Shabbat sermon: A remarkable Bar Mitzvah ceremony on a day of concern

by | Sep 8, 2017 | Other News

I wasn’t here at Beth El last Shabbat, a day that brought concern and anxiety to us Jews in the Commonwealth and beyond.

Miriam and I were in Florida so we could be with her father as he celebrated the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. He put aside his walker and walked up on the bimah in his shul. He chanted his Haftarah in a loud and strong voice. He read his Maftir portion from the Torah scroll. He made a few remarks recalling the day of his bar mitzvah. Then he recited the Shehechinyanu as the congregation joined in. And of course, he sponsored the kiddush luncheon and was sure to arrange to add bagel, lox, and herring to the usual menu of tuna and egg salad.

I lead off my sermon this morning with that story from last Shabbos. But why? Not only because it was about my father-in-law (many of you at Beth El know him). Not only because when a 93-year-old does what he did, it’s pretty remarkable. And not just to tell you that we’re not the only shul that serves Temple Tuna at kiddush.

What made this 80th anniversary bar mitzvah celebration so special was where and when the original bar mitzvah took place. Albert Brunn’s bar mitzvah was held in Berlin, Germany on the Shabbat of Parashat Ekev in August, 1937. While he and his family were in shul praying and celebrating his coming of age as a Jew, Nazi brown shirts roamed the streets outside, bullying any Jews they saw. Nazi swastikas were displayed everywhere. Germans saluted each other with “Heil Hitler.” The boys who played soccer with Albert just a few years earlier no longer would even say hello. And it would only get worse. The next year, his synagogue was vandalized, looted, and burned on Kristallnacht, the “Night of the Broken Glass.” Men were carted away that day to concentration camps including Miriam’s maternal grandfather. And within another year, the Nazis invaded Poland. Worldwide war began and with it soon after, the systematic murder of 6,000,000 Jews in Europe. The synagogue where Miriam’s father had his bar mitzvah was no longer. And frankly, so were most of the bar mitzvah guests, never to be seen again.

That was Berlin in August of 1937. Fortunately, last Shabbat on August 12, 2017, a different spirit prevailed in Margate, Florida where we were. Not only was Albert Brunn still alive as a proud Jew while Hitler and all his Nazi henchmen were long gone, he was surrounded by loved ones. Two of his three daughters were there with him, one of his grandsons read Torah. And while his two little great grandsons were too young to make the trip, their lives are a testament to the family he built. Their attendance at JCC preschool, not to mention his Jewish educator daughter, his rabbi son-in-law and grandson, and grandson who made Aliyah just to mention a few—are all a tribute to the tradition he upheld 80 years ago and continues to uphold today. It was a moment that was emotional, exhilarating, and proud, not just for us the family, but for everybody in shul.

But I have to share with you this—a day that seemed so perfect and should have been so perfect became tinged with sadness and concern that came from the news and the scary images emanating from of all places, our own Commonwealth of Virginia. Because 80 years to the day after my father-in-law’s bar mitzvah in Berlin, Nazis are on the march again, not in Germany where we expect it, but in the United States of America where we don’t, and in Charlottesville, no less. The TV news reporters called the modern-day purveyors of hate Neo-Nazis. Friends, they are not neo-Nazis. They are Nazis. They don’t have the power the German Nazis had. We need to make sure they never do. There is no Hitler to lead them today. And whatever you think of Donald Trump, please, please don’t compare him to Hitler.

The invasion of Charlottesville last Friday night and Saturday was said to be perpetrated by White Nationalists from around the country. Call them that if you want. But they were Nazis. They dressed like Nazis. They shouted Nazi slogans. They came armed with guns like the Storm Troopers. Whenever the name of the Mayor of Charlottesville was mentioned, they shouted “Jew, Jew!” They chanted “Take back the country from the Jews.” They cursed at a Jewish reporter and shouted at him “go back to Israel.”

Some of you may have read the piece written by the president of the synagogue in Charlottesville. Suspicious looking characters patrolled the street outside the synagogue Shabbos morning and were heard to call out “There’s the synagogue” and “Sig Heil.” When the service was over, the congregants were asked to go out the back entrance and to leave in groups. During Talmudic times, the Jews in Babylonia would leave their shuls in groups in case they were to be attacked. We’re not in Babylonia any more. But here 100 miles from us, it happened again.

I know that African Americans have good reason to be angry, concerned, and afraid, too. And here I go talking just about attacks on Jews. I don’t apologize for that. For years, we have all quoted Pastor Martin Niemoller—“they came for this group, they came for that group, they came for them…but now they’re coming for us and there’s nobody left to stand up for me.” Those were Nazis marching in Charlottesville Friday night. They marched with torches; the “German fire,” one of my professors called them. They came to intimidate whatever students or others were taking refuge in the dorms on the grounds. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine you were at a Nazi night rally in Berlin or Nuremberg in 1937. For the Nazis of Germany, black people were almost irrelevant, an inferior race to be brushed aside. The Jews were the real enemy. Remember that. And so it is with today’s American Nazis.

Last Friday night, many Jews and blacks said they were afraid. Personally, I’m not afraid. I’ve lived 71 years and seen some rough times in America and I’m not about to say the Nazis are about to take over. They may be emboldened. They may be boasting. But they’re not taking over.

And no, I’m not going to talk today about what the President said and didn’t say, or did or didn’t do, and what he really believes. Publicly, he has equated the Nazis and the Klan with the violent actions of the American Left. Sixty-five million Americans voted for Donald Trump. Most of them are not racists. Most of them want no part of Nazis. Many of them had parents or grandparents who fought and died fighting the Nazis. The anti-Nazi and non-racist Americans can influence this government. They can make their views known to the president of their party. I know there are Jews in some numbers who voted for this president. Some of them either don’t want to admit it or are embarrassed by it. They voted for him either because of their views about Israel or economics or because they simply disliked the other candidate. Frankly, they can have more influence on this president and his party representatives than some of us can. And my hope is that they will do that, that they will make their voices heard whether it’s to the President or to the Congress, or to Jared Kushner or to Fox News; their message I hope, will be this—yes, Mr. President, to an extent, you’re right. There are violent bad actors in America on both sides of the left-right divide. But America simply must not allow Nazis to thrive and to prevail. But first and foremost, they must be marginalized and they must be stopped.

A lot of my rabbinic colleagues are into the approach of “fight hate with love.”

To trivialize it, “have you hugged your neighbor today?” Personally, in the wake of Charlottesville, I’m not in the mood for hugs. I am in the mood for political action, for writing letters, for writing sermons, and for reaching out to those who will stand with us.

My father-in-law has had an incredible life story. Maybe I’ll share it with you sometime. He lived during the rise of the Nazis. He encountered Nazis. But he outlasted them. With God’s help and with all of our action together, I hope that Charlottesville 2017 will be the high water mark of Nazi activity in this country, never to be reached again. Together we can make that happen.

Shabbat Shalom, and may this Shabbat be better and more peaceful than last Shabbat. Rabbi Arthur Ruberg delivered this sermon at Congregation Beth El on Saturday, August 19.

– Rabbi Arthur Ruberg