Many years ago, I attended the Catholic wedding of one of my students. During the ceremony, the priest intoned, “… and let us say a special blessing for the outcasts, the lepers and the Jews.” I could not restrain my outward guffaw of laughter, knowing that the groom, my former student, would well-understand my inability to control this outburst. Me being me after all.
Albeit I found it to be amusing, the underlying core of the priest’s prayer stuck with me. Having been one of the few Jewish families to move into OC during the late 50s and early 60s, I grew up feeling like an outcast. Sadly familiar, I wonder, did I laugh because of the absurdity of the prayer, or did I laugh because it was too close to home?
I have watched Jewish Orange County evolve over the past half-century. From two temples to sixteen, from a one room JCC to a full-fledged campus, from being the only Jewish student in class to school districts closing in respect of Yom Kippur, from a five-member sisterhood to over a thousand Jewish women attending the annual Challah Bake, the growing presence of Jews in Orange County has been monumental. Oh! And let’s not forget the importance of women rabbis and the changing faces on the bima. It has been exciting to be a part of this growth. Yet, here we are again, 2019, and Jews are being marginalized, vilified and threatened right here in Orange County. I suppose that we have always known that history would repeat itself – that the question would once again change from “If not now?” to “When will we face this again?”
As we approach 5779, I am uncertain if we are experiencing “Echoes of Elul” or if we are not immersed in a deep foreshadowing of what our next year will bring. Memories of the John Birch Society sending hate mail to my father, being excluded from Religious Release time, and being called a ‘Christ Killer’ still haunt me. My parents tried to explain the value in ignoring such threats. Later as a teacher, the swastika carved into my classroom door and the parents pulling their daughter out of my class because “….as a Jew I have no authority to teach James Joyce,” could at one time have been reasoned away as isolated incidents; but too many ‘incidents’ are piling up, too often and with increasing arrogance. Although the face of Orange County has changed significantly since 1959, the attitudes and hatred of Jews has only been hiding underground. Like every mythological archetype, evil will emerge, and heroes will be called upon to fight it.
Coming to terms with circumstances of life in Orange County – 2019 – I strive to learn from my past, reframe my present and decide about my future. When will we, as members of the Jewish community, be called into action? Where do we begin our heroes’ quest?
Temple Beth Sholom is where we must start, before we can look outside, we must create peace and safety within our own home. We have it within our membership to create Shalom Bayit – Peace at home.
But how to do this? Please consider the following: First, we are responsible for our own participation at the temple. There is no shortage of ways to become involved. Second, creating relationships and ‘finding our peeps’ is a process which takes time. Personally, as a relatively new member, I must remember that the majority of temple relationships have evolved over many years (we have been here for over 75 years after all), and it is important to respect this collective history. However, each of us can create new relationships and memories. Third, we have our Torah, a book that focuses on how families and communities struggle to figure out who they are and how to treat each another. Interestingly, the more fragmented I feel, the more in touch with Torah I become. Fourth, we change the culture of hospitality every time we reach out to the next new person. For some, myself included, that walk into the Temple is a long one – even before the gates went up. We need to know the codes to others’ hearts. We have to reach out to welcome and include both the newcomer and the oldcomer. Fifth, prayers can be loud and melodic, but they can also be quiet, small, personal and reflective. Prayer is both communal and personal; we can connect to God in joyful singing and through the silent Amidah. Finally, the values of Judaism demand our action. Some of us march congressional hall in pursuit of social justice while others bring peace to our lives with the simple act of lighting Shabbat candles. Our core values unite us.
I still chuckle when I think about Jeffrey and Mary Frances’ wedding. I still wonder why Jews are categorized with outcasts and lepers. As far as I know, the Catholic Priest continues to recite this prayer for us, and I suppose that these prayers cannot hurt. But considering where the Orange County Jewish community began and who we are today, we can never allow ourselves to become an echo. L’dor v dor – the future is on our hands.