Yom Kippur remains time for forgiveness, remembrance despite politically charged times

‘We don’t want anyone else to go through an experience like the Holocaust,' say members of Temple Concord during Yom Kippur.

For many Jews around the worldcelebrating Yom Kippur is a time of prayer, atonement and forgiveness. But for Ken Steiger, it is also a time for remembrance.

The holiday that people celebrate with their family and community, which fell Oct. 11-12, was a largely solitary one for him this year, as he was missing his wife who died last year. Despite the keen sense of loss and longing, he was at Temple Concord, dutifully ushering people in, while choosing not to attend the actual service inside, because it was too painful.

Steiger, however, was not the only one remembering a loved one he lost. For many, Yom Kippur is also a time to remember the Holocaust and the people who died all those years ago.

“Yom Kippur is about forgiveness, but whenever we say that, it is inevitable that someone will bring up the Holocaust and the question of forgiving those who were responsible for it,” said Maggid Jim Brule, a multi-faith storyteller who conducts the annual Yom Kippur Torah class at the Temple Concord.

While it's true that the Holocaust happened seven decades ago, the scars run deep and the shadows of anti-Semitism continue to tail members of the Jewish community in their daily lives. According to research published by ADL Global 100, a leading advocacy group working against anti-Semitism, 10 percent of Americans believe negative stereotypes about Jews. The findings also state that 20 percent of Americans believe that “[Jews] still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.” Some of the other popularly held beliefs found in the research include the assertions that Jews have too much power over the U.S. government and that they control global finance.

While these stereotypes and collective scars aren’t new, 2016, being an election year, is also witnessing conversations about how racism, isolation and anti-Semitism has affected the Jewish people over the years and why Donald Trump makes them uneasy for more than one reason.

“We know what the Holocaust was like. We don’t want anyone else to go through that,” said Brule. “Often racism operates in subtle ways. At a business meeting, one of my associates told me to go and negotiate by ‘Jewing them up,' referring to the myth that all Jews are money-minded. These things are hurtful and I know that in the current climate, Muslims, Latinos and other marginalized groups are also facing this.”

Agreeing with Brule, Rabbi Daniel Fellman said that even Trump’s speeches reek of subtle anti-Semitism, but, they are a sign that the Jewish people need to stand by all those people who face the risk of being discriminated against. Fellman’s own experiences shape the way he sees it and like Brule,he agrees that nobody should have to go through what the Jews have had to suffer historically.

“My parents found it so hard to make it in America,” Fellman said. “Back in the day, universities had quotas for Jews, which meant that if their Jewish quota had been filled, they wouldn’t admit another Jewish student. Syracuse University was one of the few places that didn’t do this,” he said. “My father did manage to graduate from law school, but he couldn’t find work, because nobody wanted to hire a Jewish lawyer. Things are a lot better now, but this wasn’t very long ago.”

Aaron Spitzer, a young father of three and an active member of the congregation, said that it wasn’t just in the earlier days that people suffered discriminatory behavior.

“My wife was the only Jewish student at her school, and she was alone and isolated pretty much throughout her school years, because people just wouldn’t talk to her,” he said.

Brule said that the negative stereotypes always target groups that are different; and when people cannot understand the other side, it comes out in the form of insults, jibes and racist behavior. As a teacher of inter-faith dialogue, he said that people like Trump succeed in striking a chord with certain groups of people, because when they feel disenfranchised or frustrated, nobody really tries to find common ground with them.

“A neighbor of mine has a Trump sign outside his house and I intend to politely talk to him, not to discuss the Trump sign per se, but to try and see if there are other things we can talk about and get to know each other,” Brule said. “That is what needs to happen in this country. The signs are similar to what they were like when Hitler rose to power, and that is what we need to combat by finding ways to re-connect with even those we disagree with.”

To illustrate his point, he referred to the Grace Episcopal Church, which is located across the street from Temple Concord.

“They meet every Wednesday for choir practice, but this week they didn’t, out of respect for us,” he said.

While conversations around spirituality turned political throughout the day, Steiger’s understanding of the social divide is different from that of Fellman’s or Brule’s.

“I don’t believe that we are living in a time of communal hatred or racism, as much as the lack of respect,” he said. “We need to take politics out of the things we must do for the good of everyone. It shouldn’t be about the party. It is really about the kind of person you are.”

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