Rabbi Nickerson's Shabbat Message - March 15, 2024

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Rabbi Nickerson's Shabbat Message - March 15, 2024

They came from across Los Angeles, including the San Fernando Valley. Forty Jewish parents, representing almost 30 independent schools, eagerly gathered together one night last week in a large, open office space overlooking the Hollywood Hills. They were there to begin their work with a new, grassroots organization that was created just a few months ago by members of our own Wilshire Boulevard Temple community, including my wife, Julia Nickerson, and congregants Wendy Marantz Levine and Modi Wiczyk. It’s called JLIS (Jewish Leaders in Schools) and it’s a parent-driven organization, working closely with the ADL, and dedicated to supporting Jewish parents at schools across Los Angeles in their efforts to ensure that Jewish identity and Jewish history are firmly incorporated into school curricula and DEI frameworks while improving antisemitism education and enforcement at K-12 schools. Instead of leaving individual parents to fend for themselves in navigating the politics and policies of their child’s school, JLIS was created to provide resources, professional consultants, camaraderie, and educational opportunities to assist parent leaders in making sure that the Jewish community is properly represented and supported.  

It’s one of a number of efforts that have sprung up in response to the attacks on October 7, and it reinforces a deeply embedded quality found within our people - we turn challenges into opportunities. A recent Atlantic article by Franklin Foer, entitled, “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending,” claims that the “antisemitism on the right and the left threatens to bring to a close an unprecedented period of safety and prosperity for Jewish Americans - and demolish the liberal order they helped establish.” The article opens by referencing elementary, middle, and high schools in the Bay Area and the overt antisemitic and anti-Israel actions of both students and teachers post-October 7. We are well aware that our own Los Angeles communities are not immune from similar vitriol and in many cases, we are also facing utter ignorance from people of all ages.  

I experienced my own taste of this two days ago when I spoke to a large group of high school students from a local Christian school. They were visiting our historic sanctuary on our Glazer campus as part of their comparative religion unit and they peppered me with an incredible array of questions about all things Jewish. But then one young man raised his hand and asked, “You know, I’ve heard these conspiracy theories about Jews running the world. Is there any truth to that?” He was serious. I paused, took a deep breath, and proceeded to tell the group that Jew-hatred is the oldest form of hatred in the world, dating back to Pharoah’s conspiracy about the Israelite slaves at the beginning of the Book of Exodus. I told them we make up 0.2% of the world’s population and yet, throughout history, people have targeted us and have blamed us for anything and everything. I told them that antisemitism has sprung up even more so in the last few months and that they have a responsibility to recognize that any conspiracy theory about the Jews, whether it be about banking, entertainment, government, etc is connected to a form of hatred and ‘othering’ that we cannot tolerate in our society. I can’t stop thinking about that young man and the fact that there must be many more like him - people who have no idea about who we are, what we care about, what we’ve endured, and the kind of world our tradition urges us to build in partnership with our neighbors. That interaction two days ago was a reminder that we have an incredible amount of work to do.

This Shabbat, we conclude the Book of Exodus. The final verses tell us that God provided a cloud to cover the Tabernacle, or portable sanctuary - “When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.” (Ex. 40:36-37) There is a heavy cloud that seems to be covering all of us right now. Sometimes, it feels like that cloud will never lift and we will never be able to set out on our journey towards a ‘Promised Land’; a time of peace and safety for our people. But the final verse of the Book of Exodus says that while the cloud would be present during the day, a pillar of fire was visible for all to see throughout the night. We cannot allow the current clouds to paralyze us; to stop us from continuing the journey.  We must light pillars of hope and pillars of passion. We must discover an inner drive, similar to the founders and parents of JLIS (Jewish Leaders in Schools), to fight against the paralysis and hopelessness that seems to be creeping into our conversations lately.  

We end each book of the Torah by declaring, “Hazak, Hazak, V’nithazek” - Strength, strength, we will be strengthened. It couldn’t be a more appropriate phrase for us to be declaring this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,