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Temple Israel rabbi: ‘This is a scary time for the Jewish community’

January 14, 2021

This community reporting project documents the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Marcia Zimmerman, rabbi, Temple Israel 

We had Hanukkah last month and are planning Tu B’shvat and Purim virtually and are still thinking about how to make Judaism alive in this reality. Hanukkah was so fun; every night we had a livestreamed lighting of the Hanukkah menorah with one of our clergy. We had lots of people show up, and I think even when we go back to being together again, we’ll do a nightly virtual lighting of the menorah. My technical abilities have leaped forward. It’s taken a lot of learning quickly for those of us in our 60s and a lot of relying on staff in their 20s to guide us.

We continue to do Zoom funerals and Zoom shivas. People are used to it but tired of it. At least it’s comforting to see people’s faces and hear people’s stories. Some of the things we do on Zoom we couldn’t do in person. We had a shiva this week and somebody from Spain was there, somebody from Israel was there. They were able to come in and share stories. That feels really good to mourners. I had a family where the grandchild was less than a year old and the grandfather died and the family kept the recording of the shiva so they could share it later. Those are the good parts of Zoom.

The thing I still miss the most is being at the bedside of people who are dying and being with families as they usher their loved ones out of their homes for the last time. In my mind, that is the biggest dilemma of COVID. We human beings are pack animals, and people are lonely. And people can die from being alone. We’re hosting coffees with clergy in the morning and people are showing up to kibitz, to talk, because they’re so lonely. That makes me sad.

It’s the reality that we are still in the middle of COVID, and everybody seems to disconnect COVID from the political and economic world and you can’t. You have to begin with COVID. That is what has put us in the situation we’re in and caused a great deal of frustration and anger and wanting an answer one way or another no matter who you are.

The political realities of the storming of the Capitol and the possibility of violence in our state in the run-up to the inauguration is really concerning — especially to the Jewish community. When it says “Camp Auschwitz” on t-shirts in the Capitol [an insurrectionist who wore a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt was arrested on Jan. 13], we know these are people full of hate, anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and they are not people we can talk to.

There are people in my congregation who disagree with me, but most agree that this is a scary time for the Jewish community, and there are a group of people who have been given a lot of leeway and support to spread their hate and rhetoric, and that’s what we saw last Wednesday.

As far as COVID is concerned, I think everyone’s on the same page in my congregation. The Jewish community’s belief in science and in the medical profession has guided us. There has not been a push to open up or not wear masks or not take the precautions that public health officials have advised. That’s been the easier piece.

I wish it was the same in the political world, but that’s not the case. Throughout the years of the Trump administration, anything I say that’s heard to be political could make people who don’t agree with what they say is a liberal perspective feeling victimized. The pulpit is a place where rabbis have the right to say what they think. We don’t want to be partisan — and the Johnson Amendment does not let religious institutions be partisan. On the other hand, when you talk about issues like racism, like sustainability, like climate change — it all has become politicized. In my mind, religious institutions have to be a part of society, so they are political but they are not partisan. That’s where life gets a little interesting.

This hate has always been a part of our country, part of who we are. We can see moments when it’s emerged and moments when it’s been underground, but we need a path forward to eradicate this hate. The word “crisis” in Greek means to open up. We have to open ourselves up to a different reality where this hate no longer lives. In a d’var Torah for our board last night, I said, “We are descendants of Moses; we are not descendants of Pharaoh.” And we need to live that. A descendant of Pharaoh is controlling and wants to enslave people, while a descendant of Moses liberates those who don’t have a voice.

After what happened at the Capitol, there were people feeling unheard. The heart and soul of the Republican party is at stake, and for those in my congregation who are Republican, it was difficult to watch what happened and not know where they are or what they believe. They were feeling overwhelmed, and a lot of people started dumping their bad feelings, getting angry at things that are long standing.

Some people took the week after the assault on the Capitol to really come down on us for taking a stand in support of Black Lives Matter. People have also shared their points of view that if you didn’t stand up against what happened on the streets of Minneapolis after George Floyd was killed — the breaking of windows and looting of businesses — then you don’t have a right to say something about what happened at the Capitol. I don’t think that’s an equivalency that works. One is a mass movement to destroy a peaceful transfer of power, which our democracy stands on, and the other is people who were upset at a horrible murder. I did stand up against the violence after George Floyd, but I also said it doesn’t give anyone an excuse not to deal with race and racism in this country.

My job is to comfort the bereaved and to stir the comforted. If you look at Moses, you see how he was both angry at his community and cared for his community. He wanted them to be something they might not have been been because of their legacy of slavery. How do you become free people after you’ve experienced slavery?

Sometimes you just have to say this is wrong and there’s no civil discourse to be had. The people who stormed the Capitol are not people who are peace loving. We will bear that and our children will bear that and we all will bear that if we get swept up in it. This is a moment to take a side. It is the soul of our country at stake. It is the soul of our people at stake.

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