“Kedoshim” (The Holiness Code) and Antisemitism in Denver Schools, Rosh HaShanah 5784 (2023) – by Jean Guthery

“If you were to ask what our response to the Holocaust should be, I would say this: Marry and have children, bring new Jewish life into the world, build schools, make communities, have faith in God who had faith in man and make sure that His voice is heard wherever evil threatens.  Pursue justice, defend the defenceless, have the courage to be different and fight for the dignity of difference.  Recognise the image of God in others, and defeat hate with love.  Twice a year, on Yom Hashoah and the Ninth of Av, sit and mourn for those who died and remember them in your prayer.  But most of all, continue to live as Jews.”  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, 1991-2013.

Kedoshim (The Holiness Code), excerpted from Leviticus (Vayikra) 19:1-20:27

  • “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy. You shall revere your mother and father, and keep my Sabbaths..
  • “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare.  You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger..
  • “You shall not steal, and you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by my name..
  • “You shall not coerce your neighbor. You shall not commit robbery. You shall pay wages for laborers promptly..
  • “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind..
  • “You shall not render an unfair decision…
  • “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk..
  • “You shall keep my Sabbaths..
  • “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old..
  • “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt..
  • “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance..
  • “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy. You shall faithfully observe my laws..”

                Kedoshim, found in Leviticus, (Vayikra) 19:1-20:27 is the 30th weekly Torah portion (parsha) in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah readings, usually read in April or May, and begins with the statement, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God am holy.”  This is followed by dozens of mitzvot (commandments) of practical ethics, the most of any part of the Torah and through which Jews sanctify him- or herself to God.  In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth (1991-2013), “Something fundamental happens at the beginning of this parsha and the story is one of the greatest, if rarely acknowledged, contributions of Judaism to the world. Until now, Leviticus (Vayikra) has largely been about sacrifices, purity, the sanctuary and the Priesthood.  In short, it has been about a holy place, holy offerings, and the elite and holy people—Aaron and his descendants—who minister there.  Suddenly, in chapter 19, the text opens up to embrace the whole of the people and the whole of life.”

                God tells Moses to address the nation: “Speak to all the community of Israel.  Say: ‘Be holy, for I am holy; I the Lord your God.’”  Rabbi Sacks continues, “It is the people as a whole who are commanded to ‘be holy,’ not just an elite group of priests.  It is life itself that is to be sanctified..Holiness is to be made manifest in the way the nation makes its clothes and plants its fields, in the way justice is administered, workers are paid, and business conducted.  The vulnerable—the deaf, the blind, the elderly and the stranger—are to be afforded special protection   The whole society is to be governed by love, without resentments or revenge.  What we witness here is the radical democratisation of holiness.  All ancient societies had priests…Here for the first time, we find a code of holiness directed to the people as a whole.  We are all called upon to be holy…The concept of equality we find in the Torah..and in Judaism is not an equality of wealth: Judaism is not communism.  Nor is it an equality of power: Judaism is not anarchy.  It is fundamentally an equality of dignity..The Torah’s revolution is the statement that not some, but all humans share this dignity.  Regardless of class, color, culture or creed, we are all in the image and likeness of God.  Thus was born the cluster of ideas, that though they took many millennia to be realized, led to the distinctive culture of the West: the non-negotiable dignity of the human person, the idea of human rights, and eventually, the political and economic expressions of these ideas—liberal democracy on the one hand, and the free market on the other.” (Rabbi Sacks)

                On Friday, May 5, 2023, I attended Friday evening services at Temple Sinai.  The parsha that week was not Kedoshim—yet.  It would occur the following week, May 12th.  However, that evening of May 5th, Rabbi Rick Rheins, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, delivered a sermon starting with a review of his very busy schedule that week.  “It has been quite a week,” he stated, and proceeded to describe a busy week filled with multiple tasks—a bris, two unveilings, a funeral, a meeting with a wedding couple, an executive board meeting, meetings with conversion students, counseling sessions, teaching classes on zoom—and an “in-person meeting here at the synagogue with Cherry Creek High School students’ World Religions Class taught by Temple Sinai member, Noah Zepelin.”

Rabbi Rheins went on in his sermon to report on his encounter with the Cherry Creek High School students, that he took them on a tour of the synagogue, took a Torah Scroll out of the Aron Hakodesh (the ark), specifically “..to show them Leviticus 19, Kedoshim, AKA the Holiness Code—and the parsha for the coming week.  “I asked them,” he said, “What is holiness; what does that mean?  Does it mean withdrawing into a monastery on a mountain top in self-reflecting piety, or going to church? Does it mean to keep strict kosher?  Does it mean to go to services all the time? No, not in Judaism.  Holiness is measured on how we interact with each other and with time itself.  It means things like, don’t tell tales on each other, don’t stand in the way of the deaf or the blind, leave corners of the field unharvested so that the poor can reap; take care of the orphan and the widow.”  And he declared, “They liked it!”  “Great!” I thought.  “Educating non-Jewish teens on the incredible values of Judaism—especially with this particular parsha, Kedoshim, which expresses the most beautiful of Jewish values; what a way to combat anti-Semitism and to inform, using education.”  But the enthusiasm I felt for our rabbi’s teaching of these teens from Cherry Creek High School was soon clouded by the alarming news cycle the very next week. The report of “Anti-Semitism Charges Aired in Cherry Creek District.” (Intermountain Jewish News, May 12; CBS News, May 10; Colorado NPR, May 11).

This past year in Denver, Colorado, the Jewish community has been met with an onslaught of increasing antisemitism: attacks in dormitory rooms at the University of Denver including the removal and trashing of mezuzot from dorm room doors and the gluing of pork products onto another dorm room door, and more recently, the confrontation of the Cherry Creek School District board with mounting antisemitic incidents in the Cherry Creek Schools. The following is from reports by The Intermountain Jewish News, May 12, May 26, June 9 and June 12 and Aurora Sentinel, June 14.

As reported by the Intermountain Jewish News, approximately 125 members of the Jewish community attended the regularly scheduled Cherry Creek School District Board of Education meeting on May 8th voicing concerns about recent antisemitic incidents at Campus Middle School in Greenwood Village and other schools in the district. On April 28, ahead of No Place for Hate Awareness Week at the school, a Holocaust presentation was made to students at Campus Middle School.  Shortly after the presentation, two students posted on social media photographs of their arms painted with swastikas.  At least one bathroom in the school was defaced with the swastika symbol painted inside with one source reporting to the IJN it “existed for many days” before being removed.

In the wake of the social media posts, members of the community expressed outrage and demanded change in the district’s attitude toward and strategy in combatting antisemitism.  One parent told the board, “When your child comes home from school and asks you if they should hide being Jewish, it’s a punch in the gut. Our sons have been Nazi-saluted and told to take a German shower..Kids are throwing pennies on the floor and telling the Jews to pick them up. Students are yelling at the kids saying, ‘Kanye was right,’ and that ‘Hitler did not do a good enough job.’”  An eleven-year-old girl at Campus Middle School whose ancestors had been in the Holocaust, bravely and confidently informed the Board, “I was in a science class and all of a sudden this boy was talking about how his brother and his friend told Jewish kids to go back to the gas chamber.  I asked him why he and his friends would even say that.  He said to me, ‘Why do you even care?  You weren’t there.’  He was wrong; it did matter to me. Then he said, ‘You should go back to the gas chambers too.’  I was scared to go back to school.”

Another comment published in The Sentinel’s coverage June 14 included remarks from a former teacher at CCSD.  Her comments included, “A one-time training at two middle schools and a high school is far from enough.  A one-time course for new teachers is not enough.  Just as antisemitism is systemic, the fight against it must be the same.  All district employees must be educated in Jewish culture, Jewish history and in the Jewish religion. Teachers must come to realize that handing out worksheets with Christmas trees and not handing out worksheets with Hanukah symbols reinforces anti-Jewish sentiment as much as a swastika does…This isn’t an issue of equity.  Equity is about access.  This is a battle against hatred.” (From The Sentinel, June 14, 2023)

Subsequently, at the June 12 Cherry Creek School District meeting, Superintendent Smith set a timetable for district training and for the implementation of a district task force.  He commented, “While it was extremely difficult to hear, it also gives us the opportunity to do better. It’s not just a school issue.  It’s a community issue.  Our kids have to learn.  Our adults have to learn.” He reported he had heard from several advocacy groups regarding the incidents and had met with the Anti-Defamation League.  In July, he will be meeting with parents and other organizations to discuss next steps.  In August, he has already scheduled time for the staffs at Campus Middle School, West Middle School and Cherry Creek High School for the staffs to participate in training programs. (From Intermountain Jewish News)

What to do with all this hate?  How to combat it? In his sermon at services at Temple Sinai on Friday, June 30th, Rabbi Rheins addressed this very issue.  He spoke about curses being turned into blessings, using a well-known quote from Hillel in Pirke Avot. “The brute will not fear sin.  The ignoramus will not be saintly.—And in a place where there are no human beings, be a mensch.”  He spoke about this teaching coming to us as we consider the exponential growth of antisemitism in the United States.  He said, “This teaching coming to us as we consider that in our neighborhood schools, acts of overt antisemitism terrorize Jewish students.

“Many of you know that Cherry Creek High School and Middle School have suffered from a number of antisemitic incidents.  A few weeks ago I met with Cherry Creek superintendent, Chris Smith, along with ADL head, Scott Levin.  The purpose of our meeting was to express our profound concern about the rise of antisemitism in the schools. We were not there just to vent, to point fingers, and cast blame.  Those actions may serve as a cathartic release, but they ultimately do not help us find a viable solution.  Instead, we discussed what the problem was, explored programs, resources, and initiatives that can help students, parents, and teachers react quickly and effectively to antisemitism and other forms of bigotry.

“We explored creating liaisons and administrators who would take the lead on dealing with an antisemitic incident.  We explored enhancing classes that would help overcome the ignorance many have about Jews and Judaism.  One of the most effective classes is a World Religions class [at Cherry Creek High School] taught by Temple Sinai member, Noah Zepelin, in which students study a number of different faiths and visit various houses of worship and clergy.  For nearly 18 years, it has been my pleasure to meet with those students here at Temple Sinai.  I give a review of Judaism, a tour of the synagogue, show them the Torah and engage them in an hour of Q & A.  Currently there are about 25 students who come each semester.  A decade ago, the number was double that.  With these initiatives, I hope that hundreds of students will learn to appreciate the beauty of different faiths.

“Chris Smith, the Superintendent, promised to send me a complete outline of their efforts to combat antisemitism.  He made a commitment to address the problem of antisemitism.  Yes, schools, organizations, and communities have focused on racism and homophobia.  There are terrible bigots who prey on people of color and different ethnicities and sexual orientations.  Lost in the efforts of DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) has been the understanding that Jews have long faced the wrath and violence of prejudice.  The incidents at Cherry Creek school district and throughout Colorado are sad proof of that…But as we work together and find partners in the community, we can turn curses into blessings…God has blessed us with the power and the opportunity to move from fear to sympathy.  God has given us the power and the opportunity to turn raging curses into nurturing blessings.  In this world where so often we look in vain to find common decency, respect and compassion, God has taught us: “In a place where there are no human beings, be a mensch.” (From Rabbi Rheins’ sermon, June 30, 2023)

What will we as Jews do in response to this hate?  We will “continue to live as Jews.”  Collectively and individually, at the High Holidays and in the year beyond, we will bring King Soopers’ bags filled with non-perishable food for the JFS Weinberg Food Pantry and Food Bank of the Rockies.  We will contribute pajamas, underwear and socks for children to Safehouse Denver/Women’s Shelter.  We will donate hygiene products for girls and women to Donations for Dignity.  Additionally, some of us will support literacy for pre-school children, such as at Reach Out and Read Colorado and we will donate book bags filled with supplies for elementary school children.  We will continue to support the LGBTQ+ community.  We will continue to reach out in partnership to the African American community.  We will support Habitat for Humanity. We will make sandwiches to supply the homeless via Metro Caring. We will support the Colorado Symphony, the Denver Art Museum, live theater venues in the greater Denver Metropolitan community and other forms of the creative arts.  We will support help for the homeless.  We will respond to the predicaments of immigrants—at our southern border and the world. We will support the IST Fund (Israel Study Tour for teens) in the Denver Jewish community.  We will support Temple Sinai, including its religious school and its many educational opportunities. We will drive elderly friends to services at synagogue. We will support the Caring Committee at Temple Sinai in their efforts to welcome new members, console those who are ill and grieving. We will volunteer to participate in lay-led services at Morning Minyan on Shabbat at Temple Sinai.  We will support the State of Israel, celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding and reestablishment as a sovereign nation and support Jewish Nat’l. Fund. And I, Grandma Jean, will qvell as my 5 y/o granddaughter, Charley, will start kindergarten in public school in Arvada and religious school at Congregation Har Hashem—to learn, respectively, to read and to be a strong Jew…and in this world, “to be a mensch.”  And what is a mensch?  It is Jewish shorthand for humanity at its best.

In short, we will live Kedoshim, The Holiness Code—the 2023/2024 version of it. We will continue to live Jewish lives. But, in the face of antisemitic acts, we will insist on immediate confrontation with zero tolerance for it.  We will urge agencies/organizations/institutions who participate in DEI that they must include education on antisemitism–prejudice, bigotry and hatred toward the Jewish people. And we will encourage our non-Jewish friends in their pursuit of their own education in Jewish history, Jewish worship, Jewish culture, Jewish values and the Holocaust and its origins.  And, just maybe—some menschlichkeit—humanity at its best—will grow stronger amongst us.  And then, together we can turn hate to blessing.  May it be so.

 Rabbi Menachem Creditor wanted to compose a song for his daughter’s simchat bat (a celebration of his oldest daughter’s birth) which was about a month after the Twin Towers fell.   In a month of mixed feelings for many—hatred, fear, sorrow, —what message could he leave his daughter?  During an early autumn stroll down Broadway, the smell and debris of the collapsed towers still somewhat fresh, and with his daughter cradled in his arms, the song swelled up inside him—first the melody, then the verse.  From the rubble emerged the words, “and you must build this world from love.”  He said, “There was an urgency that coursed through me.  Building this world from love isn’t a choice we get to make—it is, rather, an obligation.  It is not about an abstract divine vision but rather a call for grounded human love. It’s an obligation to see this world as worth it and to see every human being as a partner in making that happen.” It is a call to and a cry for action.  Man is the first agent, not God—God joins when we act.  The song, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” with its haunting melody is quite popular, having been sung at the North American Jewish Festival, then song leaders from all over starting to sing it, followed by Neshama Carlebach of the Jewish Renewal Movement singing it at the gates of Auschwitz and at many other music festivals.  Rabbi Creditor calls it a “Jewish Anthem.”  From Alan Imar, Politics, 2019.

Olam Chesed Yibaneh (The World Is Built On Kindness)

“I will build this world from love..da dai, dai, dai

And you must build this world from love..da dai, dai, dai

And if we build this world from love..da dai, dai, dai

Then God will build this world from love.”

 

To hear the melody, google “Olam Chesed Yibaneh, Rabbi Menachem Creditor.” Hebrew, then English; 5 minutes.

 

L’shanah tovah tikateivu

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and a sweet year

Jean Guthery