Thursday, March 2, 2017

Finding Friends in Unexpected Places

For years now, Shelter Rockers have heard me add the name of my friend, Ed Searcy, to the mi she-beirach list whenever we pause over an open Torah scroll to pray for our relatives and friends who have been stricken with illness. Occasionally, people ask who he is—some interested because I have been adding his name to the list for so long and others, I suppose, because it seems curious that a rabbi would ask his congregation to pray so assiduously for the recovery of a Christian clergyman without feeling the need to explain their relationship or to chart its history.

I admit it’s been a long time. Ed was diagnosed with the double whammy of multiple myeloma (a chronic cancer of the plasma cells) and amyloidosis (a rare but serious condition caused by the accumulation of proteins in the form of insoluble fibers within the tissues of one’s body) six years ago in 2011. When he told me about the diagnosis, I asked what I could do for him. His answer was that I could pray for his recovery. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Why wouldn’t I have wanted to do whatever I could to ease his burden? He’s been my friend, after all, for more than thirty years. But I’ve never written about the specific way we met, which I think I would like to write about this week.

But before I get to the past, I want to write about the present. It has been, to say the least, a worrisome week. The twenty bomb threats phoned into Jewish institutions on Monday brought the grand total of such threats to almost ninety, including some made to targets relatively close at hand to us at Shelter Rock. Nor has it been a week merely of bad words: there have also been some very bad deeds to go along with them in the desecration of the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia and the Chesed shel Emeth Cemetery in Union City, Missouri.  In a different world, we would hardly take note of such pointless hooliganism. But the combination of threat, provocation, vandalism, and a general uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in general lends these acts of sacrilege an ominous aura they might otherwise not have.

But more unexpected—to me, at least—was the response to the vandalism. In Missouri, Vice President Pence went out of his way to visit the cemetery last Wednesday and actually took part in the clean-up. The governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, did the same. And, while still at work at the cemetery, Governor Greitens took the opportunity to reveal that President Trump had phoned to ask him to convey the president’s good wishes to the clean-up crew for their work on behalf of the Jewish community and, more importantly, for their effort to show the world “that what happened [in Union City] the other night is not who America is.” Whatever any of us thinks about the current administration, yea or nay, the sight of the governor of Missouri and the vice-president of the United States rolling up their sleeves to restore a desecrated cemetery is a moving example of our national spirit and should be acknowledged as such.

But even more surprising was the campaign undertaken by two Muslim Americans, Linda Sarsour and Tarek el-Messidi, to raise funds, at first, to help restore the tombstones of Union City, which effort yielded $115,000 in just two or three days. And then campaign was expanded to include the effort to raise money to restore the damaged and/or toppled gravestones in Philadelphia. What the “real” motives of these people in doing this were, who knows? The cynic in me wants to imagine that this is just a good moment for American Muslims to raise their public profile in a very positive way. But the bottom line is that more than two-thirds of the donations have come from Muslim Americans, and it’s hard to see a conspiracy here even despite the million reasons to distrust unexpected largesse from unfamiliar quarters…and particularly quarters from which some of Israel’s harshest critics have come in recent years. I see that. And I certainly do not wish to assist people who otherwise work to hurt Israel and damage Israel’s reputation in their disingenuous effort to distance themselves from the charge of anti-Semitism merely by undertaking a LaunchGood campaign. I’m by nature neither a naïve person nor an overly trusting one.

Yet…even though I share the skepticism of many who have publicly questioned the motives of the givers, I’d like to think that we are witnessing an act of charitable kindness rather than a mere P.R. opportunity. A terrible thing happened. People responded…including people of whom we are reasonably wary. Still, I propose that we take the donations from Muslim America, and from so many other quarters as well, as well as the public gesture by the Vice-President and the Governor of Missouri (admittedly a Jewish person…but even so) and Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf and Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, at face value, and allow them to suggest that the haven we have found in this place is real, that the patriotism we feel in our hearts for our country reflects far more than wishful thinking, and that the values that we presume to underlie the republic are intact and well. For another example of recent Muslim solicitude for our Jewish problems, this one Florida-based, click here.

And that brings me to the Reverend Searcy. My first pulpit was in Richmond, a town just outside Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This was a long time ago. It was a season of brand new things for me: my first pulpit (although this was eight years after I was ordained, having taken a slight detour through the halls of academe on my way to the bimah), a new country, a new time zone, a new life style (it was the first time in my life I ever lived in a private home rather than an apartment), a new baby on the way…and a dozen other new thresholds to step over and new straits to negotiate.

Even though we had just finished a two-year stint in Germany, I don’t believe I had ever actually experienced real anti-Semitism until I came to Richmond. It looked calm. The people outside the congregation that I met here and there seemed pleasant and welcoming. The mayor of Richmond, Gil Blair, personally came to my installation to welcome me to his city. It all felt peaceful and good. And then, one Sunday morning only a few months after I was in place, the president of the congregation called me at 6 AM and asked me to meet him at the synagogue. I pulled on some clothes and drove over, and there I found what I had not even been savvy enough about the world previously to dread: the entire building painted with bright red swastikas and slogans so vile that even now, even after all these years, I still can’t quite bring myself to type them out for you to read. Trust me, it was awful. I was flummoxed completely.  Clearly, we had to do something. But it wasn’t obvious what. Someone had already phoned the R.C.M.P. and they arrived promptly, but didn’t seem to take the painted slogans seriously as death threats (which is what they were, and unambiguously so), preferring instead to wave them away as vulgar graffiti. Eventually, they agreed to open a serious investigation. But that was still to come as I stood there in the cool morning air with the members of the Board of Trustees and pondered the best course forward.

What happened next was remarkable. The adjacent property was owned by a Catholic church, St. Joseph the Worker, and the oldest priest, whom I hadn’t even met yet, was named Father Pascale. I met him that morning when he arrived around an hour later not just to express his regrets formally and in person, but with an army of parishioners bearing pails and brushes, soap and solvent. They set themselves to cleaning the walls of our synagogue! And they did a fairly good job, although we eventually painted over the whole façade to make the vileness disappear entirely. But that was only the beginning.

We received letters from all across Canada, most of which came with checks to assist us in the clean-up. We heard from all the right people, including from the Premier of the province and the Member of Parliament who represented our riding. Mayor Blair came by several times to offer some support and encouragement. And in the context of all that good will, Ed Searcy came into my life.

In those days, he was the pastor of the South Arm United Church. He sent me a note in which he introduced himself and asked how he could help. I phoned and suggested we meet for a coffee and talk this through: I was shaken by the whole incident and wondered if he, being a real Canadian, might possibly have some insight into the larger picture I was facing that I as a newcomer lacked. And that was how I met Ed. He was kind, welcoming, reassuring. He reminded me—I’m sure he himself doesn’t remember exactly what he said, but I certainly do—he reminded me that the presence of evil doesn’t imply the absence of good…and he reminded me that the only practical way to combat the kind of viciousness and blind hated we had just encountered was to affirm our faith in the goodness of God. It was a simple sermon delivered over coffee at the edge of North America by young minister to a young rabbi. More than his insight, however, Ed extended his hand to me in friendship. And that is how I got to know Ed Searcy and why I invite the congregation weekly to join me in praying for his good health.

When I read about the desecration of that Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and the way people who aren’t “supposed” to care suddenly showed up to restore and repair the toppled stones, and how other Americans, including people who aren’t “supposed” to care about the stones in a Jewish cemetery, anted up not hundreds or thousands, but scores of thousands of dollars to assist in the restoration—I was brought back to my first experience of anti-Semitic violence on otherwise calm and quiet Geal Road in Richmond, B.C., an otherwise tranquil town filled with friendly, welcoming people.

So it turns out there are good people in the world! But that thought in turn inspires an unsettling, more-than-slightly-anxiety-producing question for us all to ponder: when tragedy, and particularly prejudice-tinged tragedy strikes other groups…does our example inspire the confidence and courage in those aggrieved souls that the efforts of so many from outside the Jewish community did in Missouri last week and in Richmond so many years ago? That, if you ask me, is the real question to take away from this whole story…and, if we dare, to answer honestly.

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