The fall is the holiest time of this year for the world’s roughly 14 million Jews — Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As the air cools, it is a time to pause, reflect and atone, as we have for thousands of years.
For many of us, and for Americans of all backgrounds, this year’s reflection takes on new importance in the wake of Charlottesville. We are struggling with the resurgence of neo-Nazis and white supremacists — or perhaps, alarmingly, with the idea that this strain of American thought has been organizing and growing for years without our attention.
While the events in Charlottesville shocked us, perhaps they shouldn’t have. Jarring as it is, it should not take Nazi flags or abhorrent chants of “Jews will not replace us” for the world to see that anti-Semitism is far from gone. In fact, according to the Anti-Defamation League, it’s on the rise.
As we enter our most holy season, the hate and violence we see in the news may tempt us to retreat from the world in fear, to remain inured to repetitive assaults on our national and individual character — to turn inwards to our synagogues, our families and our own bubbles of safety.
But Rosh Hashana should serve as a wake-up call. We must resist the urge to insulate ourselves and instead strive to be leaders in the movement for equality.
Those who despise us talk of a global Jewish conspiracy; they don’t want to let us forget our Jewish identities. Good. The New Year is a time to proudly and actively declare not only our faith, but the role it plays in our commitment to making the world a better place. Instead of letting bigoted people shame us, let’s rise up and show them that we are a network of people who unite in the spirit of love, acceptance and peace.
Religious practice is a way for us all to come together, especially in trying times like these, and reaffirm our commitment to being a collective force for good in the world. Yet fewer and fewer people consider themselves religious.
The latest Pew polls tell us that religious participation is decreasing across the country, that fewer Americans believe in God or regularly attend worship services, and that more young people are declining to adhere to any organized faith. Many who show up for Rosh Hashana services will be visiting a synagogue for the first time all year.
But the problem is not with the core tenets of our faith — it’s that our religious institutions are often out of touch with the younger generation, who don’t practice the way their parents or grandparents did.
However, the more the world needs faithful, moral people, the more we must take on an entrepreneurial spirit. No tradition has existed forever — every tradition was once an innovation.
We as religious leaders cannot sit back and wait for people to show up at synagogue, church, or mosque. Now more than ever, we have to reach out and meet people where they are, which is increasingly at their screens.
At the 92nd Street Y, we have created a new tradition of the New Year Song, an uplifting video that features rabbis, cantors and choirs from across the globe performing a beautiful original song. Last year the video got more than 6 million views on Facebook — reaching an estimated 1/3 of the global Jewish community, all because we used a modern medium to transmit an ancient idea. This year, the song is set to dance by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Limón Dance Company, Pilobolus and other groups around the world.
Technology is changing our world, so let’s embrace it. With our #NewYearPrayer, a global blessing, we connect isolated Jewish communities — from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, Belarus to Tennessee — by passing a digital New Year prayer from time zone to time zone. This not only connects Jews around the world, but shows people of all faiths and backgrounds who we are and what we stand for.
We can’t let the pain and fear created by the events in Charlottesville cause us to retreat. We must be a first line of defense against hatred that targets any group of people.
As we celebrate the New Year, each of us must use this moment as a mandate to continue to grow — as Jews and perhaps, most importantly, as citizens of a world that urgently needs us.