by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Please share with our readers the congregations at which you have served and some of your most memorable experiences at the congregations.
Rabbi Michael: This question, like the others that follow, does not offer any easy response. Having served two great congregations (Kansas City and Chicago) and having been a Rabbi since 1974, there are far too many highlights comfortably, let alone easily, to pick just a few. However, respecting the query, I’ll cite just one. Some few years ago here in Chicago, we learned that the Westboro Baptist Church was going to picket our synagogue. For those who may be unfamiliar or have forgotten, Westboro was a small “church,” based in Topeka, Kansas, and led by Fred Phelps. He garnered and thrived on national publicity by staging demonstrations at varied locations. Always condemning others his initial campaign was that “God hates Jews,” after which he switched for a while to “God hates homosexuals,” which is why – when his group picketed the funerals of fallen servicemen and women –they insisted your loved one died.
Phelps had decided to switch targets again. He was coming to demonstrate against us. The official line was to ignore him/them because the only thing they sought was publicity. I felt differently, especially because our remarkable Rabbi Emeritus and his wife, Rabbi Herman and Lotte Schaalman, were both escapees from Nazi tyranny. I did not subscribe to the notion that silence was the best response to evil, but I also recognized that a group saying God hates us, to which our response, no, God doesn’t, was a wholly insufficient commentary. I sent an email to the clergy list in our Edgewater neighborhood describing what was going to happen. On that day, a few folks from Westboro held their signs of hate, but our synagogue was surrounded by some 700 non-Jews in a counter-protest of conviction and love that is an unforgettable memory for so many in our synagogue, including me.
Gordon: What is your favorite Scriptural passage and why?
Rabbi Michael: Unquestionably, this is another hard, if not impossible query. But "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” leads me to two especially valued comments from the Hebrew Bible. The first is the experience of Jacob wrestling with whatever or whomever he encountered. If only one small fragment of our text had survived to the present day, one likely could unpack the major thrust of Jewish religious thought from this brief pericope – that a fancy word for a section of Scripture. Among other things and as many readers will know, Jacob gets the patronymic Israel from this encounter, and I am also engaged with the phrase, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” So to speak, I did not want this to happen, but now that it has, what is the blessing that may be found in it?
My other option – at least today – is the phrase from Isaiah, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Eternal of Hosts, the fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory.” The Prophet is so overwhelmed that any line between transcendence and immanence disappears. In addition, the word often translated as glory derives from the Hebrew for heavy. So to speak, there is no place where God is not, but we are not always aware of that presence. In short, be awake.
Gordon: What social media do you use and which have you found most effective?
Rabbi Michael: I’m still a bit of an old fogey or maybe even a technophobe when it comes to social media, albeit I certainly have spent a lot of time since March using Zoom and other computer connected vehicles to stay involved, in touch. While I am on Facebook, I hardly ever use it as a vehicle for communication, at least that starts from my end, and I definitely prefer having nothing to do with Twitter, as it only seems to aggravate the tribalism that infects our country
Gordon: I am a big fan of your YouTube videos. Here is my favorite
In your experience, which social media have you found to be most effective in reaching young people?
Rabbi Michael: If my response above makes sense (obviously, I hope it does), then I have no good answer for this one. However, in pre-pandemic days, I found that the very best and essential way to connect with people, young, old, or anything in between, is in some high touch environment. That often means not waiting in one’s office, rather getting out there where the people are. I can hardly wait for that opportunity again.
Gordon: What are some of the factors that have led to the rise in Antisemitism in the United States, and what are our moral responsibilities to combat it?
Rabbi Michael: The virus of anti-Semitism is always present. The critical question, from my perspective, is what are the conditions which allow it to mutate and grow. Obviously, societal upheaval and economic dislocation are major contributing factors. Additionally, a philosophical or religious point of view that only allows for one group to have a monopoly on the truth always encourages hatred of the “stranger.” Those items are present in our current situation, so it is no surprise that hate crimes of all types are increasing and that the Jewish community is a convenient target for a significant portion of such. As to the moral responsibility to fight against all such manifestations, be it metaphor or absolute conviction, if we do not resist, God weeps. A Holocaust survivor once suggested that Hitler’s great genius was that he made it possible for people to cooperate in murder simply by doing nothing. In short, being on the sidelines in this battle must not be an option.
Gordon: What impact has the recent rise in Antisemitism had upon your congregation?
Rabbi Michael: Some children and young people in the Jewish community are confused that people who don't even know them have formed extraordinarily negative convictions about their extended family and them. Some few may even wonder what's wrong with me/us that we are targeted by too many. Most in the community, however, are not surprised since the virus of anti-Semitism never goes away. In times of turmoil - moments like the current one - the virus seems to find more than the usual number of folks in which to locate ois poison.
One more item: this issue must be addressed in the non-Jewish community because that is where the real challenge/problem may be found. Happy to elaborate if and when desired
Gordon: Antisemitism has exploded throughout Europe especially in Hungary, Poland, and Germany. What steps should the US Government take to help reduce this horror?
Rabbi Michael: I am uncertain if the United States can be a broad-spectrum antibiotic to this disease. We seem to have lost much of the moral compass that made us a beacon of hope. Perhaps, we’ve only misplaced it, and we shall find it again.
Gordon: Thank you for an insightful interview on possibly the most critical moral challenges that we face.