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Tiki Torches and the Nothing

by Ira Wise, November 2017/Cheshvan-Kislev 5778

I want to talk about Charlottesville and a children’s book.

I know I do not need to go into great detail about Charlottesville – the Tiki Torch march, the Unite the Right rally and the tragic attack by a white supremacist with a car. Most of us have seen the video of police standing still why neo-Nazis brandished (and fired) automatic weapons and terrorized not just a community but the entire nation. We saw what my parents’ and grandparents’ generations told us could happen and many of us never thought we would see it in America. Somewhere else, perhaps, but not here. Rabbi Prosnit spoke powerfully about this and anti-Semitism in general on Rosh Hashanah. (You can see that sermon at http://bit.ly/RH5778JP).

The threat of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazis and White Supremacists (let’s not provide polite cover by using “alt-Right”) is real. As individuals, as a community and as a people, we need to fight this evil, and find allies wherever we can. We had already scheduled in parent-child programs with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for Kitot Daled, Vav and Chet (4th, 6th and 8th grades) long before the tiki torches were purchased in Virginia. Fighting prejudice is what they do and we need to learn how to be part of that effort. As I said, the threat is real. I do not think, however that it is the largest existential threat we face.

The NeverEnding Story is a book (and a film based on the book) by Michael Ende, about a boy who reads a magical book that tells a story of a young warrior whose task is to stop a dark storm called the Nothing from engulfing a mystical world. As the nothing rolls through Fantasia, everything just ceases to exist.

I believe the Nothing is the greatest threat currently facing the Jewish people. Sociologists tell us that the fourth or fifth post-immigrant generation tends to shed most of the characteristics of the culture left behind in the old country. With a few exceptions – notably those who left the former Soviet Union in large numbers – most American Jews are 4th generation or later. (Full disclosure, one pair of my grandparents were immigrants, the other pair were 3rd or 4th generation themselves.) Even though the culture they left was not always a specifically Jewish culture, many American Jews have made being Jewish a less engaged part of their daily identity.

There are many couples made up of a Jew and a non-Jew who have made the decision – and followed through on their intent – to raise their children as Jews. There are also many who either did not make that decision or did not follow through.

Finally, we have the Millenials. I will not go into the research – and there is a lot – that documents how many of this generation have opted out of existing Religious institutions like churches and synagogues. They have engaged in other forms of spiritual seeking, creating new institutions or not engaging in their faith tradition at all.

And so we have the Nothing.

Fighting the Nothing is like boxing your shadow. There is almost no way of making contact. But we are trying. And we need your help. If you are reading this, then you are part of the Something, not the Nothing. Reach out to your friends. Connect your family. Light candles together on a Friday night. Bring a friend and/or one of your children or grandchildren to a service and stay for bagels on a Saturday morning. Maybe even study Torah. Tell your children that staying enrolled and attending Religious School until 12th grade is just “something we do in our family.” Attend an Adult Jewish Learning session. Attend more than one. Do Jewish things in your home. Send candles through the Gift of Light to friends. Then invite them for Latkes.

We can beat the Nothing.

We just have to do Something.