The events of November 8 changed what it means for me to be a Jew in America.
I am a transgender, queer, chronically ill and disabled rabbi. My father was a hidden child in the Holocaust. Some of my grandparents survived concentration camps and others were murdered by Nazis. Currently, I offer spiritual care to those who are ill, dying or bereaved. This administration’s positions are an attack on my Jewish values, on my life’s work, on my own life, and on the survival of my loved ones.
Central Jewish values are threatened by the Trump administration in countless ways. The Torah teaches creation in the image of God, welcoming the stranger, and the human obligation to “guard and keep” the earth. Modern Jewry has vowed “Never Again” to singling out a religious group for persecution. Many of this administration’s propositions fly in the face of these principles.
So, how can any of us be thinking and feeling American Jews under Trump? In beginning to formulate an early response to this question I am inspired by the Torah and by my queer community. I am also informed by my own illness and by my clients who are living with illness, grieving or dying. The nation is sick. Those who understand how to co-exist with illness and dying can help us face this moment.
Tell The Truth (even if it is painful).
When someone is dying or bereaved well-meaning friends, family and professional care-givers often offer a range of unhelpful lies. These include patently false hopes, overly cheerful “silver-linings,” and lies of omission.
Similarly, people frequently offer useless advice to “cure” my incurable chronic illness. When I hear statements that minimize the impact of my illness and offer empty hope, I feel profoundly alone. You have to name the reality of my situation before you can share the burden of it. Truth-telling allows for healing, even when there is no cure.
Likewise, when we downplay, “bright-side” or evade the national situation we abandon each other. This is especially true when talking with people who are most impacted, such as people of color, LGBT people, disabled people, and immigrants.
It is intentionally infuriating and disorienting when Trump lies. His administration lies about everything from the numbers that attended his inauguration to what he just said on tape. Constant lying is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. We are supposed to doubt our sanity.
Real-talk combats an environment of manipulation. Instead of trying to talk others out of their feelings, this is a time to use empathy to join with others when they share their anxiety or whatever else they are feeling. Expressing empathy is very authentic, because we will all be impacted by this regime. We all need fresh water. We all will suffer from climate change. What differs is the timing and severity of our suffering and how much our privilege will protect us, or not.
Move From Acceptance To Resistance.
In the pursuit of a spiritually balanced life it is usually an art to constantly choose between accepting the world that is, and working for the world that should be. When you have only months left to live, it sometimes makes sense to focus on inner life (an arena where it is easier to have control) and to mindfully accept terrible outer realities like the failing health care system. However, this changes when the injustice we are facing is attacking human dignity and our most deeply held values.
It will be difficult to transition from maintaining the status quo to resistance. I, like many other white Jews, am used to having a basic level of comfort and security in America that allowed me to “get along” with, and depend on, the government and its agents to protect me in emergencies until Nov 8. Most of the people of color in my life already did not have the option of depending on authorities like the police, in times of trouble. Times are now changing for Jews as well, as they have so often in our history. Naomi Shulman, whose mother grew up in Nazi Germany wrote in a social media post, “Nice people made the best Nazis…They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”
All Resistance Is Good Resistance.
Demonstrating in the street is important, but it is only way to resist and it is inaccessible for some. Now is the time to buy art from a particularly vulnerable immigrant, black and/or Muslim artist. Host a science night at your synagogue. Study climate change, as well as diverse animals and plants. Learn about what is at stake in environmental collapse.
Make sure no mentally or physically ill members are disappearing from your community without home visits. If you are driving to demonstrations can you offer a lift to an elderly or disabled person who can’t drive themselves? Can you push a wheelchair? If you are disabled, now is the time to share your survival skills with your community.
Are you and your community prepared for natural or political emergencies in these turbulent times? Host a skill share in your home or synagogue. Pool your knowledge on how to light fires, provide emotional and physical first aid, can tomatoes, and more.
I came out as queer when I was 15 years old in 1990 at the height of AIDS deaths. What I learned from older queers at the time about how to survive a crisis was very simple: take care of each other. Learn from the queers: when your government is neglecting you build your own infrastructure; have more potlucks; build chosen family; have fun while you do it!
Shabbat is a great way to bring people together and has never been more important. We are going to need to resist for a long time and we need to know how to rest. Shabbat is counter-cultural, anti-materialist, replenishing and community building.
Radical Love For Radical Times*.
As anyone who has ever loved someone knows, love is not subject to the kind of fatigue that plagues other motivations. As long as my child’s, my spouse’s, my people’s, life is on the line I will not be able to stop resisting.
My grandfather spent years incarcerated in various Nazi death camps. At liberation, he stayed perfectly still hiding on top of a chicken coop for three days until he heard allied voices coming to free the camp. What sustained him was not hope. He told me that any thought of past or future became meaningless to him. What kept him alive was love for his family.
The Torah reminds us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 18:19). Love leads to empathy for our neighbor whose pain is experienced like our own pain. This provides a solid, yet tender, foundation for resistance in it all its beautiful and varied forms. Perhaps, this verse also begins to answer how to be a thinking and feeling Jew today?
I am not sure, but I do know that Jews are good at questions and we need to ask as many questions as possible right now. We need to question the government, our most deeply held beliefs, each other, and everything we read (including this). What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself in 2017? How far are we willing to go to protect our neighbors’ – will we put our own safety on the line?
What would it look like for us to practice whole-hearted radical love and radical empathy in these radical times?
*Thank you to Linda Sarsour for introducing me to this phrase.