On Saturday, Jan. 29, a mosque burned down in Victoria, Texas, devastating the local Muslim community. Indiviuals from the nearby B’Nai Israel Temple decided to help, recognizing the Muslim community’s need for a place of worship. They offered a key to their synagogue to Dr. Shahid Hashmi, co-founder of the Victoria Islamic Center. Setting aside their religious differences, the B’Nai Israel temple goers reached out to those in need.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, told this story in a lecture at Vassar last Thursday, Feb. 2, titled, “Is Religion the Problem or Solution?” Jacobs’ talk highlighted issues plaguing the Jewish community and the larger world. While the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU), the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Office of the President, the Jewish Studies Program and the Religion Department all helped coordinate Jacobs’ appearance, VJU Secretary Matt Kolbert ’17 played a special role. “As the President of the Union of Reform Judaism, I felt like Jacobs spoke to my values and the values of a lot of the Vassar community,” he said. “With the tensions of last spring and the current political climate, I wanted him to come to campus, unite people and bring hope.” Kolbert therefore contacted his rabbi, who put him in touch with Jacobs. Kolbert and Jacobs spoke on the phone, and Jacobs happily agreed to come to Vassar.
During his talk, Jacobs emphasized the importance of “speaking truth to power.” He introduced this idea with a story about Elie Wiesel. As Wiesel stood in the White House awaiting the Congressional Gold Medal for Achievement, President Ronald Reagan accepted an invitation to visit the military cemetery at Bitburg. “The staff of the White House tried to convince Weisel to remain silent,” Jacobs recounted. “They warned him not to challenge the President of the United States because it would be disrespectful. They tried and they tried, but Wiesel said ‘I will either speak my truth or I will leave. I will not be silenced.’”
Jacobs asked the audience to reflect on times that they had been called upon to speak truth to power. He then named several instances in which doing so was necessary in the current political climate. President Trump’s executive order on immigration plans to revoke the Johnson Amendment, and the White House’s failure to mention the death of six million Jews on the anniversary of the Holocaust were all occurrences that Jacobs believed required action. He maintained, “When hatred and bigotry are normalized and vocalized for the highest ranks of our community…it requires not simply a modest refute. It requires us to stand together and say that is not who we are.”
Jacobs then stepped back from the microphone to fully engage with the audience. Switching gears, he told a story about Rabbi who identified him as Jewish just because of the way that he looked. This assumption did not please Jacobs, who said, “That Rabbi and too many in Jewish life have a very limited and narrow understanding of who is Jewish…In the 21st century, nobody looks Jewish. Nobody has a Jewish sounding last name. Judaism is a set of commitments. It’s not skin tone. It’s not ethnic background.”
Jacobs pointed out that people of color make up 10 to 20 percent of the Jewish community, a fact that goes widely unrecognized. He added that since people flock toward those who look and think like them, many are left on the outskirts of the Jewish community. Jacobs then asked the audience to shout out the groups that often get excluded. This part of the lecture really resonated with Kolbert, who commented, “It was great to hear [Jacobs] acknowledge those on the margins of Judaism. I come from a multi-faith, multi-racial family. My congregation brought my family in, and now my dad is president of my synagogue. Reaching out is so important.”
Reaching out is exactly what Jacobs wanted people to do. Speaking out against marginalization, he introduced the idea of audacious hospitality. According to Jacobs, “Audacious hospitality is not about just being nice. It’s realizing that those who are oftentimes kept on the margins of our Jewish community, our American community and our world community are essential for us to be the people and communities that we ought to be. Audacious hospitality is asking: Who are those on the periphery, and how do we bring them close?”
For the last segment of his lecture, Jacobs addressed its title, “Is Religion the Problem or Solution?” Using the story of the mosque in Texas as an example, Jacobs declared that religion can be a solution if we make it one, saying, “Whether religion is the problem or part of our mission depends on us. It depends on how we practice, how we choose to embody the faith. Can we stand for something without always standing against others? Can we find room to learn from that person who has a different world view, a different way of seeing things, whether it’s the way they see faith, or our country, or our world? It doesn’t mean that we are called to agree, it means we are called to see from others what God has planted there.”
Overall, students appreciated the inclusiveness of Jacobs’ talk. VJU President Abby Johnson ’17 admired how Jacobs engaged the entire crowd. She commented, “He really seemed to give something to everyone.”
As for how the VJU plans to put Jacobs’ words into action, Kolbert says that he would like the organization to get involved in the community in any way that it can. One current plan includes providing funding for students who wish to protest Jewish-related issues. The HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a Jewish refugee resettlement agency, is one group with which the VJU hopes to get involved in the future.
Kolbert says that no matter the results, it is most important that people stand up for what they believe in. He concluded, “We need to come together and see what we can do. We need to unite. If the best we can do is slow things down or make a scene, then either will be great.”