I was born in the shadow of the Holocaust. My earliest memories are of Holocaust survivors coming to our house, telling their stories to my parents. My father was known for welcoming people and helping them find jobs and become part of the community. I was too little to understand what the survivors were saying but not too young to understand that they were grieving and in pain.

These memories and subsequent ones determined the direction my life would take. Long before I became a Rabbi, I was an activist for Jewish causes. Even as a teenager I realized my responsibility to serve my people.

Rabbi Debbie Israel

However, throughout my life, I have been grateful that the horrors of the Holocaust were behind us. My gratitude in no small measure comes from concerns about my descendants—most importantly (to me), my four precious grandchildren. I believed “never again.”

And now I worry about their future and the future of all Jewish children. Antisemitism has risen and I fear for them. On Feb. 29, the Center for Antisemitism Research of the Anti-Defamation League reported: “In the months since the October 7, 2023, terrorist attack in Israel, the global Jewish community has witnessed an increase in antisemitic activity, unprecedented in recent years.” 

It went on to report that anti-Jewish trope beliefs continue to increase, especially among younger Americans.

Next week, Jews around the world will celebrate the first recorded experience of collective antisemitism, found in the Bible’s Book of Esther. The holiday is called Purim and it tells the story of the antisemite Haman, who convinces the King of Persia to annihilate all of the Jews. The story ends well; Haman and his sons are hung on the gallows built for the Jews, and the king gives the Jews permission to protect themselves throughout the land.

The hero of our story is Esther, a Jewish woman who is selected to be queen. After the edict to kill all of the Jews, her uncle Mordecai tells her that even Esther, the king’s beloved queen, will die because she is a Jew. He tells her, “If you are silent and you do nothing at this time somebody else will save the Jewish people. But who knows, was it not for just this moment that you became a Queen, with access to King Achashverosh in the royal palace?”

Throughout my life those words have haunted me and challenged me. During trying or challenging times, I remember Mordecai’s words, “…who knows, was it not just for this moment…” 

I pray that you will take those words to heart if or when you encounter antisemitism or xenophobia directed to any group. Perhaps it was just for this moment that you are in that circumstance, to act heroically and justly. 

Rabbi Debbie Israel is a founding member of the Interfaith Clergy Alliance of South County. She is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Emeth and a community rabbi of Santa Cruz County. She can be reached at [email protected].

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