Posted Tuesday, January 7, 2020 10:51 pm
By Jenn Smith, The Berkshire Eagle
When an anti-Semitic incident occurs, people often look to Jews to figure out what to do. When anti-immigrant rhetoric is spewed, people look for the undocumented. When a racist attack happens, people of that race are asked to respond.
“Sometimes it’s not the time to ask the victimized to come up with their own solution to their persecution,” says Rabbi Barbara Kipnis Cohen of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Great Barrington.
To effectively eradicate and prevent hatred, prejudice and oppression, she said, it’s imperative for others beyond the targeted individual or community to be a part of the change.
“Don’t ask the persecuted only [how to respond]. It’s a much broader ask,” Kipnis Cohen said.
She and other leaders within the Berkshire Jewish community are lauding the hundreds of members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches who signed a letter published last week condemning anti-Semitic expressions and acts of violence.
“As Christian faith leaders, we reach out to share our sense of horror and disgust at the terrifying rise in violence against Jews and increasing public expressions of anti-Semitism,” the letter began.
It’s been written in the wake of stabbing attacks of Jewish residents living in the New York City suburb of Monsey, N.Y., and on the heels of reports of students making anti-Semitic threats towards other students at Monument Valley Regional Middle School.
The Massachusetts Council of Churches in its letter goes on to take ownership of both being part of the problem and the solution. “As Christians whose tradition has been and continues to be the source of so much anti-Semitic terror in history, we carry a particular responsibility to identify, condemn, and resist anti-Semitism in any and every form,” the letter read.
This week, eight local Jewish leaders signed and submitted their own letter vowing to also become better allies for equality and human rights.
They state: “We, the leaders of the Berkshires Jewish community, condemn any and all expressions of anti-Semitism and hate, and we stand unified to combat this. … Yet the onus to fight anti-Jewish hate cannot rest on us alone, just as people of color cannot be the only ones who step up to confront racism, and LGBTQ folk should not be left on their own to oppose homophobia and transphobia. Hate is best addressed when we transcend our differences and speak up for each other.”
That letter is signed by rabbis Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams; Liz P.G. Hirsch of Temple Anshe Amunim, Levi Volovik of Chabad of the Berkshires, and David Weiner of Congregation Knesset Israel all in Pittsfield; Kipnis Cohen, Jodie Gordon and Neil P.G. Hirsch of Hevreh of South Berkshire all in Great Barrington, as well as Jewish Federation of the Berkshires Executive Director Dara Kaufman.
During a Tuesday afternoon conference call, some of these leaders discussed ongoing and upcoming actions happening in the Berkshires and in the state.
Rabbi Neil Hirsch said that after the Monument Valley incidents reported this fall, clergy across faiths gathered in one of the biggest interfaith ways he’s seen to discuss how to respond to the matter. He said that group is expected to reconvene later this month to continue conversations and plan next steps.
Rabbi Gordon said Hevreh will partner with Grace Episcopal Community Church and Christ Trinity Church, an Episcopal and Lutheran congregation, to host a Jan. 19 day of service from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Hevreh. All are invited to take part in intergenerational discussions, community service activities, and a meal.
“I think we really are feeling that we’re all living through a particular inflection point and reaching some sort of fever pitch nationally,” Gordon said.
Rabbi Liz Hirsch said that local government delegates have also made an effort to lend their support. She noted that state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, Mayor Linda Tyer and Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington attended Friday’s Shabbat services at Temple Anshe Amunim.
“We have a really strong relationship with many elected officials,” she said. “This certainly is just a first step with them saying what can we do, how can we help.”
Farley-Bouvier, fellow state Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and John Barrett III, D-North Adams, and Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, have all co-signed proposed bills to require instruction on the Holocaust and genocide in public schools.
Meanwhile Kaufman noted that Berkshire County schools are continuing to conduct student and staff education to prevent bias and prejudice through the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference program. At least 17 Berkshire County middle and high schools have signed on and have either completed or will conduct trainings this spring.
“In my conversations with teachers and students in the ADL program, I think children are a reflection of what’s happening in our world, but they don’t have the same constraints about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate [to do or say] and they don’t understand why does this offend somebody else,” Kaufman said.
“I think anything that allows for students to better understand the experience of others and why others have been persecuted, oppressed or killed because of who they are is a part of education that should not be glossed over,” Rabbi Neil Hirsch said.