America, I hardly knew you.
When the Jewish community awoke to the news of the election of Donald Trump, we came face-to-face with the realization that there is an America that we don’t know. Americans whose narrative is not our own, an electoral majority of our country who have fears, hopes and dreams, different than ours. This week those of us in the liberal echo chamber of our community have been served a plateful of humble pie.
Before pressing forward, we should pause to consider the implications of our country’s emergent landscape – the American we know and the America we don’t.
First, the Jewish community must consider the implications of this election for our parochial well-being. By all accounts this election season has unleashed a venomous strain of anti-Semitism the likes of which are unprecedented in mainstream American campaigns. The question is not, heaven forbid, whether anti-Semitism exists in any way at the top of the ticket or in the first family – a first family that is, with great historic significance, comprised in part of Jews. Rather, it is the fear that the dog whistles blown during this election cycle have awoken and energized some of the more unseemly and dangerous pockets of hatred in our country. Already on its heels from anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on the left, the Jewish community must now ask whether our present political climate has legitimized hateful white nationalists on the right. It is too early to tell, but these coming months and coming years will be critical ones for the Jewish community. Will all forms of hatred, anti-Semitism included, be publicly and unequivocally repudiated by this government? Having voted overwhelmingly Democrat, what voice will the Jewish community have in the coming administration? As we watch and work for answers, the Jewish community would do well to support and engage those advocacy organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee whose purpose is to fight anti-Semitism and represent the interests of our people and the State of Israel in the public sphere. Now is a time that we must work vigorously on behalf of our people’s concerns.
Second, even as we put our shields up, so too must we break out of our bubble to understand the America we do not know. Ever since God’s initial call to Abraham of lech lecha, go forth, to be a Jew demands that we move out of our comfort zone and put the well-being of a wider humanity at the forefront of our concern. The spiritual heroics of our day may just demand that we reach out to our American neighbors that we don’t know — but should. A determinative factor in this election was the hard-hit heartland of our country, who, having watched their livelihoods hemorrhage to China and Mexico, feel cast aside and forgotten. To be dismissive of their pain is both wrong and counter to the interests and ethic of our nation. Their anger, their frustration, their cry for change as expressed at the voting booth is not only sincere, but necessary to understand if our country as a whole is to heal.
The faith community has a critical role to play in this dialogue. How amazing would it be for synagogues to partner with houses of worship in the “other America” and share our respective hopes and anxieties for our nation? To ask together, with empathy for one another, how we can all share equally in the American dream. Jewish, Christian or Muslim, urban or rural, the calling card of any faith community is the belief that every human being is created equally in the divine image. If we fail to try to at least understand one another, then the next and necessary step of binding our nations wounds is an impossibility. Now is not the time to curl up in the shell of self-righteous parochialism, now is the time to “go forth” beyond our comfort zone and look for the America we need to know.
Perhaps most importantly, as a Jewish community we must redouble our commitment to the values we hold dear. Every Jew has a calling to see a world in need of rescue, in need of repair, in need of putting out the flames of injustice wherever they are set ablaze. Now is not the time to be complacent. As Jews, we know our obligations to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in our midst; we were once, after all, strangers in a strange land. As Jews, we know that the power of any community or nation is to be measured by its attention to the weakest, not the strongest, link. Now is the time to leverage our passion toward getting involved, engage in the political process and build a future that reflects the love we have for our country, our children and grandchildren.
Of all the questions put to me this past week, the one that sticks out most was one congregant’s inquiry as to whether, given the election results, he still needed to recite the prayer for the country. My answer to him was “absolutely and all the more so.” The calling of the hour is unrestrained gratitude for the blessing of our country. Gratitude that we live in a democratic society where sometimes you win and sometimes you lose but you can always seek to effectuate change. Gratitude that we live in a country founded on the premise that all men and women are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights. Gratitude that we live in a country whose promise is larger than any one individual and any one election cycle. These are blessings deserving of our uninhibited patriotism and innermost prayers.
We pray with gratitude for the gift that is America. We pray for the continued strength of the values that are the foundation of our democracy. We pray wholeheartedly and without hesitation for the elected leadership of our country and most of all, we pray that God bless the United States of America.
Rabbi Dr. Elliot Cosgrove is senior rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.