We Are Not Defined By Those Who Hate Us: Report From Hungary – Vayyiggash 5779

We have almost arrived at the end of Bereshit, Genesis, the Torah’s first and longest book, and the one that tells the story of the family of Avraham, the family that yields Yisrael and monotheism and really our entire heritage. And the end of the book turns on the story of Yosef and his tale of exile and redemption. And in today’s parashah, Vayyiggash, we have the denouement,  when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his father Ya’aqov. It is the moment when, you might say, the chickens come home to roost. Or, rather, that the chickens all move to Egypt and begin the process that leads to their enslavement.

I must say that I feel like I have learned some uncomfortable truths over the last seven weeks, the most salient of which is that we the Jews can no longer count on our safety here in America. Perhaps that safety was an illusion of the last several decades; my sense growing up in the 1980s was that the arc of humanity’s progress, led by America’s inspiring democracy and tolerance, would ultimately stamp out anti-Semitism for good. After all, we defeated the Nazi regime, we prevailed over the Soviet Union and the mistreatment of their Jews, and we are Israel’s strongest ally and supporter.

October 27th brought home for me the feeling that this is not the case. And as we all scramble to catch up with the rest of the Diaspora world in terms of providing security for our institutions, the loss of innocence is palpable. The hatred of Jews has not only not gone away, but it is growing, on both the left and the right.

Many of you know that I spent Hanukkah in Budapest. My sister and her family live there, and my Israeli son flew in to stay with us as well. Also, my wife still has Hungarian cousins, people who survived World War II and stayed there. So we had family gatherings for the holiday. But the reality of contemporary Hungary was an unpleasant backdrop to the visit.

To begin with, Hungary has a bad record when it comes to the Jews. The Hungarian government during World War II collaborated with the Nazis and participated in sending its Jews to death camps, including my father-in-law. A few years back, the openly anti-Semitic political party Jobbik advocated in the Hungarian Parliament for drawing up a list of all Jews in the country who pose a “security risk.” Hungarians today have, as polls have shown, among the highest rates of anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe.

If any of you have been following the news, you know that the current government is dominated by the right-wing party Fidesz, led by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. Mr. Orban’s leadership is so strong that he has successfully eroded democratic freedoms in Hungary: there is no more free press – virtually all news outlets are controlled by friends of Orban; the independence of the courts has been limited, and just this week it was announced that a new series of “administrative courts” will be established which will be effectively controlled by Orban and his buddies.

Perhaps you remember the flow of refugees, mostly from Syria, that the Hungarian government built a fence to keep out three years ago? While Germany has welcomed refugees and tried to integrate them into German society, Hungary has tried to prevent them from entering.

And in October, the government passed a law banning homeless people from “living in public places.” The law is vague, but in effect, it criminalizes homelessness. This is not only ridiculous, it’s cruel. My Hungarian brother-in-law said it reminded him of the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller :

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In 2014, the Orban government unveiled a new memorial sculpture in Freedom Square in Budapest, called the “Living Memorial,” ostensibly to recall those who were killed by the Nazis. It depicts the angel Gabriel, pure and innocent and representing Hungary, and a nasty German eagle swooping down, claws bared. On the side, in multiple languages, including Hebrew, it says merely, “In memory of the victims.” No other commentary.

living memorial

The problem with the memorial is that it whitewashes Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis and assistance in deporting her Jewish citizens. Critics have created a massive protest wall of photos, memorabilia and statements right in front of the memorial to counter and portray the truth of what really happened.  To the government’s credit, these materials have remained there for five years, although they have been vandalized by neo-Nazis.

And the other item of note is that the Hungarian government is building a Holocaust memorial museum, although, citing concerns about further blurring of the Hungarian role in the Shoah, the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem has furiously criticized the project.

Add to that Mr. Orban’s portrayal of Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros as a sinister character, an outside influencer seeking to corrupt Hungary through his support of NGOs and the Central European University in Budapest. The billboards that were seen around Hungary in 2017 were remarkably disturbing, drawing on traditional anti-Semitic tropes of the Jew as one who undermines Christian society.

From Hungary in 2017. Text reads, “National consultation about the Soros plan – Don’t let it pass without any words.”

What do we learn from this?

When Robert Bowers walked into Tree of Life with an assault rifle and began shooting, he was motivated by hatred of Jews. But not only that: he was driven by a fear that is promulgated in the hate-filled, dark corners of white nationalist websites, that Jews like George Soros are trying to bring immigrants and refugees to this country to lessen the political power of white, Christian Americans.

When an assortment of right-fringe hate groups marched in Charlottesville a year and a half ago, among the things they chanted was, “Jews will not replace us.” I did not understand this at the time – I thought the meaning of the slogan was that Jews themselves will not literally take the jobs of white Christians or their positions of authority in government and civic life. But no – what they were saying was, “We will not let the Jews replace us with non-white, non-Christian immigrants and refugees.” As if the Jews are pulling all the strings. As if the Jews are actively smuggling people from all over the world into America to destroy our society.

The wall on our southern border; the attacks on our free press; the use of George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein in a campaign ad to stir up fear on the far right; the disinformation that we hear daily. Anti-Semitism is not only here with us, back and better than ever, ladies and gentlemen, but it is also the lynchpin in white nationalism. Hungary is a case study for where some of our fellow citizens want us to be. Thank God, we are not there yet. But now is the time for vigilance.

When I went to synagogue last Shabbat, there were two guards outside the building. Not only did they ask for my ID (which I carried with me even though there is no eruv in Budapest), but they asked me several questions: Where are you from? Why are you here this morning? Where are you staying? This is, sadly, par for the course in Europe, and will likely be standard procedure in America soon as well. Like Ya’aqov’s entire family, we are returning, in some sense, to Egypt. The good old days are over.

My son and I spent a day in Vienna, a short train ride from Budapest last week; upon returning, the Hungarian police barely glanced at my American passport, but his Israeli passport was scrutinized. They bent it, shined a flashlight through it, asked more intrusive questions and for more identification, which he did not have. We have different last names, so they did not believe me when I said he was my son. It was not until I showed them a photo on my smartphone of his American passport, which he did not have with him, that they let us back into Hungary.

Now, I do not know if they were roughing us up because of Hungarian attempts to keep out unwelcome immigrants, or because his passport was from Israel. But does it really matter?

At this point, when my wife read this sermon, she said, wisely (as she always does), “Seth, you have raised the spectre of anti-Semitism, something which rabbis have done for generations, but you have not offered us any positive thing to grasp onto. Living a Jewish life is not only about knowing that there are people who hate us. We are not defined by anti-Semitism.”

Given that I’ve already reached the end of my Shabbat-morning quota, I am going to leave a more complete response to this for the next sermon, probably in two weeks. (Next Shabbat is the monthly Discussion Service.) But here is a little something:

Despite the climate in Hungary, the Budapest Chabad organization held a public candle-lighting for Hanukkah every evening in a busy square in front of the major train station. There were plenty of police for protection, but people came out to participate. I was told that there was a big bar mitzvah happening at one of the city’s synagogues last Shabbat morning. Jewish life goes on in Hungary.

Our response to hatred is not to try to fade into the woodwork. It is, rather, to live Jewishly and proudly, to put our Jewish values into action, and remain strong and vigilant. To quote 20th-century French philosopher Edmond Fleg:

I am a Jew because my faith demands no abdication of the mind.

I am a Jew because my faith demands all the devotion of my heart.

I am a Jew because wherever there is suffering, the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because wherever there is despair, the Jew hopes.

We weep, we hope, and we commit ourselves again and again to our tradition, to our ancient wisdom, to our values. As we continue to face an imperfect world, one in which we know there are people who malign us, Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena (Pirqei Avot 2:21). It is not up to you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it. We continue to practice our customs and live our values, to build a better society, a better nation, a better planet.

There is much work to be done in facing our contemporary challenges, here and abroad. Our ancestors have always faced these challenges, and so will we.

Shabbat shalom.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/15/2018.)


From Remembrance to Building – Vayyeshev 5779

Some of you were with me last Monday evening at the Federation’s communal ceremony marking the end of sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period. It was an appropriate conclusion to the most emotional month of my life. A remarkable moment was a video address from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth of Nations (i.e. the former British Empire). He pointed out that sheloshim marks the end of the most intense grieving, the period of looking back at the lives of those lost, and a transition to looking forward, to the future. He gave as an example the three incidences in the book of Bereshit / Genesis where the word, “Vayizkor,” he remembered, appears. They are as follows:

Vayizkor Elohim et Noah (Bereshit / Genesis 8:1)

God remembered Noah and brought him out of the ark onto dry land to begin again.

Vayizkor Elohim et Avraham (Bereshit / Genesis 19:29)

God remembered Avraham and rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom

Vayizkor Elohim et Rahel (Bereshit / Genesis 30:22)

God remembered Rahel and gave her a child.

In each case, Rabbi Sacks observed, the remembrance is about looking toward the future. God remembered each of those characters, and the remembering leads to forward movement, to building. “In Judaism,” he said, “all remembering is about the future, and about life. We cannot change the past, but by remembering it, we can change the future.”

It’s worth noting that, with respect to Jewish tradition, the ceremony on Monday evening was too early. Sheloshim is actually measured not from the date of death, but, as with shiv’ah, from the date of burial. And so, for the families of the 11 souls taken by a Jew-hater with an assault rifle, sheloshim following the final burial actually ends tomorrow.

As some of you may know, we have been reading the names of the 11 murder victims at every service, morning and evening, and reciting kaddish together. And I think it is fitting that we continue to recite those names until the full twelve months of mourning is complete.

But now that sheloshim is ending, it is time for us to also look forward, to the future, as Rabbi Sacks suggests. This is going to be a year of rebuilding: rebuilding ourselves and our community.

And in particular, this is also a year of rebuilding Beth Shalom. This is a dream that we have been pursuing in the three and a half years that I have been here, and perhaps it is time to look forward with even more intensity.

Speaking of dreams, you may recall that the master of dreams in the Torah is none other than our hero Yosef, whose dreams are featured heavily in Parashat Vayyeshev, which we read today. Yosef has dreams that come true, or explains dreams for others, which also come true.

Part of the Sulam for Strategic Planners process, in which we are engaged right now, is setting before ourselves a dream, a vision for the future which we will make come true. At a visioning session with the Board of Trustees three weeks ago, we spent time notating and discussing our dreams for this community. Dreams of this sort do not simply happen; they need to be planned, discussed, and acted upon.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Two weeks ago, after Shabbat, nes gadol hayah poh – a great miracle happened here. We had two events in this building: a concert featuring the a capella singing group Pizmon, attended by somewhere near 500 people, and a silent auction fundraiser attended by more than 250 people. Held back-to-back, these events took a huge amount of effort to pull off. While a few of the organizers were paid staff members of Beth Shalom, the vast majority of the hours spent putting these things together were volunteer time – members of the congregation who sacrificed from their busy days and evenings to help build something wonderful. (I cannot name them all, for fear that I might miss somebody, but thank-yous are posted in the building today.) And we are grateful.

The good news is that we raised a small amount of money, in the vicinity of $24,000, including sponsorships. That’s wonderful. But even more valuable than the funds raised is the sense of community created by volunteers working together to build something. Nearly 70 people, young and not-so, members and non-members, long-time Pittsburghers and recent transplants gave their time to make it happen. And coordinating all those people for that one evening was no small feat. But at the end of the evening, they all went home with a sense of satisfaction, feeling as though they had accomplished something special. Because they did.

And what comes from this is a sense of community, of togetherness, a feeling that we all really needed two weeks ago, and we still need right now.

And that is truly what a synagogue is for. Yes, the services; yes, the learning; yes, the occasional bar mitzvah. But what makes this place a qehillah qedoshah, a community forged in holiness, is the willingness that we all have to show up and make it holy with our presence, our time, our good spirits, and our desire to build.

Vayizkor Elohim et Noah, et Avraham, et Rahel. God remembers us, and we build the future. As we turn now to the dream of rebuilding, we need you. We need to engage more of you to make that future even more luminous.

Here is what we need:

  • We need you to come to a couple of community conversations that are coming up: First, on Dec. 20th with the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, to discuss how our relationship with other faith communities can be heightened through social action
  • Another community conversation in the winter, as part of building a new vision for the strategic plan process
  • We need you to help us plan and carry out our Purim festivities
  • We need you to help us welcome new members at the New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony in January
  • We need you to help us build a greeting team, so that everybody is properly acknowledged as they enter our building
  • We need you to help us build a social action team, as a part of Derekh, to help repair this world and build bridges with our non-Jewish neighbors
  • We need you to help us re-invigorate the Membership Committee. This is an essential committee that connects us all to each other, and right now is in need of new leadership and new ideas. And right now, when we are all looking for community, this body’s role is crucial to building a thriving congregation: connecting members to Shabbat meals, creating affinity groups for various activities, planning a Sunday morning “walking minyan” in the park or a coffee klatch or a spring picnic or a potluck Friday night dinner.

As a part of the Sulam for Strategic Planners process, one of the task forces that will be launched at the end of January will produce a report with recommendations on how to engage more members; another task force will be focused on developing leadership in our community. Right now, there is a lot of inertia in what we do – we are only doing it because that’s the way we’ve always done it. (And I think you know how I feel about that.) We need you to help us find new ways to involve more people in our dreams and our reality.

We have to up our game.

There are two levels of engaged members: those who come to events and programs and services, and those who step forward to make those things happen. What makes us function as a synagogue, ladies and gentlemen, is not that the staff is sitting in the office cooking up plans and going over detailed lists of logistical concerns. Rather, it is your willingness to volunteer for Congregation Beth Shalom to help create magic, like what we saw two weeks ago.

That is my dream: not the one in which the rabbi runs everything. My dream is that we function as a group of people who want so badly to learn about our tradition and practice it and give it to our children that we will gladly give of our precious time to Beth Shalom to make this the most wonderful, supportive, intellectually-rigorous and yet accessible, loving institution it can be.

We need you to build that future, even as we remember the past.

Rabbi Sacks, who gave such an inspiring message for the end of sheloshim, made a subtle editorial choice. There are actually four occurrences of the word “vayizkor,” he remembered, in Bereshit / Genesis. The fourth is (Bereshit 42:9)  “Vayizkor Yosef et hahalomot asher halam lahem.” Yosef remembered the dreams he had about his brothers, dreams which occurred in Parashat Vayyeshev, and they were fulfilled. So too will our dreams be fulfilled, but, as with Yosef, it will take time and plot-twists and some hard work. But we will build the Beth Shalom of our dreams.

As we mark the end of sheloshim, as we connect remembering to building, and as we kindle lights in the coming week to remind ourselves of the need to spread more light in this world, let us turn our energies back into our community. Every hour that you put into making Beth Shalom happen will be repaid to you in triple, in satisfaction and joy and love.


Shabbat shalom, and hag urim sameah, a happy Festival of Lights to you.