(December 15, 2021 / JNS) On an average day in December 2015, Rabbi Reuven Biermacher finished teaching Torah to his students in Aish Yeshiva’s Spanish program in the Old City of Jerusalem. He walked out of the building and through the Jaffa Gate. While on his way home to his family, he was suddenly attacked by two terrorists who stabbed him repeatedly. He was evacuated to the hospital, where he succumbed to his wounds. This month marks the sixth yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death.
I wish that we lived in a world where this tragedy was a unique, solitary event, but we know that there have been many senseless and cruel acts of terrorism in Jerusalem. For us in the Aish family, this loss was—and remains—a deeply personal one. His death was so shocking to those of us who knew him because Rabbi Biermacher was simply the embodiment of good.
He was a good, kind person who inspired others and did not offend or harm anyone. He was killed because he was a Jew, and a visible one. For that reason alone. It was the worst experience of anti-Semitic violence that I have personally experienced.
What struck me then and continues with me until today, was the sound of silence from the Jewish world. There was no outcry. There were no protests, no calls for change, no statements of solidarity. Jewish leadership, en masse, said … nothing. Not to us, nor to his family.
There were no public letters or carefully crafted messages on social media from Jews of different stripes expressing sympathy to a family in mourning—to our family in mourning.
In a feature last month in The New York Times—“Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism”—author Marc Tracy provides an international platform to students from American rabbinical schools, based on a publicized letter, signed by more than 90 of these future rabbis, criticizing Israel.
“Blood is flowing in the streets of the Holy Land,” the letter began. “For those of us for whom Israel has represented hope and justice, we need to give ourselves permission to watch, to acknowledge what we see, to mourn and to cry. And then, to change our behavior and demand better.”
In a dancing-on-the-grave tone, the article revels in the apparent in-fighting of the Jewish people and is on display for all via The New York Times. The rabbinical schools’ leaders’ efforts to distance themselves from the sentiments of the letter is made clear within the article and in their own public statements, in which they emphasize that this harsh stance against Israel is neither the majority opinion at their schools nor in line with the official position of their faculties.
In his response to the article, Daniel Gordis points to the open letter, the view of the rabbinical students and The New York Times piece as evidence of the “unraveling of seeing Jews as a people.”
And so we are left wondering: How are future leaders being trained to use their voice, and how are they being directed to utilize the mantle of leadership? Those who loudly distanced themselves from the original letter can certainly do a better job of leading by example.
This week’s devastating tornadoes that caused massive destruction and loss of life in the Midwest have elicited empathy, concern and calls for donations and resources from across the American-Jewish world. It is important to note that, as Jews, our concern for human life and for our fellow citizens is an appropriate response to a tragedy that has befallen our neighbors and our fellow Americans.
So where is that concern when tragedy hits our own family? Why do we consistently hear so little from Jewish-community leaders about individual tragedies that ruin lives, like the death of Rabbi Biermacher?
Our response to Rabbi Biermacher’s senseless murder was to vehemently increase our efforts in Latin America since he was an immigrant from Argentina who came to Israel to contribute—in Spanish—to the betterment of the Jewish people.
I agree with the statement that Tracy pulled from the rabbinical students’ letter: “For those of us for whom Israel has represented hope and justice, we need to give ourselves permission to watch, to acknowledge what we see, to mourn and to cry. And then, to change our behavior and demand better.”
I agree. We do need to change our behavior and demand better. We do need to stand up, mourn and cry. And we need to see. See the senseless death of fellow Jews in Israel, who may worship or dress differently, but are nonetheless our brothers and sisters. We must prioritize our Jewish unity and familial connection over some universalist view that leads us to believe that we have the right to judge Israel.
In Natan Sharansky’s and Gil Troy’s book, Never Alone, Sharansky explains the unique moment in history that became the movement to free Soviet Jewry. It happened precisely because people came together against a wrong that was being done to Jews, despite their own religious and philosophical differences.
We need to ask ourselves: Where has that compassion for our own gone? I challenge all 93 individuals who have chosen to dedicate their lives to Jewish leadership: What do they believe is their responsibility to the Rabbi Biermachers and Eliyahu Kays of this world—fellow Jews who never decided Israel’s foreign or domestic policies, but were just simply fellow Jews doing their best to make the world a better place and find their way within it?
I believe that these future leaders aren’t, in fact, ushering in a new era of “not seeing Jews as a people,” but, sadly, are missing a profoundly critical piece in their education. Timeless Jewish wisdom teaches us that souls come into this world as members of the Jewish people for a reason and that being part of this tribe comes with responsibility. Compassion and empathy must begin at home, within our family, before we can feel it for others.
What will your response be to the outrageous growth of anti-Semitism around the world—to the violence being perpetrated regularly against Jews just because they are Jews, whether they live in the United States or elsewhere? Where is your “public letter” and emotional outcry?
This month, two inmates in an Illinois prison were indicted for murdering a fellow inmate because he was Jewish. I did not see a single solitary use of this newfound voice as future leaders condemning this atrocity, or asking for an examination of why such incidents are becoming more prevalent.
It is laudable to learn Jewish wisdom and commit to a life of Jewish leadership. When you choose such a responsible platform and a life of leading and influencing others, however, how do you think God wants you to maximize that role?
Rabbi Biermacher’s seven children are now between 8 and 26 years old. They don’t care much about anyone’s political affiliation. They know that a criminal took away their right to be raised with a father, and they would appreciate knowing that their fellow Jews around the world are also bothered by that.
They would still love to hear your outcry, public and private, as would the other families in Israel and around the world suffering from anti-Semitism, unprovoked attacks, broken families, orphaned children and unadulterated hate. It is getting worse, and we desperately need each other to respond to these tragedies by coming together, with sympathy, compassion, appropriate outrage and, yes, calls for change.
I hope that all 93 students are able to incorporate a profound love of Torah and the Jewish people, and are inspired to use the mantle of leadership to take care of their Jewish family, one they are privileged to be a part of.
I call on the rest of us to stand up for our own when tragedy strikes, to raise our voices more loudly and more often, privately and publicly, so that we can remind our misguided “activist” students what true leadership looks like, and what being part of the family really means.
Rabbi Steven Burg is the CEO of Aish and on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency.
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