“What would you do if you woke up one morning, to find a huge swastika spray-painted on your garage or front door? How would you react?”
That was a question posted in one of the rabbinic list-serve discussion boards to which I subscribe.
Some responses included:
“I would call the police and local authorities, and ask them to start an immediate investigation,”
“I wouldn’t want my children to see this, so I would spray paint and cover it completely as soon as I could get my hands on a spray can.”
Other comments included rage, deep sadness, concerns, and a call for immediate radical, national action.
But I found myself in deep thought.
How would I react if I woke up to find a huge swastika painted on my own garage door? After all, I am, as far as I know, the first Rabbi to live in Pines Lake, a community that up until the 60’s was completely closed to Jews and people of color.
First, I would not panic. I would not panic or get too upset because to me, painting a swastika on someone’s garage door, in the middle of the night, is a cowardly act of sin’at chinam, unjustified hatred.
As a rabbi, I would want to take this opportunity to teach our community, and whoever did this, that my husband and I are pretty nice and cool people. To do this I would invite everyone in our community to come and draw pictures of love, flowers, rainbows and peace signs around that horrible symbol, while incorporating it’s 4 broken branches into one complete painting of colors and messages of love to other human beings.
I would invite the local newspapers to engage with us. To write a story on how a “whole community of people gathered together, and turned one act of cowardice and hatred, into a joyous opportunity for community building. Then, I would send a note via social media to invite those who drew the swastika on our garage door, to a visit for tea, cookies, and talk.
Recognizing that mostly, acts of hatred and intimidation stem from fear, ignorance, or both – I would want to give to whoever did this, an opportunity to get to know us, and get them to witness first hand that THIS is just another human being, who has no horns. I would invite them to sit with Dave and I, pet our dogs, and ask them where they learned to hate us?
I would want all the children of Wayne, of appropriate age of course, to learn and read about this incident. I would want them to engage in conversations, while I go from school to school, from class to class, and teach our children that “hate” has no place here. Only love, community building, and acceptance.
The likelihood for this hypothetical scenario happening here in our town these days is pretty slim, although Wayne had its share of KKK and German-American Bund activity. For example, before WW II there were restrictive housing agreements that excluded non-whites and Jews from desirable lake communities like, Pacanack Lake and Pines Lake.
But things have been pretty harmonious for decades now. No open intolerance has been recorded recently as far as I know, and nowadays, other than that Confederate Flag which was erected about a month ago at the Paris Inn, thankfully, we don’t really hear about or experience major hate crimes in our Town of Wayne.
But not all small towns across our country, unfortunately, get to enjoy this type of relatively peaceful coexistence.
“250 white supremacists marched across the University of Virginia campus with tiki torches, deliberately evoking images of medieval mobs and Klan-cross burnings,” Joe Heim reported of the alarming Alt-right events that took place in Charlottesville Virginia, exactly one year ago.
“Then,” he continues, “an even larger number rallied the next day. Decades ago” reported Heim, “[those supremacists] would have marched with hoods to hide their identity, but this time they showed their faces proudly, unafraid, yelling, ‘White Lives Matter, go the ….. [profanity word] back to Africa,’ ‘[profanity word] you [N word].’ ‘Our Blood, our Soil, The Jews Will Not replace Us.”
The chants continued to echo, as the group paraded in circles, then climbed to the pavilion and joined together around the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Rally-attendees arrived in groups, waving nationalist banners and chanting catchphrases. Many carried shields and clubs, pistols, and long guns.
Of course counter-protesters had also arrived: members of anti-fascist groups joined by local residents and church groups counter-yelled at the rally-people. Many of them also carried sticks and shields. At some point, a few dozen clergy members clasped arms, joining together in a march singing “This Little Light of Mine.” Yes, this happened in 2017, in the United States of our America.
But one former white supremacist, Frank Meeink, was not there.
As some of you may have heard in my short presentation during our incredibly powerful Slichot service on September 1st, I have talked about former skinhead Frank Meeink, whom I heard about quite some time ago. I bought his book, and sat for a few straight hours reading it, mesmerized, with my jaw dropped. Every now and then you could hear me saying out loud, to myself, “Oh My God. I just can’t believe this is for real.”
But it was real.
For me, this book was the very first eye-opener; a deep-dive into the life of a truly reformed individual, who went from sheer hatred, to working with the Anti Defamation League.
Before learning about Frank Meeink and his dark history, I had never really bothered to read or learn about the lives and background of former neo-Nazis. I didn’t care—I didn’t want to care. I was simply appalled and sickened by the very thought of “New Nazis.”
Until about a decade ago, I couldn’t find the Jewish way within me to forgive those who have terrorized us, forced us to experience again and again the atrocities of the Holocaust, not allowing us to heal, to place our past in the past and lay it to rest.
But as a Jew, especially as twice ordained clergywoman, I am required by our tradition to forgive when I am asked for forgiveness. It’s just what we do. And in this book, Frank Meeink has asked for forgiveness of his readers.
Which is why I decided to discuss the ultimate act of forgiveness as my last sermon, before we go our separate ways this evening, after Neila, the metaphorically spiritual closing of Sha’arei Shamayim; the gates of heavens.
I wanted to have the chance to share with you my view on true forgiveness; even for those who are considered the lowly scum of the Earth. Everyone deserves “mechila,” true and deep forgiveness, including those who hated me, my people, and “the other” they never had the chance to really get to know.
I wanted to give all of us here the tools to answer a question we may be asked one day, by our children, students, or people we know. I wanted each of us to think about it, and understand that as Jews, we simply must forgive when we are asked to do so. THAT is the main message of our High Holidays each and every year: to heal ourselves by asking for forgiveness, and grant forgiveness even to those who did the unimaginable horrific things to us individually, communally, or even nationally.
Frank Meeink chose pretty early in life to be one of the most well-known skinhead gang members in our country. But after getting to know an African American, as well as a kind, Jewish man who gave him a second chance at pushing the “reset button,” Frank started his own journey of choosing a different life.
At only 18 years old, Frank Meeink went to prison for several years for kidnapping a man he suspected was gay, and for beating senseless another man, an African American, for several hours.
Yes, he was THAT bad.
But while serving time in prison, Frank Meeink was exposed to people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds and started
reevaluating his own racist beliefs. His transformation solidified after
the Oklahoma City bombing, when he saw the iconic photo of a firefighter cradling a lifeless girl in his arms.
Over a period of a few years, utilizing the leadership skills God had blessed him with, Frank Meeink became a spokesman for the Anti Defamation League, regularly lecturing to students about racial diversity and acceptance. He also now works with the Philadelphia Flyers on an anti-hate program called Harmony Through Hockey, where he shows students how to create inclusive, compassionate, and nonviolent climates in their schools and communities.
For me, the story of Frank Meeink opened a door to the realization that God is really good, because God gives us the tools to make choices in our lives. All we have to do is make the decision, then work with it, each to the best of our abilities. But the choices are always ours to make.
Frank Meeink made a conscious choice to separate and free himself from the claws of bigotry. He opened his heart and soul while going through the process of Teshuva (repenting), Charata (regret), and asking for Slicha (forgiveness).
And Frank Meeink is not the only former Nazi who is speaking up about getting out of these hate groups these days. Last month I watched a documentary about former neo Nazi Christian Picciolini who became a mentor to young teenagers trapped in hatred circles. And this week People Magazine featured the story of Reformed white supremacist Derek Black, who became the heir of his father’s Neo Nazi’s Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site.
With the rise of racism and so much hatred in our country these days, you must agree that we all so need to hear such stories about remorse and redemption of these individuals whose souls were corrupted at early age by hatred and prejudice.
Rabbi David Blumenthal said that Forgiveness isn’t easy to ask for, and it isn’t easy to provide. But the message of Yom Kippur is that it is something that we, all of us here, should strive for.
Forgiveness requested and forgiveness given is in our power to both offer and accept. We do not need to wait until next year. It is a gift that will bring healing to those seeking forgiveness. It is a gift that will bring us healing too.
Yom Kippur’s message suggests to us that no matter how terrible the offense, we should strive to acknowledge our wrongs, and make them right. From the Talmud we learn that one who harms another human being must not only apologize, but do everything possible to make that person “whole” again.
Frank Meeink and other former Neo-Nazis I’ve learned about since, have done that. Their actions provided those whom they harmed an opportunity to heal, and these former bullies also gave THEMSELVES an opportunity to make a 180-degree turn, heal their own wounds, and redeem themselves.
Upon witnessing true repentance on the part of someone who injured us with his or her words or actions, we have to try to let go of the pain in order to set ourselves free.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote: “Forgiving is not something we do for another person. Forgiveness is something that happens inside us. It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps, most importantly a letting go of the role of being a victim.”
Yom Kippur comes to teach us that without the ability to forgive, we lose the ability to move forward. We maintain our own sense of victimhood, and we live trapped by the past, rather than freed to move forward as a whole human being.
And in our own lives, our own relationships, surely we all have had hurts and disappointments. Our hurts ultimately can’t be mended by granting forgiveness to someone else, or even by their accepting responsibility.
Forgiveness is something that we do to define ourselves. It’s a rejection of victimhood in favor of a self-image of wholeness.
Forgiveness isn’t easy to ask for, and it often isn’t easy to provide. But the message of Yom Kippur is that it is definitely something for which we should strive.
So what would I do, and how would I react if I woke up one morning, to find a huge swastika paint-sprayed on my garage or front door?
I would first think about granting an opportunity for the offender to perform a Teshuvah, and for myself to escape the role of a victim.
And then, using the story of Frank Meeink and others like him, I would teach all children, of all ages, the essence of Yom Kippur; to turn evil into a tool for growth.
Later on this afternoon, we will engage in a Yizkor service. A time when we remember all our loved ones, among them people who died in the Holocaust, family members who died defending freedom, fighting to free those enslaved by the machinery of Nazism and hatred.
And then, at the sound of the last Shofar blast, the Tekiah Gedolah during Neila, may we all be inspired to continue to grapple with even the hardest of tasks in repairing our own relationships.
May we be blessed with the capacity to free ourselves by internalizing the essence of spiritual healing and true forgiveness, even towards those whose actions were so violent and harmful, like the actions of former white supremacist, Frank Meeink.
As we reflect on our lives and actions this Yom Kippur, may we each experience the binding up of old wounds, so that we may become instruments of tikkun, mending our families, our congregation, our society, but mostly – ourselves.
In this Shanah Chadasha ha’ba’ah aleinu le’Tovah, in this new and good upcoming year, may we be blessed with the ability to continue to live a life of inner peace, understanding, tolerance and forgiveness.
Baruch Ata Adonai, Praised are You Adonai our God, who inspires us to create a year of renewed spiritual existence, full of sweetness and a positive outlook on life.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah everyone, May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for all that is Good, wholesome and peaceful.
Your Loving Rabbi Meeka