced into forced labor such as street cleaning which involved sweeping and shoveling horse droppings, to the entertainment of fellow towns folk, or cleaning government buildings, etc.

Now imagine that innocent children, all under 16 years of age brought to our country by their parents who came here illegally, whichever their mode of entry may have been, now live in fear of being taken off the street or from their homes and deported by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Deported to where? To their native countries they do not know, having been brought up in the United States. These young people, totally Americanized, 72% of whom profited from higher education, do not even speak their native country’s language.

Having become political footballs, they now live in fear. The DREAMERS’ (as they are called) dreams of legally becoming US citizens demolished. What a sad end for them and for us, a nation of fellow immigrants and dreamers of a safe and good land.

So I ask, what is it with our law makers in Washington: don’t they have children they love? Have they lost their morality, their sense of what is right? Has their access to power transformed them into non-thinking and non-feeling monsters? Has human-made law, which often in history turns out to be deeply flawed, trumped humaneness and empathy whose origins come from more authoritative sources as we tend to affirm in our religious and humanistic traditions?

In polls, the majority of Americans expressed the view that the DREAMERS “should be allowed to stay and become American citizens if they meet certain requirements.” The average age of these DREAMERS is 24. Those 25 and younger make up two-thirds of DACA recipients. A truly disgraceful situation when one considers that these 800,000 young people, who are Americans in every sense of the term with the one exception of long overdue citizenship, make up less than one third of one percent of our population. It has been estimated that the US would lose about $ 460 billion in GDP over the next 10 years with the elimination of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation and the deportation of the DREAMERS.

In the so-called omnibus federal budget of 1.3 trillion which is to allow our government to operate until September 2018, which most of our legislators have not seen, let alone studied, because it was cobbled together behind closed doors by a chosen few, and needs to be signed into law no later than in three days, the DACA issue is not included.

Any compassion for those poor youngsters? Obviously not. Their daily insecurity must continue. This is truly shameful behavior by the president and our lawmakers.