Hard to Be Right When So Many of Us Were Wrong

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Ever since a royal official’s evil plan was turned on its head and led to the salvation of the Jewish people in Persian lands, Adar has traditionally been a topsy-turvy month. But rarely, save for the spirit-infused Purim party, is the month’s head-spinning nature verified by contemporaneous events.

For myself, Adar will always be associated with the birth of my newest baby, Moshe Mordechai, who was welcomed into the world this Purim morning two weeks ago after a labor that officially began during the previous evening’s Megillah reading. In the space of mere hours, pain gave way to joy, apprehension of the unknown to the certainty of life. In my sleep-deprived stupor later that day, for the first time I had no need for fermented drink to achieve the hallowed status known in the Talmud as ad d’lo yada.

But for everyone else, this particular Adar — which ended Monday night — might also be the quintessential expression of an upside-down world, a reality in which nothing is as it seems. Last week alone brought news that, far from the expectations of pretty much everyone, the likely perpetrator behind the bulk of the bomb threats that have sent this community into a tizzy was a Jewish teenager, an American-Israeli immigrant living in Ashkelon who investigators believe used Bitcoin, Google Voice and a technology called SpoofCard to make untraceable calls to JCCs, day schools and other Jewish institutions around the globe.

From the available information out there, Michael Kaydar is not a rightwing neo-Nazi. He’s not a Muslim terrorist. He appears to be a mentally unstable, if older, kid who had been eluding authorities for much longer than the nascent administration of President Donald Trump.

Several weeks ago in this column about this community’s response to the bomb threats and the toppling of headstones at the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery in Wissinoming, I suggested that the ascendancy of Trump and the wave of apparent anti-Semitism might be correlative rather than causative. Judging by letters to the editor, some of which I decided to publish, you’d think that I had embraced everything that is reasonably abhorrent about how the 45th president conducts official business — from his 3 a.m. tweets of divisiveness and lies to his penchant for demagoguery and scapegoating to his ramrodding through Congress a health care bill that surprisingly got nowhere (another Adar 5777 event).

But it shouldn’t take the unmasking of a coreligionist to remind us of the necessity of having a little less hubris and a little more deliberation before we go off assigning blame to one side or the other of the political divide. Is anti-Semitism real? Absolutely. Does the Jewish community, by virtue of being a minority among minorities, continue to occupy a precarious position in whatever society we call home? Yes. Did we need mass bomb threats — which may or may not have been anti-Semitic, given that we don’t know the state of Kaydar’s mind — to remind us of that? Absolutely not.

That’s not to say that our community’s response to the threats was all misguided. To the contrary, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Stand Against Hate rally in front of Independence Hall was a refreshing display of communal and interreligious unity. So, too, is this week’s repair of the tombstones at Mount Carmel an inspiring result of this community’s shared resolve.

But when it comes to the vehemence with which some of us used the JCC threats as a pretense to carry out a political battle in another arena, every single member of the Jewish community today has a bit of egg on his face.

Almost 20 years ago, another Jewish suspect was arrested for targeting Jewish institutions. His arrest shocked the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community, which was sure that the swastikas and Arabic writing that had appeared on area synagogues were the work of outsiders intent on getting the Jews.

The lesson? According to Burt Siegel, the then-executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, it was that the community should not “jump to any conclusions when there are these acts of vandalism.”

And yet, in the last several weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that anti-Semitism is the Jewish community’s No. 1 enemy. The true fact, however, is that we have many more demons to slay — yes, even here in the goldene medina. Poverty, apathy, mental illness, increasing day school enrollment, fostering Jewish continuity — each and every one of these problems demands not only a primetime rally, but armies of Jews determined to do their part to solve it.

We don’t live in 1930s Germany or ancient Persia, when the most pressing problem facing the Jews was mere survival. The challenge of today is instead creating an environment that guarantees not only our children’s physical survival, but their spiritual survival as well. Not every toppled tombstone or swastika threatens them, but every pushed off doctor’s appointment, missed meal, denied tuition aid or uninspiring sermon does. How we respond will be the truest test of what it means to be a community. 

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]

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