This swastika attack is personal

(RNS) The swastika on Reform Judaism's seminary was aimed at all liberal thinkers.

Credit: Gannett newspapers

(RNS) OK – now I am really angry.

Actually, I have been angry for a while about the recent fever of hatred that has gripped this country.

But, now I am even angrier.

On Tuesday (Jan. 3), it was reported that vandals had daubed a swastika onto the sign in front of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, which is the main campus of that august institution. I was ordained as a rabbi at HUC-JIR, at its campus in New York (there are additional campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem).

So, now, it’s personal.

Is there anything fundamentally different in this act of hatred – different from the plague of anti-Semitic tweets; the demonically photoshopped photos of Jews, adorned with yellow stars; the acts of vandalism against synagogues all over the country; and the attacks on the Jews of Whitefish, Mont.?

Just days ago, vandals twisted a Hanukkah menorah in Arizona into a swastika. Is the attack on HUC-JIR really different?


And, yes.

For this attack happened at the ground zero of American non-Orthodox Judaism. Hebrew Union College is not only the oldest rabbinical school in the United States, it is also the oldest rabbinical school in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Over the past 140 years plus, it has been the powerhouse of liberal Jewish thinking.

  • It pioneered and fostered critical, modern analysis of Jewish texts and history.
  • It mined those sources for their spiritual and ethical wisdom.
  • It sent forth thousands of rabbis, cantors, educators and community workers who have imagined, designed and even reshaped the very complexion of American Judaism.
  • It was where I first learned to be a Jew, to think Jewish thoughts, to dream Jewish dreams, to read Jewish words, to sing Jewish prayers.
  • It is the birthplace of the Jewish idea in America – and the Jewish idea of America.

Remember, as well: The founder of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was also the founder of the other two arms of American Reform Judaism – the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) — originally fled from his native Bohemia for a very particular reason: the preponderance of anti-Semitism, prompted by the failure of the Congress of Vienna, which came in the form of the “Hep-Hep” riots.

Marauders ran through the streets, screaming “Hep, hep!,” which some think stood for the Latin “Hierosolyma est perdita” (“Jerusalem is lost”).

Which, by the way, would suit some contemporary people just fine – as long as the Jews are the ones who lose Jerusalem.

So, institutional American Reform Judaism emerged out of the darkness of anti-Semitic rioters.

Today’s neo-Hep-Heppers might dress a little better. They might hide behind more sophisticated ideologies of white nationalism. They might be oh-so-careful to reassure Jews that they are not the ones who are going to be singled out.

There is yet one more reason why this attack on HUC-JIR really hurts.

It is because of what the swastika meant to a generation of Reform rabbinical students.

Flashback to Germany in the 1930s. The great institution of liberal Jewish learning in Germany was the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, or “The Higher Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism.” Among those associated with that institution were such luminaries as Rabbi Leo Baeck, the spiritual leader of German Jewry; theologian Emil Fackenheim; and theologian and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel.

It was becoming massively clear to German Jewry that the greater darkness was coming and that it would soon become inescapable.

And so, Hebrew Union College made arrangements to bring five rabbinical students from the institute to America. They were Wolli Kaelter, Leo Lichtenberg, Gunther Plaut, Alfred Wolf (all now deceased) and the now oldest living Reform rabbi in America, Herman Schaalman, who celebrated his 100th birthday this past year.

There is only one term that can describe how they acclimated to Cincinnati Judaism: culture shock.

Being more traditional than most American Reform Jews, they wore hats to the local Reform synagogue – only to be told to take them off. As for language, Plaut recalled seeing a headline on the sports pages of a newspaper — “Reds Murder Cardinals!” — and surmising that the communist revolution had come to the Vatican.

To see a swastika defacing an institution that so freely gave refuge to students and scholars escaping Nazi Germany (like Heschel) is not only an act of defacement.

It is a desecration of Jewish history.

This time, it is personal.

This time, the deplorables took aim at the institution that, more than any other in American Judaism, has come to symbolize:

  • Liberal religious thinking.
  • Intellectual struggle.
  • The sanctification of nuance.
  • Engagement with real ideas.
  • Softened language and balanced discourse.
  • Gender equality (through the ordination of women rabbis, starting in 1972).
  • LGBT rights, through the ordination of openly LGBT rabbis.

In other words, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion stands for everything that the newly liberated miscreants of America oppose.

No wonder they attacked it.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. He writes the “Martini Judaism” column for RNS)

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