Rabbi Yael Romer
A Call to Action
I invite members of our congregation, faith leaders, and members of their congregations, political and civic leaders, and individuals of all walks of life to join me in wearing a kippah from Saturday, January 4th to Saturday, January 11th as an act of solidarity.
I want to take this opportunity to wish each of you a wonderful 2020 of health, happiness, and peace.
While I am optimistic about the new secular year and the possibility of courage, integrity, and kindness to take root, I am saddened to have seen 2019’s close accompanied by growing antipathy for the other and a scourge of increasingly violent antisemitic attacks. The innocent victims - children, women, and elderly - were shopping, walking, and celebrating Chanukah. I’m pained by the hatred and violence commonplace in our society. I’m offended by those employing racism and xenophobia in their political platforms. I’m anguished that Jewish people are attacked because of their religion.
Increasing antisemitism is emblematic of the societal normalization of racism and hatred. Hatred and racism breed violence and we know, all too well, that historically, antisemitism has proven to be the first line of attack in a society that normalizes hatred of the other. In the midst of the wave of antisemitism that is taking hold in the World, the United States, and New York, many of us feel that we must act.
We must unequivocally condemn hatred in all of its forms. We must prioritize, protect, and sustain our Jewish community. We must affirm and prioritize our American values that protect diversity, freedom of religion, and every person’s inherent right to equality, protection, and safety in our society.
It is a sad statement that in 2020 the Jewish community understands that safety behooves us to lock the doors to our synagogues. It is a sad statement that in 2020 the Jewish community understands that safety behooves us to engage a security presence for Shabbat and holidays. These actions may make us less vulnerable when we are attending synagogue, but the Jews who have been most vulnerable, and the primary targets in these latest antisemitic attacks, have been individuals who are easily identifiable as Jewish by their Hasidic garb or by their personal practice of wearing a kippah as part of their daily habit.
Some of you may be choosing to participate in one of the solidarity marches that are scheduled in various locations throughout New York on January 5th. And while this is important, one day of solidarity will not adequately address the fundamental targeting of the other.
Having just celebrated Chanukah, I want to draw your attention to an essential component of the holiday. It is our tradition to place the Chanukah Menorah in our windows so that the light can be perceived by those passing. The Talmud contains extensive direction concerning the importance of publicizing the miracle. But the Talmud also communicates that in a time of “perceived danger,” one can evade the ritual of publicizing the miracle in deference to safety, placing the Menorah in one’s home, on one’s table, and away from the gaze of the hostile world outside.
In 2017, Daniella Greenbaum wrote “Lighting Hanukkah Candles Under the Swastika’s Shadow”, an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times. Greenbaum describes the family of Akiva and Rachel Posner, who courageously displayed their Chanukah Menorah in 1932, defying the rising Nazi hatred that was taking hold in Germany. The Posner’s Chanukah Menorah is on exhibit at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, but each year their descendants borrow the family menorah from the museum and light it in the window of their home. Greenbaum's essay ends with these words:
Even now, we are lucky to live in a place where what constituted an act of defiance for Akiva and Rachel Posner can exist here a quotidian exercise of religious freedom. But as the Hanukkah story also reminds us, that freedom can vanish almost overnight. In this year more than most, it needs to be defended against the old-new bigotries that would extinguish its light.
It is time for us, living in the United States of America, to have the courage to place our Chanukah Menorahs in our windows.
In March of 2019, a hateful assault in a New Zealand mosque left 51 dead and 49 wounded. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern immediately proposed changes in gun legislation and wore a hijab expressing solidarity with the Muslim community.
In the aftermath of the horrific attack on the last night of Chanukah, in which members of a Hassidic community in Monsey were attacked in their Rabbi’s home as they celebrated Chanukah, I am inviting members of our congregation, faith leaders and members of their congregations, political and civic leaders, and individuals of all walks of life to join me in wearing a kippah from Saturday, January 4th to Saturday, January 11th as an act of solidarity.
When any one of us is marginalized, we are all under attack; when any one of us is targeted, we are all threatened. An attack on one is an attack on us all. May people of every faith and race stand shoulder-to-shoulder, refusing to tolerate hatred. Become part of the action; share the invitation #kippahsolidarity on your social media.
May we have the courage to stand together, affirm our unity, and protect what ought to be the inherent rights of all.
Rabbi Yael Romer, DD
Mother Earth's Storehouse in Kingston
July 31st, 2019
Dear Members of CEHV,
As many of you are aware, I have been meeting continually with the owners of Mother Earth since becoming aware of the antisemitic incident in March 2019 at their Kingston store. I have worked together with two of my clergy colleagues, Rev. Kendra VanHouten and Dr. Gregory Simpson, with whom I serve on the Kingston Interfaith Council. We have been giving input and communicating our communities needs in regards to the steps that they have taken. It is our continued goal to ensure that they have set proactive policies in place and communicated them to their staff and patrons a zero-tolerance policy for hate of any kind.
I am grateful to how responsive the owners of Mother Earth have been. They have taken thorough and important steps to address our concerns and implement concrete changes. They have used this incident as an opportunity to examine best practices as a community business. The owners have articulated fitting steps for communicating values of integrity, diversity, safety, and respect in their stores. They have used the opportunity to further their charitable energies towards making a positive difference in our community at large.
I am confident that they are committed to maintaining these practices and values as their store’s culture going forward.
At this juncture, I will be returning to shop at the Mother Earth Stores. I will renew my participation and support of our synagogue's SCRIP program with Mother Earth, and I feel confident in supporting members of the congregation in resuming their patronage at Mother Earth’s Storehouse.
I want to thank members of the congregation for their ongoing concern and vigilance that our Jewish values require that we address bigotry and racism in our community and replace it with communication, concrete action, moral integrity, and reconciliation.
Rabbi Yael Romer, DD
April 8th, 2019
I was heartened to hear back from the owners of Mother Earth's Storehouse on April 8th, 2019, and I appreciate the initial steps they have taken internally. I await their public statement of accountability for what occurred and their commitment to creating policy and store culture that actively combats hate and hate speech. I will keep you updated.
April 5th, 2019
Dear Members of CEHV,
Many of you are aware of an antisemitic incident that happened at Mother Earth’s Kingston store on March 11th, 2019.
This incident has been discussed on social media, reported in the Daily Freeman, and picked up by national and international news publications.
The incident as described was horrific. There is no place for antisemitism in our community.
The response, or lack of adequate response, from Mother Earth compelled me to initiate a meeting with the store’s owners, along with two clergy people with whom I serve on the Kingston Interfaith Council, Rev. Kendra VanHouten and Dr. Gregory Simpson. In our meeting, we shared our concerns and the concerns of over 40 faith leaders from the KIC. We expressed our profound upset and outrage, but we also felt that it was important to listen to the owners and hear their perspectives on that which had transpired, as well as learn how they had responded. We were joined by Neil Millens of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County.
The owners of Mother Earth responded to our request for a meeting immediately. They appeared genuinely concerned and interested in hearing our feedback. While we cannot hold the store’s owners responsible for that which an individual employee does, I believe that it is absolutely imperative to hold the owners of Mother Earth accountable for creating a safe and appropriate culture in their store, having healthy and appropriate guidelines and policies in place, and responding in a timely and appropriate way to any grievous incident like the one that ensued.
I/we expressed concern, upset, and outrage that an antisemitic comment of this nature occurred at their store.
I/we expressed concern about the environment and culture at the store that made it possible for this incident to occur.
I/we expressed profound distress concerning the handling of this incident in the aftermath.
I/we unequivocally expressed that we believe there must be a zero tolerance at Mother Earth, at any establishment in Kingston, and throughout our nation, for antisemitic, Islamophobic, racist, or homophobic hate speech or behavior of any kind.
The owners of Mother Earth articulated the internal steps that they had already taken, which they published on social media in the week following the incident. They had hired an HR firm and instituted a sensitivity training requirement for all of their employees.
While we were positively inclined, knowing that they had begun to create policies for sensitivity training, I/we were emphatic that to date, the steps they had taken and their communication to the public had been experienced by all of us as problematic, misguided, inadequate, and insufficient in response to this incident.
Tragically, divisive speech has dominated the fabric of our political landscape. When leaders refuse to speak out forcefully against hatred, bigotry, and racism, they empower, condone, and further such racism. When we are silent, we are complicit.
While there is always a place for forgiveness and reconciliation, the possibility of restoration and moving forward requires real accountability, communication, and the implementation of concrete changes. In our meeting with the owners of Mother Earth, we explicitly enumerated a number of suggestions that we believe would help communicate an important message about the culture of the store, avoid a repeat of such an incident, and provide an avenue toward reconciliation and rebuilding of trust in the larger community of patrons of Mother Earth.
The suggestions included:
- Posting signage in and throughout their store, at the entrance, and specifically in employee work stations that states emphatically that Hate Has No Home in their institution.
- The owners of Mother Earth, together with their management team, participating in the sensitive training process and actively communicating a zero tolerance for hate of any kind.
- Adopting and instituting Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies in establishing and protecting a safe culture and work environment in their stores.
- Accepting responsibility and accountability by communicating with the Kingston community and their patrons through advertisements in the local paper, news releases, letters to the editor, etc.
- Directing charitable giving to organizations in our community that promote tolerance and work to eliminate racism, bigotry, and hatred.
- Diversifying those in their employ.
- Apologizing to the young woman who absorbed the hateful rhetoric attack and did not feel protected at her work.
- Working more intelligently, more professionally, and more mindfully in creating and communicating a safe work environment and culture in their store.
The owners of Mother Earth expressed to us that they shared our values. We now await their concrete actions.
While we hope that steps are being taken internally at Mother Earth, and while we all would hope for a positive resolution and rebuilding that enables us to continue to patronize Mother Earth, I am pained to say that I have not heard of nor learned of any new steps that were communicated to the public at large.
While I have been a regular shopper at Mother Earth for the last 18 years, I am presently withholding my patronage.
Tolerance, diversity, and inclusion are essential for my patronage of a business. Unless and until the owners and managers of Mother Earth will absolutely and unequivocally create a safe environment for all of their employees and patrons I will not be shopping at Mother Earth and I am urging members of my congregation to do the same.
CEHV is a congregation that is committed to living that which we profess to believe. We are committed to protecting tolerance, diversity, and inclusion in all of its forms. We are committed to speaking out against hatred, hate speech, and intolerance in all of its forms.
At this juncture, as we await concrete actions from Mother Earth, each individual and family must act according to their conscience. But I want to make my position as your Rabbi clear. I will not be shopping at Mother Earth.
I am hopeful that Mother Earth will step up and do the right thing in our community and that we as members of CEHV will have our confidence restored in our ability to patronize and support their business in the future.
Rabbi Yael Romer, DD
Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley
243 Albany Avenue
Kingston, New York 12401
Mourning in Solidarity with Our Muslim Family
Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley mourns the loss of the 49 victims who were gunned down in the midst of prayer in two mosques in New Zealand. Our hearts are breaking for the senseless loss of human life, for the devastation of a community, for the wounded, and for the families of the victims.
CEHV stands with the Muslim Community of Faith speaking out against hatred and violence. An attack on the Muslim Community of Faith is an attack on all of us and all that we hold as Sacred.
We condemn this act of terror in the strongest terms. We condemn the reprehensible and irresponsible fear mongering of the other that gives permission to and legitimizes hatred and violence.
When we are silent we are complicit. I call on all of our neighbors, houses of worship of every faith, clergy, and civic leaders to stand as one and to speak out against dangerous rhetoric. I call on all of our neighbors, houses of worship of every faith, clergy, and civic leaders to stand up for the policies and values that ensure the safety for all of our communities.
In my teachings tonight, Friday, March 15, I will address this tragedy and how we as a community can stand in solidarity.
V’ahavta L’ra-echa Kamocha, love the other as yourself. We are strongest together.
In sorrow and in outrage,
Rabbi Yael Romer, DD