A few weeks ago, my wife and I were involved in a hate incident in Riverside Park in New York City. While physically untouched, this traumatic episode not only penetrated my psyche, but also has led to questions about what it means to be a Jew and an American today. Contemplating how to move forward, the words of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy have been in the forefront of mind: “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”
As friends and family heard about this hate incident from an article published in The Jerusalem Post, their first question was, “Are you okay?” Their compassionate concern was accompanied by disbelief about how such a thing could happen in New York in 2019.
It was what happened next, however, that truly surprised me. Without fail, “What did the harassers look like?” constituted the next question.
My first reaction was what difference does it make? By describing the boys who threatened us wouldn’t we ironically be spreading fear of a certain ethnic group?
In the aftermath of our horrible experience, a sense of powerlessness enveloped me. I just turned 50, and yet a band of teenage boys on bicycles trampled over my conception of what America stands for. Sensing my hopelessness, the question I anticipated was simply, what can we do?
Little did I know at the time that the harassment we experienced on a beautiful spring Shabbat afternoon was merely a shot across the bow of American Jewry. In the weeks that followed, Lori Gilbert Kaye would be gunned down at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in San Diego, several synagogues in Massachusetts would be targeted by arsonists, and the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn would be vandalized with a threatening note: “Hitler is Coming.” And the list goes on and on. Moreover, according to the ADL, hate crimes have doubled over the same time since last year, with approximately 60% being antisemitic.
There have been horrific and tragic incidents in the past year in which the perpetrators were white, black, brown, Christian, Muslim and even Jewish. We learn that hatred has no skin color, just the same DNA in those who promulgate it.
Upon reflection, I believe that embedded in the yearning to know the harassers’ identity is actually the question I expected. What do perpetrators look like can be understood as what ethnic group should I avoid to protect ourselves? The bottom line is that fear about antisemitism is palpable and pervasive.
Fifty-three years ago, our society grappled with similar issues that we face today, namely healing the deep divides in American society, protecting individual liberty, and safeguarding civil rights. On June 6, 1966, Sen. Kennedy gave a talk to the National Union of South African Students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, that has become known as the “Ripple of Hope” speech.
RFK outlines several obstacles that stand in the way of improving our society. He begins with a sense of futility about the monumental challenges we face. Building on that notion, he suggests that some resign themselves to passivity because “the system” is greater than and is built to withstand individual’s efforts to make improvements.
Appealing for moral courage, Kennedy passionately asserted: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
As contemporary American society stares in the face of pervasive hatred, there are not only opportunities but necessities for us to create ripples of hope. First, it is essential that Americans of all faiths maintain their presence in the public sphere. Removing and hiding our yarmulkes, turbans or burkas means adopting a defensive posture that runs counter to our country’s laws to protect the freedom of religious expression, Judaism and otherwise.
Secondly, we need to hold our elected officials accountable and demand more investments in our shared security. Further, our leaders must become ripples of hope who elevate the current discourse and proactively speak out wherever and whenever hatred shows its ugly face.
RFK strove to become this kind of leader, but sadly was killed almost exactly two years later to the day of his “Ripple of Hope” speech. In fact, he was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, on July 5, 1968, while he was on the campaign trail for president. Sources attest that Sirhan purposely chose this day, for it was the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Six Day War, and wanted to demonstrate his disappointment with Kennedy’s support of Israel.
While we will never know what kind of leader Bobby Kennedy would become, his legacy remains secure. In his book, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, Larry Tye describes how Sen. Kennedy would regularly ask two questions when he met with constituents: “What do you need? And how can I help?”
I believe these questions can guide our actions toward a brighter future. Today, more than ever, we need to secure our freedoms so going to school or synagogue does not become an act of courage. The seamless coordination of our political, civic and religious leaders is vital in winning the war against hate, no matter what shape, shade or size it comes in. Every success will become a ripple of hope that RFK imagined and give us confidence in a better and safer tomorrow.
The writer is a rabbi and serves as the director of congregational education at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.
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