…as the anti-semitic Freak Show disgraces American conservative Christianity in so many places:
Nearly a dozen years ago, I noticed an advertisement for introductory classes on Judaism at local synagogues that were open to the community. Interested non-Jews were invited to learn a bit about Judaism.
The first three-week session was informative, but somewhat disappointing because the rabbi seemed to have a very large chip on his shoulder about Christians. Had I not already been signed up for the second three-week session at another synagogue in the area, I might have skipped it. But I went. And the rabbi leading those classes was so welcoming and respectful of Christians (even correcting Jews in the class about Christian dogma) that I wanted to learn more.
I let this rabbi know I wasn’t interested in converting, and I also gave him basic information about my background and work, but I told him that I wanted to study Judaism with a teacher so I could better understand it. He allowed me to enroll in his Basic Judaism class and in the synagogue’s introductory Hebrew class. I was welcome to attend Shabbat services as a guest whenever I wanted—I usually chose the shorter Friday night service—and every year for at least five years the rabbi had the synagogue send me a free ticket to the High Holy Day services. I was thrilled one year when the rabbi and his family invited me to their seder at Passover.
The synagogue community was very welcoming as well. I was always warmly greeted by at least one person when I went to services, and I was treated with friendliness and curiosity whenever it came out that I was Catholic. As a courtesy to the community, I did my best to be discreet about my own beliefs—and I especially avoided talking about what I do for a living unless I was directly asked about my specific job. (My first answer was usually that I work for “a local non-profit.”)
I was there to learn. I had no other agenda. When I moved further away from the synagogue, it was more difficult to go on a regular basis, but I tried to stay in touch with the rabbi and other friends I’d met. When the staff apologists at Catholic Answers were inviting in lecturers for continuing education, I lobbied to have “my rabbi” invited in to give classes on Judaism. He graciously came in on his own time to give us two classes.
Last year, I used all I’d learned to write a booklet on Judaism for Catholic Answers. I received only two responses to the booklet. One was a letter from a Catholic who was outraged that I hadn’t defended the Church against charges of anti-Semitism to her satisfaction. The other was an email from the rabbi. I’d somewhat nervously offered him a copy of my booklet. His wife told me later that, when it arrived, he sat down immediately to read it. He sent me an email saying that my work was accurate and very good—and that he wanted to buy copies in bulk to pass out to Jewish friends.
I don’t think he ever had time to do that because he unexpectedly fell seriously ill not long after. After weeks of recovery, he finally came home—only to die unexpectedly within a couple of days. I went to his funeral, which was packed with mourners, and cried more for his death than I did for my own parents who’d died within four months of each other a couple of years before I met the rabbi.
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this story. First and foremost, it’s long past time I wrote about my rabbi and friend. I always called him “Rabbi Rosenthal” and he always signed himself “Len.” I suspect he wondered why I never called him Len, but it was because I respected and admired him too much to presume to call him by his first name—much less by his nickname—without being explicitly invited to do so. (He did order me to call his wife by *her* first name though, saying she’d be annoyed if I called her “Mrs. Rosenthal.”)
But the reason I’m finally writing this is because I received the latest synagogue newsletter in the mail today. The new rabbi and the current synagogue staff have had the terrible obligation over the last few months to beef up security at the synagogue.
Over the years since I went there regularly, the synagogue has had to install a security gate and cameras, has had to issue security badges to members and arrange for armed guards at the High Holy Days, and has pretty much had to lock down the campus to outsiders. After all, only two months after the entire community turned out in droves to mourn Rabbi Rosenthal, a community Passover celebration at another local synagogue was the target of an anti-Semite who killed one woman and injured others.
It hurts to know that the current climate is such that had my interest in visiting this synagogue for classes and services and holy days been sparked now, rather than twelve years ago, I might have had to be turned away for security reasons. When a white supremacist shoots up a Bible study class who welcomed him to join them in an African-American church, no white Christian can presume that his or her own motives in seeking entrance to a black church or non-Christian house of worship can be taken at face value and without deeper scrutiny.
So, don’t tell me that Jews and Catholics of Jewish heritage are being “too sensitive” to the spike in anti-Semitic propaganda flooding the Internet—including in publications and from commentators that have been considered, until now, to be “mainstream.” Don’t tell me how there’s nothing to fear from alt-right Catholic pundits presuming they know Judaism well enough to critique it. And don’t you dare tell me that you respect Jews and Judaism when you remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism.
If “never again” means “never again,” then we need to back up those words with action. If you see anti-Semitism going on in your corner of the world—or within your bubble of cyberspace—then for God’s sake (literally!), SAY SOMETHING.
And for my friend, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal, may his memory be for a blessing. Amen.