I spent the first few days of last week attending some of the sessions at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit downtown. In care you did not hear about this conference, it was a stunning array of speakers and panels and sessions on various perspectives regarding hate in our world today: what causes it, what exacerbates it, how it spreads, how it is manifest, how it wounds and damages and kills, and how we might go about trying to stop it. Although the conference was not an explicitly Jewish conference, and presenters were of many ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and colors, it of course was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the deadly attack aimed at our Squirrel Hill Jewish community, and the remembrance of the victims, the survivors, and the trauma experienced by all of us was front and center throughout the conference.
While it is hard to say that I “enjoyed” listening to hours of discussion surrounding the problem of hate, I must say that attending this summit was truly rewarding because it provided me with a sense of relief. Relief that there are good minds thinking about this challenge: academics, religious leaders, think-tank people, entrepreneurs, Big Data companies, NGOs, victims, journalists, politicians and so forth. This conference brought together many of these folks, and there were just so many speakers, and the program was so jam-packed that there was not even enough time to ask questions. I am fairly certain that the organizers expect this to be an annual conference.
At one point, Beth Shalom member Nancy Zionts, COO and Chief Program Officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, tapped me on the shoulder to say, “Rabbi, I can’t wait to hear the sermons you’re going to give that will come out of the material from this conference.” I responded by saying, “There is so much material here that I’m not even sure where to start.”
So I’ll start with this, on this Shabbat on which we read Parashat Vayyera, including the Aqedah, the story of the binding of Yitzhaq: we as a society are in the midst of a test – a test which has been foisted upon us, one of which we are only just beginning to become aware. The test of how to prevent all the forms of hatred which are now conspiring from boiling over and destroying the order of the world.
The Aqedah, says the 13th-century Spanish commentator Ramban, teaches us that, since humans have free will, any time we are asked to do anything can be understood to be a test. But in Avraham’s case, says Ramban,
המנסה יתברך יצוה בו להוציא הדבר מן הכח אל הפועל, להיות לו שכר מעשה טוב, לא שכר לב טוב בלבד
God is commanding Avraham to turn the potential into the actual, so that he can be rewarded for his good deed, and not merely for his good intentions.
The good deed, in Avraham’s case, should be understood as carrying out God’s instruction, not, of course, actually sacrificing his son. But the notable item here is that when we are tested in the way that our society and our world are right now, the test is whether we can, in fact, turn the potential into the actual.
And that is exactly what we need to do: to figure out how to turn the potential into the actual. How do we go about solving the problem of hate? Avraham answers his call to action with one word: “Hinneni.” Here I am.
There were many summit presenters who were there to tell their personal stories, powerful stories of hatred and responding to it.
There was Taylor Dumpson, the first Black person to be elected student body president of American University, who awoke to her first day in that position in 2017 to find nooses containing bananas upon which racist epithets had been scrawled scattered all over campus.
There was Navdeep Gill, who as an 18-year-old Sikh in suburban Milwaukee, saw members of his community gunned down while engaged in prayer at their gurdwara in 2012.
There was Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya, the United Nations’ Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, who gave a keynote speech which asserted that this initial conference was like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples of which will spread far and wide.
But I want to highlight in particular Tanya Gersh, a Jewish real-estate agent who refers to herself as a “Montana Mom.” Ms. Gersh lives in Whitefish, Montana, also the home of Sherry Spencer, the mother of notorious “white nationalist” Richard Spencer.
In 2016, Gersh was hired for real estate services by Ms. Spencer. When her son and his posse of thugs discovered this, Andrew Anglin, publisher of the online neo-Nazi rag the Daily Stormer, mounted a campaign of terrorism against her. Anglin published all of Ms. Gersh’s contact info – address, phone numbers, photos, personal family information, social media accounts, including that of their 12-year-old son, and of course explicitly mentioning that she is Jewish, and instructing the hundreds of thousands of readers of the Daily Stormer to launch a so-called “troll storm” against her and her family. He published 30 such articles.
For months after, Tanya’s family’s life became a living hell. People called at all hours, saying things like, “I hope you die,” “Kill yourself,” and many, many other horrible things that should never be repeated in public, let alone in a synagogue. The family kept luggage packed in their living room for three months, should they have to flee.
But they never did. As traumatic as the experience was, Tanya and her family stood their ground. Eventually, attorneys provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a lawsuit against Anglin, and in 2019 won $14 million in damages. Andrew Anglin is currently on the lam.
Tanya’s message, for those who heard her story at the Lawrence Convention Center and beyond via Zoom, is to stand up. Don’t back down. Face this challenge. I must say that I do not know, if I were in her situation, that I could have been as brave.
And, pulling back the lens to consider the wider challenges of hate and its consequences, we have to stand up as a society. We are being tested; when God calls us, answer, “Hinneni.” Here I am. Rabbi Brad Artson describes this word as an expression of humility: Hinneni – I can only respond with the totality of my presence, my attention, my willingness to be in that presence. I may not know yet how to respond, but I’m here. I have shown up.
I might even be so bold as to amend Avraham’s word slightly: We need to answer in one voice: Hinnenu. Here we are.
One of the overarching messages of this summit is that, while we may never solve the problem of hate, while it will never entirely go away, we must fight it with all the tools that we have: legal tools, technology tools, academic tools, and of course the tools of leadership.
Laura Ellsworth, the primary organizer of the summit and Partner-in-Charge of Global Community Service Initiatives at Jones Day, stated quite clearly on the final day of the conference, that we all have the potential to be leaders in this regard. “Think about your role,” she said. “Don’t wait for leaders; be one, each to the other, every day.” Don’t wait for politicians to make this happen, because they will not. Rather, Ms. Ellsworth exhorted the attendees that if they could take one thing away from this conference, it would be that each of us has the potential to be leaders in our community.
We are not powerless against hate: but we do need to show up. We need to use all of those tools; we need to stand up when called. This test can only have one possible outcome; I cannot even allow myself to consider what the results will be if we allow the forces of chaos to win.
And that is why I am grateful to Laura Ellsworth and her team in putting this summit together, to inviting and coordinating the individuals and the organizations who have said, “Hinnenu,” here we are, who are working to face this test.
As we come around to the 18th of Heshvan as a community day of mourning for the third time, and we remember those who were murdered on that day three years ago, we all have the opportunity to step forward and be the leaders that this world desperately needs right now.
It’s just the beginning. But we cannot fail this test.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/23/2021.)