Jewish in Columbus
Even a respectful, enlightened and diverse community like this one must be alert to the insidiousness of prejudice in all its ugly forms
BY BETH SCHWARTZ
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer - April 18, 2015
Three recent columns in the Ledger-Enquirer have caught my eye. On Feb. 26, there was an essay by Annabelle Gurwitch, “Part ‘none,’ part Jewish, all teen,” about her son’s ambivalent sense of being Jewish. Ms. Gurwitch talks about her family’s distance from traditional Jewish customs, both ritual practices and cultural observances. Her tone struck me as sort of apologetic, although I wasn’t sure if she was apologizing for the Jewish identity she and her family have, or for the one they don’t have.
Her son, she reports, is one of the one-third of young Americans who claim no religious identity at all; they prefer doing good works because they value social justice without religious labels, and they are comfortable in their diversity. He
does not want to be tagged as Jewish if it would put him in danger, and who can blame him for that? He carries the name of a biblical prophet, but he has no desire to become a slogan, like the victims of recent terrorist attacks in France, some of whom were targeted because they were Jewish.
But as anti-Semitic attacks increase in Europe and anti-Semitism becomes more socially acceptable around the world -- including on American college campuses -- Ms. Gurwitch finds herself feeling afraid for her son. She is afraid for his safety, because she knows that anti-Semites don't care how Jews experience their own Judaism, and she is afraid that he does not know enough about Judaism to feel Jewish. She ends her essay by apparently acquiescing to her son's indifference, and allowing him to eat his bacon and fried matzah "in peace."
On March 1, Mary Sanchez wrote about the suicide of Tom Schweich, state auditor and gubernatorial candidate in Missouri. Mr. Schweich's grandfather was Jewish, and he thought that his political opponents were about to start a campaign of anti-Semitic innuendo against him. Did the fear of such a tactic drive him to kill himself? On the one hand, it hardly seems that such a smear tactic could be effective in derailing Mr. Schweich's candidacy in 2015 America. On the other hand, however, such is the insidiousness of anti-Semitism that it is plausible, even today. Given the rise of anti-Semitism elsewhere, if this suggestion is true it is more than just another political dirty trick. As Ms. Sanchez says, this is a "very personal assassination."
LaGrange College professor John Tures wrote in a March 6 column that despite the circumstances of Mr. Schweich's death, anti-Semitism, and particularly political anti-Semitism, has been steadily decreasing in this country. This is indeed a healthy trend, and he notes especially the words of those who have spoken out against the specter of prejudice that seems to have been a factor in driving Mr. Schweich to kill himself. Two generations away from his grandfather's faith, and he was still a target.
What do these columns have in common, and why should readers of the Ledger-Enquirer be interested in them? After all, there are not so many Jews here that we think we merit this kind of attention. But it is to the credit of the L-E's editorial staff for realizing that anti-Semitism is an important issue for everyone, and a threat to the quality of our whole society.
In my almost three years as the Rabbi of Temple Israel, I have found Columbus to be a wonderful and welcoming community, with a great tradition of acceptance and respect for the Jewish community as a whole. Unlike other small Jewish communities, there is not a feeling here that we should keep a low profile in civic and cultural affairs. On the contrary, we are well known for our participation and support for education, the arts, social welfare, Fort Benning, and more. Religiously motivated crime is very rare in Columbus and Muscogee County.
I have heard many anecdotes from congregants, colleagues and neighbors who tell me that we are part and parcel of Columbus, and have been for a very long time. For example, when a plumber came to fix my leaking water heater, he explained to his assistant in a very matter-of-fact way about what a rabbi is and how there have always been Jewish businesses in town. Last December, the clerk who was bagging my groceries in Publix not only knew what day of Chanukah it was, but she wondered why she hadn't seen more menorahs in people's windows. And then there is Deli Day, with many hundreds of Columbusites eager for their annual corned beef sandwiches and homemade cheesecake.
At the same time, I have also heard stories from our members about why there was a Jewish country club for many years, because of restrictions barring Jews from existing facilities, and of Jewish students in the public schools being excluded or offended in various ways. That after five o'clock, people have gone their separate ways. I have heard some of the things that have been said to Jews, and have been asked to respond to some pretty strange questions about Judaism. For the record: Jews have not practiced animal sacrifice for over 1,900 years; we do celebrate Thanksgiving, but not Easter; we do not go hungry during the week of Passover simply because we eat matzah instead of bread.
As individuals, we have many ways of being Jewish, and many varieties of belief and practice. You cannot identify us by how we look or how we dress, where we live or work or shop. You cannot assume that all American Jews, regardless of their religious affiliation -- or lack thereof -- have the same political leanings. Regardless of the heritage that we share, American Jews are a very diverse group, and that is also true of Columbus Jews.
The current rise in anti-Semitic expressions and overt anti-Semitic acts worries many of us. Sometimes it is subtle, or thinly veiled, but it is real. It often depends on the listener or witness to be ignorant or unwilling to question what just happened. As other groups who are targets of prejudice understand, anti-Semitism is not about Jews; it is about prejudice and bigotry. It resists logic and facts. We worry because anti-Semitism is insidious, and because it spreads like a virus. We worry because Jews have always worried about the welfare of other Jews.
Here in Columbus, I don't think anyone feels threatened. We know that, despite the prejudice of some, the majority know us, and accept that a diverse and respectful community is a strong and healthy community. Columbus is not perfect, and the Jewish community is active in many ways to make this a better place to live for everyone, regardless of what they believe or the way they pray, or where they are from, or the color of their skin.
As a rabbi, of course I wish that all Jews would have a strong Jewish identity. I would encourage Ms. Gurwitch to talk to her son more; maybe he really wants to know what Judaism is and his teenage bravado gets in his way. I think Mr. Schweich's political opponents ought to have a very frank discussion about their tactics, because Mr. Tures is both right and wrong about anti-Semitism in America. There are many places like Columbus, Georgia, in America, big cities and smaller towns, where Jewish life is good on every level. I love living in this Jewish community. But there are still places in America where Jewish life is less comfortable. Maybe not like France, but not like Columbus, either. Thank you, Ledger-Enquirer, for seeing this.
Beth Schwartz, Rabbi of Temple Israel in Columbus, serves on the Clergy and Congregational Care Advisory Committee of the Pastoral Institute, and chairs the board of the Continuum of Care for Muscogee and Russell counties, overseeing services to the homeless.
Original article can be found here: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2015/04/18/3676012_jewish-in-columbus.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy