Don’t let others be scared into silence


Clockwise from top left: Rabbi James Bennett, Rabbi Daniel Bogard, Rabbi Carnie Rose and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss


Bullying is happening in our St. Louis Jewish community, and we can no longer be silent about it.

As rabbis and community leaders, we recognize that we have taken on public roles. We each have different paths, but we have embarked on this process with a trepidation surpassed only by our hope for the good work we aspire to accomplish. We step forward with a deep love for the Jewish people, a reverence for our history and tradition, and an optimism for the future of our Jewish community.

But our optimism is waning.

There are those in our community who would rather scare people into silence than engage with the difficult and challenging topics that face our people and our world.

We know what it is to be passionate. We understand and respect the ways in which that passion can drive a person to advocate for change — often necessary change — in our world. Indeed, each of us has proudly participated in lobbying on behalf of issues for which we felt strongly, and we will continue to speak out on the issues we see as crucial. That is not what we are discussing here.

The bullying that we are witnessing, the bullying that we are experiencing, is a deliberate and coordinated attempt to punish those with whom one disagrees and to create an atmosphere of fear and discomfort so that others choose to not speak on topics rather than face similar repercussions. It comes from all sides of the political spectrum. It is insidious, it is hurtful and it is very personal. Worst of all, it is working.

All too often, this bullying emerges in the guise of righteous activism in defense of Israel and Zionism. But the real issue here is not Israel nor Zionism nor even the boundaries of our communal conversations. Instead, we are in danger of yielding our communal agenda to those who are more interested in silencing voices that challenge their point of view.

This is not behavior that we would tolerate on any other subject, and it should not be a behavior that we tolerate on this one.

In recent years we each have each experienced this in different ways, including being the victim of vicious rumors that include false information about ourselves and our families, public posts on social media that attack our personal character and attempt to get us fired or lose our livelihood, campaigns to have us disinvited into spaces and more.

The very name Israel comes from the story when Jacob wrestled with an angel of God and, emerging victorious, the angel said to him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). The root of the word Israel comes from the root of the word that means to wrestle, and that wrestling has always been the very foundation of our Jewish faith. We grapple, we argue, we struggle and, like Jacob, sometimes we are wounded in the process, but we emerge transformed. It is the very act of wrestling that allows us to learn, to grow, to adapt, to evolve, to thrive.

Yet, the space for exploration is narrowing. With it, our capacity to dream is diminishing. And with that, our potential for a creative, diverse, vibrant Jewish future is disappearing.

We are not the only ones in the community to experience bullying. And everyone in the community suffers from it.

In recent years we each have experienced this in different ways, including being the victim of vicious rumors that include false information about ourselves and our families, public posts on social media that attack our personal character and attempt to get us fired or lose our livelihood, campaigns to have us disinvited into spaces and more.

This climate pushes all of our Jewish institutions into a defensive position. Rabbis, Jewish communal professionals and even lay leaders are choosing to censor themselves or speak in broad strokes, sacrificing collective, thoughtful public leadership on crucial issues. Energy that should be spent on building vibrant, meaningful contemporary Jewish life are dissipated in the efforts to defend activities or prepare in advance for predicted attacks. Perhaps most sadly, there is growing anecdotal evidence that fewer and fewer qualified and capable leaders are seeking particular leadership roles in the belief that the work involved in these roles is too political, unrewarding and dangerous.

The four of us refuse to give up on our vision of what our Jewish community can be: a people that recognize the divine in one another and seek to access that divine spark through a deeper understanding and engagement in which we have the capacity for transformation.

This transformation is not to a homogenous society. To the contrary, it is a world in which we are all our best versions of ourselves and together we encompass the widest array of what our Jewish community has to offer.

To that end, we have committed ourselves to coming together once a month for a public program to talk about the difficult issues facing our community, to listen to one another with respect and to open our hearts to the diversity of our opinions. Though the four of us are quite different, we have already felt ourselves strengthened and boosted through one another.

To reach a better future, we all need to do the work. We call on our boards, our donors and our lay leadership to protect Jewish professionals in this town from these patterns of workplace harassment and to actively reject this bullying behavior.

Every one of us who hears a rumor must question its veracity or go directly to the subject about whom they have heard. We must challenge those who couch their organizational criticism in personal attacks. We must speak out, every one of us, when we see bullying, and all the more so when it is against someone with whom we disagree, in order to eliminate a culture of intimidation and build a model for principled and respectful dissent. And we call on each of us as individuals to take seriously the responsibility of creating a vibrant and meaningful Jewish communal discourse.

Our Jewish community has, in its history, felt threatened and turned insular. But our greatest moments of growth have always been when we have opened the doors wide and allowed those who want a seat at the table to enter.

Let us open the doors, let us build a bigger table, and let us experience the true vibrancy that our community has to offer.
Rabbi Jim Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth. Rabbi Daniel Bogard serves Central Reform Congregation. Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. Rabbi Carnie Rose serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.