Fear is walking the land. Kids are afraid to go to school. Jews are afraid to go to synagogues and Jewish community centers. A White Supremacist drives down Chicago streets using any minority man, woman or child for target practice. Disgruntled employees open fire on colleagues, financial loss triggers a murderous rampage at a brokerage house in Atlanta.
Three white men drag a black man to his death in Texas, chained to the back of their pickup truck, and in Wyoming, Matthew Shepard is beaten then tied to a fence in freezing weather until he bled to death, because he was gay.
And just this Wednesday, an angry man walked into the Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas and opened fire – killing seven. Yes, there is no doubt – fear is walking the land.
It was brought home to me most poignantly shortly after the shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. A family in our congregation came to see me with their 9-year-old son. They wanted me to talk with him, because he had become so frightened by the shooting, that he kept insisting that his parents remove the Mezuzah from the door of their house for fear that another Buford Furrow might go out looking for Jews, see the Mezuzah and shoot them.
How can this be, after all this time? Inquisitions have long past. Ghettos of medieval Europe a distant memory. Even Hitler has been dead for half a century already. So how can it still be true, that here on the cusp of the 21st century a little 9 year old boy in Pacific Palisades is still frightened to have a Mezuzah on his door?
Jewish fears – real or imagined follow us into the next millennium.
Indeed, after Buford Furrow should we be fearful that anti-Semitism or White supremicism is on the rise in America? Not really – for exactly the opposite is true! It is one of the great ironies of Jewish history that today when Jews feel suddenly so vulnerable again, we are unquestionably safer than we have ever been in the entire history of Jewish civilization.
Even the ADL reports that the percentage of Americans who believe in anti-Semitic stereotypes is down from 29% in 1964 to only 12% in 1998. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago, certainly in my lifetime that Jews were barred from social clubs, civic organizations, corporations, industries, colleges, hospitals, buying houses and even eating in certain restaurants all across America.
Listen to this nursery rhyme that appeared in every edition of Mother Goose up to 1940, as well as The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes and Grolier Society’s Book of Knowledge:
Jack sold his egg
To a rogue of a Jew
Who cheated him out
Of half of his due.
The Jew got the goose
Which he vowed he would kill,
Resolving at once
His pockets to fill.
Can you imagine going to Storyopolis, picking up Mother Goose and reading that today? Of course not. We can easily forget how far we have come, how totally integrated we are into American life, and what a radically different society we live in today. Not only isn’t this Germany of the 1930s, it isn’t even America of the 1930’s anymore.
And think of the remarkable response of the non-Jewish community to every public anti-Semitic insult. When my home synagogue was firebombed in Sacramento this year, the 3,000 seat civic center was overflowing that Friday night not just with Jews, but with Catholics, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, and members of every sect of the Protestant community. Black churches, gay churches, Asian churches, along side new age practitioners, sat hand in hand with city council members, the police chief, and representatives from the state legislature and governor’s office. It was a spontaneous tidal wave of grief and support from the community - for the Jews.
Then Reverend Faith Whitmore from the United Methodist Church, which was having a convention in Sacramento at the time, stood up and announced that they had taken a special offering of her members to help rebuild the temple, handed the rabbi a check for $6,000 and then hugged him.
My parents were there, and they cried. And so they told me did nearly everyone else in the congregation. “Never again” suddenly took on a whole different meaning. Perhaps “Never again” will we have to feel so utterly alone. For this my friends is the real America, the true nature of communities in which we live. And I know without hesitation, that if something bad ever happened to our congregation, the local clergy and their churches in the Palisades would be there for us in an instant.
So what is worth being fearful of? That as a society we have abrogated any responsibility for providing mental health care to the Buford Furrows of the world, who before they shoot and destroy cry out for help, cry out for intervention, cry out for attention.
Of course there is hatred in the world. Of course there is violence, especially in America. Should we enact sane and effective gun control in a Los Angeles where there are more gun dealers than schools or McDonalds, and where more people under 35 years of age are killed by firearms than die from AIDS and motor vehicle crashes combined? Of course we should.
And there is another child I can’t get out of my mind. This one a student sobbing as she stood outside her high school, a place called “Columbine,” in Littleton, Colorado. “We should be safe at school,” she cried. “We should be safe at school, school should be a safe place.” And yet for too many of us, no place seems safe anymore – certainly not schools. Like a waking nightmare the names haunt us with their tragic familiarity: Bethel, Alaska; Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Oregon; Port Huron, Michigan; Fayettville, Tennesee.
The shooters ranged from a pint-sized 11-year old to an 18-year old honor student. The deadly outcome – 9 dead and 30 more injured.
And that was before Littleton – where two teenagers wreak unspeakable tragedy, death and destruction, murdering 13, killing themselves, wounding dozens and sewing confusion and terror into the hearts of every parent in the nation.
No place seems safe anymore – certainly not schools
At least it seems as though our schools are less and less safe. And so we fear. But someone once said “fear – F.E.A.R.” really stands for “False evidence appearing real.” That most of our fears are primarily in our own minds and like ghosts and boogie men under the bed, disappear the minute the light of knowledge, reason or truth is shined upon them. So if we take the time to examine what studies of kid’s lives today actually reveal, what do we find?
We find that the rates of murder, school violence, drug abuse, criminal arrest, violent death and gun fatality among middle and upper middle class teenagers has actually declined over the past 15 to 30 years. But the sensationalism of the media coverage has increased dramatically at the same time. It’s the newest trend: “Real TV,” 24-hours a day.
But perhaps more significant is that for all the hoopla about the effect of video games, rap lyrics, movie violence and peer pressure, most kids still want their parents’ approval over every thing else. And there is always only one way to teach a child anything you value – it’s to live that value yourself. That’s why Albert Schweitzer once said, “Example isn’t the main thing in influencing others – it’s the only thing.” And he meant your example.
Two months after the mass shooting at Columbine, hundreds of Coloradans gathered for a summit on youth violence. There were hours of testimony, lectures, and discussions from local, state and federal officials, clergy, youth workers and various experts. But when the youth themselves finally spoke their message was clear, direct and from the heart: Parents should spend more time with their children and do a better job of instilling values.
“The reason I turned out good is because I was blessed with a mother who still built me up regardless of what other people thought of me,” said a teenager from Denver. Now what this boy is saying is crucial. One study recently showed that the average parent spends no more than12 ½ minutes a week one on one in any meaningful way with his or her child. 12 ½ minutes!
The message that kids have been saying throughout the country in forum after forum is simply this: parents and teachers need to be more involved.
Weren’t we all shocked to realize that Dylan Klebold’s parents had no idea that their son’s room in their own home, ten feet away behind a closed door was filled with home-made bombs, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, a sawed off shotgun and hand guns? “How could they not have known?” we asked in amazement.
But neither did the parents of the Ventura high school student who was arrested last may for intending to blow up his school and kill fellow students. Police found in his room a .22-caliber rifle, a shotgun and eight to ten pipe bombs as well as 105 videotapes of himself blowing up children’s toys and other objects over a two-year period. And his parents had no idea.
The good news is that research consistently shows that the steady presence of even one caring adult can alter a teenager’s life for the better. That’s why we are pushing Koreh – LA (The Jewish Literacy Project) so much this year – because you can be that one adult who makes a difference in the future of a child.
But research also shows that teenagers who are alienated from their parents are more likely to have mental health problems, academic problems and trouble with the law.
The fact is that staying connected with your kids during these crucial years is the single best protection social scientists have ever been able to find. Studies show that something as basic as having dinner with your teenager three times a week brings the chances of suicide, depression and aggressive behavior down dramatically. I know it sounds too simplistic to be true. But it is.
You see the power lies in one of the most profound needs of every human being – a need amplified ten fold by the insecurities and raging hormones of adolescence. The need to be somebody. The need to feel that we matter.
T.S.Eliot once wrote, “Half of the harm that is done in the world is due to people who want to feel important.” When you feel like a nothing and a nobody, and everyone is putting you down, rejecting you, you can always pick up a gun and get instant recognition.
So what is really worth being fearful of today? It isn’t the lone gunman who, after all only makes the news because it’s such an extraordinary occurrence. No, my fears are of a different kind. My fears are for the emotional health of our children, and the future spiritual health of our nation.
What’s really worth being fearful of, is the tragic state of self worth of young people today. Do you know that there has been an astronomical rise in teenage plastic surgery in the past ten years? That in the last 6 years alone the number of men and boys who have had plastic surgery has increased 500%? With an equally dramatic rise in the number of boys who take steroids and other muscle enhancers.
Why? Because of the secret life of boys. When I was a boy I used to look at the back of comic books as much as the front – because on the back was an ad for Charles Atlas. Some of you remember it – “I was once a 98 pound weakling, and bullies kicked sand in my face at the beach; and then I found Charles Atlas. They don’t kick sand at me anymore.”
When I was young I was always the smallest kid in my class. And it wasn’t fun. I was picked on and harassed by everyone bigger than me, and that was just about everyone. I remember dreaming about those ads – but of course I never did anything about it. I just internalized that sense of being small, and vulnerable and somehow “less than” others. And I knew I needed to be funny and clever and smart and easygoing and stoic to survive.
I was so insecure that (as some of you know), I’ve been an over-achiever ever since as a way of coping with that insecurity. In fact, it took most of my life – along with a reasonable amount of therapy to realize I wasn’t small anymore.
And today? Boys and men have now fallen even more victim to the exact same disease that used to afflict primarily girls and women – the idea that self worth is primarily a reflection of your physical body.
What matters is how you look, not who you are. So increasing numbers of teenage boys are killing themselves so their bodies will live up to the unrealistic buff, six-pack-stomach male body image that has become the idealized version of what makes boys and men successful, attractive, desirable.
And it’s worth being fearful of just how dangerous feelings themselves are for boys. There is a reason that every single shooting of the past several years in every high school across America was by boys – angry, hurt, disgruntled, disaffected, disconnected, rejected, vengeful boys.
From sandbox to schoolroom to camps to sports to television, boys are continually taught to be buff and tough, act cool, be stoic, hide weakness, don’t cry, hide pain, achieve dominance over others, crush the competition, exercise power and hide your feelings.
Revealing feelings just gets you mocked, and induces shame in boys. And that is surely worth being fearful of, and incredibly sad about.
Remember the movie Private Ryan? One of the most powerful scenes for me takes place the day Hanks leads a risky assault on a German outpost. Two of his best men are killed and some soldiers are so angry they want to mutiny. Hanks saves the day and the mission by refusing to admit defeat and inspiring the men to stay on course.
Then, when the men return to duty, he searches for a spot in the area where no one can see him. He literally sneaks behind a boulder, sits down out of sight, and cries. He lets it all out – and he just cries.
That is what real men and women are supposed to do. To cry at sorrow and loss. To express our genuine emotions as we feel them – whether laughter or tears, sorrow or joy. This we must teach to our sons; this we must teach to our daughters, and this we must teach to ourselves.
After all, how will light win out over darkness and love over hate? How will we together conquer our fears in the year ahead? By inscribing ourselves in the Book of Life, by living our lives to the fullest each day, even in the face of our fears. That my friends is the true meaning of heroism. Not being fearless – but having your fears and acting anyway.
Knowing there is hatred. Knowing there is prejudice. Yet having faith that in spite of all our fears, there will always be more tolerance than prejudice, more love than hatred, more compassion than cruelty in the world. And by following the advice that Morrie gave to Mitch in Tuesdays With Morrie:
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life,” he said. “They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they are chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is simply to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to the community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
What better way to live your life this year?