Rabbi Lesser: An Open Letter to Jewish Atlanta

Rabbi Lesser: An Open Letter to Jewish Atlanta

By Rabbi Joshua Lesser

Throughout the presidential election, I thought about the need for moral courage. Moral courage is taking the risk to do what is morally right despite possible inconvenience or adverse consequences.

Some of the most enduring childhood lessons I received from my Atlanta Jewish day school education were the teachings about moral courage. The most uplifting and indelible messages about the Holocaust were about the Jews and righteous gentiles who took powerful risks to live with integrity and save the lives of others. They faced persecution, violence and death.

When I was young, I wondered what I would do if faced with such a situation.Bet Haverim Celebrating 18 Years With Lesser 1

What are our youth learning from us at this moment? Silence?

As the rabbi of a LGBT-founded community, moral courage has become a regular spiritual practice, whether I have wanted it to be or not. Over nearly two decades, I have faced death threats, public ridicule, communal jokes and rumors, discrimination, and alienation.

There are times when moral courage is less about a choice than a necessity. But those experiences have allowed me to face discomfort, fear and danger and surpass them so that I can take risks on behalf of others who face discrimination. At times, I have to remind myself that the ease of speaking up has taken me nearly 25 years to cultivate.

Admittedly, there are times I feel challenged. My stance on Israel often angers people on the right of me and deeply disappoints people on the left of me.

At times I feel paralyzed by the threat of being seen as illegitimate as a rabbi, regardless of the position I hold. Remembering this helps me cultivate compassion for those of us who are wondering what kind of moral courage we need to have in a Trump presidency.

There is a spectrum of morally courageous action. We have to encourage our communities to act with courage and patience with people (though at some point there may not be such a luxury of patience).

On this spectrum there are two kinds of moral courage needed. We need to speak courageously about the dangers of this presidency, and we must have courage creating opportunities for divergent perspectives to speak together in our Jewish homes.

On one hand, Donald Trump’s erratic nature, his bigotry and incitement, his opportunism, and the people he is considering for appointments have created an environment of fear and danger.

For Jews, the comparison to other authoritarian eras increases our anxiety, intensifying both the urgency to resist and the fear of significant consequences. While many Jews are out front in issuing the call to address the many forms of bigotry and discrimination, few of us are hearing the prophetic call in our own homes. If we fear for the safety of different at-risk groups of people, how can we be silent?

On the other hand, a quarter of Jews voted for Trump. These voters not only share Shabbat with us in our synagogues and the locker rooms of our community centers, but many of them also generously underwrite and support the programs and institutions from which we benefit.

This is where it becomes challenging to navigate, but we have to reckon that this group is a part of our community and needs to be engaged with curiosity, openness and civility.

We must hold out the goal of shalom bayit (peace in the home) alongside moral courage. This peace is not an uneasy quiet, but the hard work of being in a community.

How do we make space to bridge the gap between those who feel grief and fear and those who express relief and celebration? How do we have peace if we fear that even broaching the conversation will cause Trump-supporting members of our institutions to walk with their money, risking losing our communal creature comforts or worse, our jobs and our institutions? Do we shy away because this evokes the ways that we might be complicit and guilty of hypocrisy? Or are we also silent because we have to reckon with our cognitive dissonance that these people are incredibly generous and at times righteous with how they support the community? Can they be both deplorable and laudable?

What about those in our community who voted for Trump because of their alienation or because they earnestly believe that he was the best choice for Jews or because they decided to vote with their bank accounts or their party?

While I have strong feelings about what actions I need to take to stand against racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and discrimination against people with disabilities and against LGBT people, I also know that we must interact respectfully and civilly with our entire community.

This is important so we can learn from one another, refine our positions and build common ground. Together, we can move forward or become clear about where we ultimately stand. At the same time, our leaders must not suppress or be suppressed in their role of prophetic guides. It is a challenge.

Our inability to sit and address these kinds of complexities is part of why the Jewish community is suffering. When there is this kind of silence, we project into the unknown. Our fears grow.

While there may be consequences, silence and hiding have their consequences too. They are not spiritually healthy for us as individuals, as leaders or as a community.

More than ever, the Jewish community needs to learn how to handle difficult conversations. With the selection of Steve Bannon as Trump’s special adviser and the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, we are faced with acting on moral courage for our own well-being and survival. It is imperative that we find the way to speak and act courageously and do so without belittling and demeaning others.

Challenging conversations are uncomfortable by nature, but we have to remember that discomfort and disrespect are very different. It is the only way to have true connections with people with whom you profoundly disagree.

If we cannot even speak about bigotry openly, how are we going to take even more important steps? Shouldn’t we be guided by the example of our own Rabbi Jacob Rothschild z”l? He navigated segregation and integration with moral courage and respect. Aren’t those the footsteps of moral courage we want to follow?

Despite the Temple bombing, he remained vocal and increased his activism, working both outside the synagogue and within it. Swayed by neither contempt nor praise, he followed his own compass — and engaged his opposition with respect.

Atlanta, we can do this. We must act as if we have no choice but moral courage, because without it now, one day soon we might not.


Rabbi Joshua Lesser is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Haverim.

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