Andrew Rehfeld’s Prayer and Remarks at the Mo. State House of Representatives, March 1, 2017

Remarks by Andrew Rehfeld, President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis

Thank you for inviting me to deliver the opening prayer this morning for the Missouri State House of Representatives.  

There are of course many prayers that would be appropriate for today given the challenges that we as a state are facing.  Perhaps a prayer for peace, or a prayer reminding us of our sacred obligations to care for the less fortunate. Perhaps a prayer to safeguard our communities or in gratitude for the sacred obligation you are each performing in your execution of public service. 

I have chosen instead a prayer from which each of these sentiments is, I believe, derived. It is the fourth among the 19 central prayers of the Jewish daily prayer service. It is a prayer for wisdom, knowledge and understanding.  

I will say it first in Hebrew as traditional Jews recite it, and then translate it as well. 

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Atah chonein l’adam da-at, um’la-med le-einosh binah.  

Choneinu mei-it’cha choch-mah binah va’da-at.

Baruch atah Adonai, chonein ha-da’at. 

And the translation expanded interpreted for the work you do here every day, 

“God, as these men and women of the State of Missouri gather to impose their will upon all of its citizens through the laws that they enact, may they be given the knowledge and understanding necessary for the challenges they face.  We ask that you bestow upon them knowledge, making laws based on fact not prejudice.  We ask that you provide them the understanding to recognize the complexity of problems they face and to understand that the talents, skills and strategies that brought them to office may not be the ones best suited for making law. And may you provide them the wisdom to continue to do what is right, even when it requires hard choices and sacrifices; sacrifices of themselves, their interests, or the interests of their constituents in order to serve the greater public good.  And let us say, AMEN.” 

Speaker Richardson and Representatives of the State of Missouri, I want to thank you all again for having me speak to you this morning.  

Our community has had a very difficult week.  

On Monday morning, February 20, at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City Missouri, Anita Feigenbaum, director of the cemetery, discovered over 150 gravestones toppled. Gravestones: the last, defenseless reminder of a person’s time here on earth; the very physical embodiment of memory, of history, of continuity through time.   

We do not yet know if this act was simply a cruelly insensitive act of violence by a group of teenagers, or something more sinister targeted at the Jewish community.  But whatever the motivations of those who committed this act, we do know it is only the most recent of many affecting our community.  

Less than three years ago a citizen of Missouri traveled to Overland Park Kansas in order to kill Jews; he managed to murder three individuals in the parking lot of the Jewish Community campus there. Over the last year our Jewish institutions in St. Louis have been the target of multiple bomb threats, most recently six weeks ago that required the evacuation of our Jewish Community Center.  

The site of hundreds of senior day care participants and young children fleeing from an unknown but targeted threat was simply too much to bear. 

What is striking now about the resurgence of anti-Semitism is that so much progress seemed to have been made in acceptance of minorities and people who are different.  Our nation had become a more accepting and open.  And our community is so integrated that the three people who were murdered in Overland Park Kansas on the campus of the Jewish community center three years ago by a man explicitly aiming to kill Jews…well they were not even Jewish.  

And so last week’s cemetery attacks were both surprising and not surprising.  But they did serve as a wake up call that mobilized a community.  

On Wednesday afternoon, two days after the desecration was discovered, a crowd of over 2500 people mobilized at the cemetery to restore and hold an interfaith vigil to honor the memory of the departed.  2500 people, Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and every other kind.  And we stood there in profound solidarity against this trend of hate and intolerance that we see rising again against all minorities in America today.  

I have to thank the elected leadership of this state for standing with us that day.  To Governor Eric Greitens whose personal calls of support to me and suggestions and work to create a meaningful volunteer clean up event for the cemetery helped mobilize our community in an impossibly short time.  To Speaker Richardson and Majority Floor Leader Cierpiot who recessed this body early on Wednesday, allowing each of you to stand in solidarity with us against hate, violence, and prejudice today.   To several in this body who joined us, including Minority Leader Beatty McCann and Representatives Mitten and Newman. To the over 1,000 individuals from 40 states, and 4 nations who have contributed almost $150,000 to the Jewish Federation’s Cemetery Restoration and Security Fund.  And to the multiple efforts by Muslim communities around the country to mobilize to provide significant fundraising support to restore the cemeteries in our community.  We stand in gratitude and humility.  

As we gathered for the clean up and interfaith vigil on Wednesday afternoon, I had the honor of standing with Vice President Pence, Governor Eric Greitens, and Anita Feigenbaum on the back of a pickup truck to deliver a clear and direct message against anti-Semitism, hate and prejudice.  Along with the Mufti from the Islamic Center of St. Louis, a Deacon from the St. Louis Archdiocese, and our own community’s rabbinic leadership we delivered a clear message of the three things we must all do to combat the scourge of hate and bigotry: 

  • Name it
  • Condemn it
  • Do something about it. 

We must Name it:  call it for what it is—racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism and hate in any form, and call it unacceptable. 

Condemn it:  fight the culture of hate by speaking up against it, publicly and frequently, publicly shaming those who would traffic in hate speech.   

Do something about it:  Educate against intolerance and bias.  Mobilize communities for action.  And invest in infrastructure necessary to keep all of our minority communities secure.  And I invite you to learn more by arranging a personal visit with me to the Federation’s Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, and its exhibit Change Begins with Me.  

I am so very grateful to each of you for inviting me here today to deliver this prayer and message to you.  I pray again that you may have the knowledge, wisdom and understanding to join with us going forward.  

To name it. 

To condemn it 

And to do something about it. 

And let us all say again, “Amen.”