The New Jewish Landscape – 2017

This post is based on a sermon delivered at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation on August 25, 2017. You can hear audio of the sermon as delivered here

2000 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This was a crushing blow to the Jewish community and its leadership. After all, this was the temple of the Hebrew God that was to stand forever. It defined all of Jewish practice and belief. Most of the Torah is consumed with sacrifices and rituals predicated on there being a Temple in Jerusalem. Now that Temple was destroyed.

Parts of the Jewish community of the time thought there was nothing left to do but fast until death, for it must have been because of our sins that we were punished like this, and our continuing sins were un-atoneable, for there was no sacrifice to atone any more.

Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah was known for saying, “Don’t fast too much, life must continue.” An anecdote records a moment of despair even for Rabbi Joshua:

One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was walking in Jerusalem with Rebbi Yehoshua, they arrived at where the Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins. “Woe to us” cried Rabbi Yehoshua, “for this house where atonement was made for Israel’s sins now lies in ruins!” Answered Rabban Yochanan, “We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness), as it is stated ‘I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice.’

What to do? If the Temple is burned, you go on. You create anew. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and Rabbi Joshua and their generation (and the generation that followed) is what today we know as rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism to which we are all heirs. If there was a crash, a destruction, there was also an opportunity for new creation.

We are today dealing with the unexpected. We had, what you might call, irrational exuberance. We believed in the inevitability of progress and enlightenment. This has happened from time to time in human history. In our own days, the election of the first black president of the United States looked like it would be followed by the election of first woman president. There was a global agreement finally reached to address global warming. There was progress in the recognition of the human rights of the LGBT community, even transgender individuals. There was a rising awareness of ongoing racial disparities in policing, in the criminal justice system and in the cultural conversation. From a Jewish perspective, more and more communities have been welcoming intermarried families (which Humanistic Judaism has done since 1960s), and affiliation rates with traditional synagogue models may have been going down but Jewish innovation models were on the rise. And on the plus side BOTH presidential candidates had Jewish sons-in-law! It was not perfect, but it seemed like the United States was gradually becoming a more perfect union.

And then, another crash – the slow motion train derailment we’ve been watching over the last several months. It feels like it culminated in Charlottesville and its aftermath – torchlight parades with swastikas, violent clashes in the streets including a vehicular homicide, armed thugs (REAL thugs) threatening a synagogue during Shabbat services. I received an email from a member of my congregation in the aftermath of Charlottesville recommending that we hire private security for our High Holiday services. I reminded them that we already work with the Bannockburn Police Department to have officers manage traffic, and if the terrorists didn’t find us when we were holding services in Lake Forest, they will NEVER find us holding High Holiday services in a church!

It feels like Jewish landscape today is very different today than when I chose this topic six weeks ago. Then I planned to talk about what American Jews believe and practice, how the Jewish community is responding to those who marry beyond the Jewish community, the changes in how people identify with being Jewish, and even our own congregation’s steps forward in re-defining what “community” means to us. But the Jewish landscape is not just defined simply by what we choose to do internally – like the rebel outsider in Fiddler on the Roof, we need to know what’s going on in the outside world, because it impacts us, and we have to try in our own small way to have an impact as well.

I want to be very clear: there are many reasons for calm even as there are also reasons to worry. I have not purchased a gun. I do not fear that my non-Jewish neighbors in Highland Park will lead a pogrom or start flying Nazi flags. At a recent rally in Boston in the aftermath of Charlottesville, there were about 200 so-called “free speech” protesters and 40,000 counter-protesters. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville just admitted its most diverse Freshman class ever. A recent survey that caused a lot of alarm showed that as many as 30 million people support some of those white supremacist ideas. But for those who have been following the statistics, this is consistent – the Anti-Defamation League holds regular surveys that have consistently shown the same as 10% or so supporting antisemitic ideas for decades. 10% of 300 million people = 30 million people. Still scary, but also not a massive increase – it’s what has been there.

It’s not news to those who have been paying attention, and those who look beyond the Blue States – go travel in the Kansas countryside, or take a drive in Indiana, look at the billboards on the side of the road. You’ll see it’s a different world out there, with different values out there, that’s different from where we are here in Blue America. We should also remember that the 10% number is down from 20% or higher in 1970s and earlier. Historically, it’s on the way down. What’s the difference between 2014 and 2017 if it’s same 10%? The difference that now they are visible, they are emboldened to march with torches lit instead of faces covered.

Just like after the destruction of Temple, I don’t want to leave you with a “what do we do?” and no answers – I have some ideas. The Four Questions of Passover are actually not called “she’elot – questions.” They are called “kushyiot” – in the Talmud’s Aramic, it’s a challenge, something that’s hard to answer. “Arba ha-kushyiot The Four Challenges.” I want to share with you today four challenges that we face in this new Jewish landscape.

Problem: Emboldened white supremacists. Not just twitter trolls who make nasty comments, but actual physical vandalism, personal threats, public marches, even their own media platform and a foot in the federal government.


  • Confidence and courage – we are the 90%, they are the 10%, and that makes a difference. And in major metro areas like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles we are often the 95%. We have to remember that the goal of terrorism is terror, to make you afraid. Now you can’t control what your heart feels, but you can control whether you go to the mall, whether you live your life, whether you speak your mind. And if you stop those things, then the terror wins. So courage and confidence are important.
  • Don’t overreact – remember the numbers, and remember who’s on our side, which is the vast majority of people, even politicians.  Even though we are afraid of what has been going on, afraid of these public marches, an overreaction that limits free speech can have its own problems. Free speech protects minorities – it doesn’t protect incitement speech or intimidation speech. But being able to speak protects us. The conservative columnist Charles Cooke wrote a great satirical column recently recommending “giving Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump the robust censorship powers that they so richly and urgently deserve.”

We have an array of differing views in this country, but I think we can all agree that nobody could be better suited to that oversight role than Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump, and the thousands upon thousands of state-level Republicans who have been recently swept into office by the infallible will of the people. Furthermore, we should all be able to unite around the appealing chance to hand more power over to the police. Donald Trump is a man marked out for his wisdom, scholarship, and judicious temperament. But, exquisite as his judgment is, he is able to direct prosecutions only on a macro level. To make the scheme work in practice, America’s police officers must enjoy the legal opportunity to determine what — and who — sits outside of the law’s protection.

Once you say that we need to have the government restrict speech, guess who’s in the government? So we shouldn’t overreact.

  • We are not the only target, but that also means we need to listen to and stand up for other people who are being targeted as well! If you want to explain to a Black Lives Matter activist why Israel is more complicated and not a “Palestinian genocide” as a Movement for Black Lives platform claimed, then you need to show them that their issues are your issues, their lives are important to you!  You need to show up for them if you want them to show up for you. The fanatics who want a White Christian America may start with the “undocumented,” or the “urban population”, when they really mean “brown people” and “black people.” But we know who’s further down that list, and it’s better to head them off at the pass when there are more of us than there are of them.
  • (I use this sometimes with my children) The River Erodes the Stone. If you have a large stone in your path, you can take a sledgehammer and try to knock it through. But sometimes the river flowing around the stone moves it. If you have an obstinate child in your way, you can head-on confront, or “the river erodes the stone,” flow around and get where you want to go. Head-on confrontation is not the only strategy – let’s be creative! In some towns in Germany, when neo-Nazis march the town makes it a fundraiser for anti-Nazi causes – for every 5 meters they walk, we’ll donate more money to anti-Nazi causes, or LGBT community centers. And the more of them show up, the more money is raised. You push back but creatively, positively. Or graffiti artists in Berlin who were upset at seeing swastikas being painted so they painted around them into comic book figures.

We can take that creative approach, counter-protest elsewhere, do something positive in response, even create alliances with unusual allies (after all, politicians on both sides condemned what happened in Charlottesvlle), then we can be more successful.


Problem: The indifferent response to that emboldened 10% by some leaders, including most notably President “both sides” Trump. Even a proposed congressional resolution referred to violence committed by neo-Nazis, the KKK “and others”.


  • My theory about “some nice people” at the Nazi protest: I don’t think that Trump is a hardcore ideological Nazi because I don’t think he thinks that much. What I think happened was, there were people walking in the crowd with his hats on. His approach is not Nazism, it’s narcissism. So “if there are people who like me, they must be good! They can’t be all bad if they like me!” So therefore “there must have been some nice people there since they liked me.” That’s how it works in what I call a “me-o-centric theory of the universe” – everything revolves around me. So it’s narcissism, not Nazism. That’s still very disturbing, and we know he’s said some problematic things about how he likes having Jews counting his money. That kind of “soft antisemitism” is more prevalent in an older generation, but our only hope in this case is that the next bright shiny object or personal feud will distract him and he’ll move on to something else very quickly.
  • In terms of responding to the political class, we have to keep their feet to the firean activated electorate is the best motivator for political improvement. Because they want a job! This is true for politicians on your side of the aisle, it is also true for those on the other side as well.
  • We need to learn how to build on common purpose – This will not lead to kumbaya results for the environment, on foreign policy, on tax reform priorities. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham is going to be a conservative Republican at the end of the day. But there may be positive steps on shared issues working around the White House. For example, before the election there was a lot of talk of bipartisan work on sentencing reform, dealing with the legacy of the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences. Maybe there are bridges to be built even if the White House refuses to move. Perhaps the White House’s threat to cancel work permits for “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants who came as children and have received work permits under DACA) will become a spur to move forward with a new Gang of Eight to build a new bridge. Maybe the Overton Window can work differently – if the White House is the extreme end, a Republican Congress no longer has to be at every moment. It will not solve everything, but it might help move forward on priorities after Charlottesville against racism, Nazism and antisemitism.


Problem: The political polarization which makes “both sides” accusation an easy cop-out and which makes listening hard if not non-existent. Think about the parallel Facebook universes out there where Sarah Palin has a million likes, the variety of media consumed, the kind of stories that are likely to be believed. Sometimes when we face a conflict we contract, we withdraw our circle of concern to my group, my people, my tribe. Our response has to be to resist that impulse.


  • Need to learn more broadly – One of the claims of Humanism is that we don’t know everything. We learn from each other. We have learned quite a bit as human beings through experience and knowledge and reason. But in the end, if there are new ideas, if there is new information then we have to be open to change, and to learn. We have no monopoly on the truth, and we know from our scientific study how easy it is to confirm what we already believe. Cognitive bias applies to everyone. We find support for what we already believe, we look at what is most comfortable to believe. Many people in the atheist, secular, humanist world believe in a colorblind society, they want a society where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. So some of them are resistant to evidence that this is not already the case. They want it to be the case, but when you show them disparities in housing, in mortgage applications, in job interviews, in policing structure, sentencing guidelines, when you show them the evidence they resist it because they don’t want it to be true. But sometimes the evidence doesn’t conform to what we want to be true. We have to face those realities.
    And the only way to do that is to learn more broadly. There are populations out there that aren’t listened to. I drove through Kansas 18 months ago to visit a friend in Manhattan, Kansas at Kansas State University. As we were driving through that countryside, I could appreciate a perspective that said, “What does someone in Washington DC know about how to live my life? I’m out here on my own (apparently). I’m doing this myself. Who are you to tell me what I put in my soil?” I could appreciate from the setting how the ideology was different.
  • We need to understand how people think and where their values come from. Later this year, we’ll be discussing Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a moral psychologist, who studies how people do moral reasoning. He describes how people reason differently, using different categories of moral reasoning. Both liberals and conservatives have a category called care or harm – does this hurt or help someone, that can define what is morally wrong or right. Is this fair to everyone? That can define morality. Does it affirm personal liberty, the right to be in charge of my own life? Many people in the world include group loyalty as an important category of morality – does it help or hurt the group? For many, respect for authority is a moral category and disobedience to authority is a moral violation for them. And for many people, sanctity, what is holy, is important not to transgress.
    Haidt points out that conservative people tend to identify very easily with group loyalty, authority, sanctity. Think about the Christian Right and their messaging. And liberals tend to identify primarily with the care/harm category, does it hurt someone or not, and if it doesn’t it’s nobody’s business. And they are often opposed to authority and loyalty. You ask people, is violating the dress code at a school a moral violation? Conservatives say yes, liberals say it’s a moral OBLIGATION to break the dress code at the school for personal liberty and because it doesn’t hurt anyone; what business is it of yours what I wear to school? We even think  what’s right and what’s wrong differently. To understand how other people think, it’s important to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re saying what they do.


Problem: a paralyzing concern over what is happening to this country. The world is burning and what do I do? There’s so much that’s wrong! Consider Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America – there’s a feeling through that novel, there’s a sense that there’s so much that wrong and there’s nothing we can do. Well, there’s always something we can do.


  • Come together – in places like this and places out there. There are new communities and new kinds of activism that have sprung up in the last several months. It’s the flip side of polarization – sometimes when you polarize you find your group and then you work together with the solidarity and encouragement of like-minded people. We’ll see what happens to Jewish communities over the next 4 years, or even over the next 4 weeks before Rosh Hashana! It may be that people are looking for a place that says what they think, that reflects what they believe, and that has their people. They’re looking for that solidarity of community. Look at the turnout after 9/11. Some in the Jewish world have been complaining for years, “Well, if there’s no antisemitism, then what is going to keep the Jews Jewish?” Thank you, now we can test that theory and see what happens.
  • Resist Despair – It can become overwhelming and depressing. Turn off the computer or skip Facebook once a week. It’s ok, you can catch up, it will be there. Even more important, don’t get overwhelmed. We have to push ourselves to stay engaged, to make phone calls, to stand up instead of standing by. We have to act. Are you concerned about the environment after withdrawing from the Paris Accord? Do something yourself! Petitions and Facebook posts are something, but they are not everything. Even if you feel like the Temple has been destroyed, the world is burning out there, that means it’s time to rebuild.

What does all this mean for the Jewish landscape today? This is not the time to give up on Diaspora and move to Israel, as if that was the solution to everything. The chief rabbi Spain after the most recent terror attack there recently suggested, “we’re done here;” his bosses, the lay leaders of Spain’s Jewish community, said, “No, we’re not.” The diversity and tension created by being a minority culture in a larger culture is what made Judaism so interesting over the centuries! There’s plenty to do here, plenty of life still to be found here.

It is not the time to turn inward and exclusive, to reject the new Jewish families who bring multiple cultural and religious heritages together in their shared experience – over half of the marriages involving Jews today have a non-Jewish partner – they are no longer the odd intermarriage, they are Jewish marriages, and their families are one variety of the new Jewish family. This is not the time to raise the drawbridge, to raise the mandatory dues on those who are compelled to find a community and squeeze them – this is the time to open doors, to welcome in people looking to find those of like mind and like culture on their own terms, to show them what they’ve been missing and how much they might come to value what we offer. The American Jewish community is increasingly diverse, secularized, intersectional, and culturally Jewish.

After the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, the question was asked: if we can’t atone for our sins, what do we do? The answer was given: acts of loving kindness, and ultimately rabbinic Judaism was build around words and prayers replacing the sacrifices. If we can’t sacrifice the animals, we’ll sacrifice words and time and energy. In our day, we in Humanistic Judaism are sometimes asked, what do you do if you don’t pray? The answer: we DO! So let’s start doing.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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