Congregation B'nai Israel

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Kristallnacht 1938/Pittsburgh 2018

Sermon by Rabbi Jim Prosnit – November 9, 2018

Kristallnacht 1938/Pittsburgh 2018

Let me begin with a poem by Rabbi Karen Bender

I am the glass.
Once clear, smooth, perfect.
Protecting the store, the home,
the eyes.

I am the glass.
Shattered now, broken, sharp,

I am the book.
Once a source of peoplehood,
philosophy and learning.
Inspiring the spirit, the mind,
The person.

I am the book.
Burning now in a flame of hate.
A precursor to the fate of a

I am the synagogue.
Once the house of learning,
the house of prayer, the house of

I am the synagogue.
Aflame now, the end of
an era of safety in Europe.

I am the rabbi.
Once a teacher, a leader,
a dignified transmitter of Torah.

I am the rabbi
Humiliated now on the streets
of Germany.
Forced to choose between
desecrating the Torah
and surviving the night.

I am the child.
Once carefree and innocent,
laughing, playing, free.

I am the child.
Terrified now as they take
my father away
Shaken by an evil in this night
I am the glass.

Repaired now by a People
that will never give in.
A window into a future of hope,
of goodness, of peace.  I am the glass.

It is hard for any Jewish community to gather on the 9th and 10th of November in any year without some recollection to the Night of Broken glass – Kristallnacht 1938.  It was on this night 80 years ago that night fully descended across Germany and Austria and the nightmare of Nazism became even more real to those who had not yet left. 

But of course this year, this anniversary – the poem and the images of burning synagogues and Jews living in terror is especially haunting because our  protective glass of security was shattered two weeks ago –with the murder of eleven Jews at prayer in their Tree of Life Congregation.

We have expressed solidarity with those who mourn directly in Pittsburgh and with fellow Jews throughout the country.  We have at one in the same time felt vulnerability and support.  We have had several conversations in the last 10 days with local officials about ways to enhance our security here at B’nai Israel.  I hope you took note of the exits when you entered.

It broke my heart yesterday when an official from Homeland Security and a lieutenant from the Bridgeport Police Department came and led our staff and preschoolers in a shelter in place lockdown drill.  The kids were okay – they huddled in the corner and were given lollipops – but I know their teachers are rattled to envision a world where this is the new normal – not just in synagogues but in so many places of our lives.

But as important as it is for us to take note and prepare ourselves it is equally important not to draw parallels with events 80 years ago.

In 1938, the police did nothing to stop the violence; in fact, they arrested Jews “for their own protection.”

In 2018, police acted heroically to stop the assailant; four officers were wounded in the line of duty.

In 1938, top government officials masterminded the pogrom as part of a campaign of  “Aryanization,” but portrayed it as a spontaneous outburst after a 17-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan assassinated Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official in Paris.

In 2018, the attack appears to have been carried out by a “lone wolf,” Jew-hating terrorist.

In 1938, the German people reportedly did little to defend their Jewish neighbors, though some hid them from storm troopers at great personal risk.

In 2018, the Jewish community – in Pittsburgh and far beyond – received an outpouring of support from civic and interfaith groups, as well as elected officials at all levels of government.  How blessed I feel that my friend Reverends Brian Bodt and Hopeton Scott worship with us this evening as did several Pastors last week.

Vigilance is always important – But on this night of broken glass might I suggest that we remind ourselves of another type of vigilance that is even a bigger concern:  Last Shabbat, the synagogues of America were filled.  We came together.  We felt the support of the larger community.

But, we mustn’t rely on the external dangers to bolster Jewish life.  Such upticks in our consciousness are bound to be short-lived.  A Kristallnacht or Yom Hashoa commemoration; A swastika on a library; a hate meme in some campaign ad; a cemetery desecration, a mass shooting — these have a way of bringing us together.  But — as my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes,  “A people needs a radar – but it also needs a rudder.”  And that rudder is a sacred text and tradition that is available to us each week – and may too frequently squandered in our lives.

Rabbi Salkin continues with a reminder of story from a teacher of ours Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk of blessed memory who grew up in the tiny German village of Oberwesel told the following story.

On Kristallnacht the Nazi inspired rabble could not set the synagogue of Oberwesel ablaze because it was too close to the homes of so-called “good Germans.”

So the Nazis ransacked it for whatever they could find — and then they tore up the Torah scrolls, and then they tossed the pieces of parchment into a creek.

The next morning, young Alfred Gottschalk and his grandfather waded into the creek.  Together, they pulled the saturated pieces of Torah parchment out of the water.

This is what Alfred’s grandfather said to him:

“Some day,” his grandfather told him, “Someday, Alfred, you will put the scroll together again.” 

For the rest of his life, Alfred Gottschalk put the pieces of Torah back together again and taught others to do the same.

The good news, the godly news, the redemptive news:  We are of a generation that has both the will and the ability to put the Torah back together again.

That is our  continued mission:

A reminder of Rabbi Bender’s final verse:  Her poem does end with a bit of an upswing.

Glass… Repaired now by a People
that will never give in.
A window into a future of hope,
of goodness, of peace.  I am the glass.

As we gather this evening to share the blessings of this community – a reminder of events 80 years ago and of events two weeks ago –and a weekly (maybe daily reminder) how essential it is to be a people who must always strive to repair the brokenness in a fragile world.