Rabbi Remembers Japanese American Legacy And Encourages Cross-Cultural Action

Rabbi  Jonathan Biatch addressed his congregation on Rosh Hashanah and spoke of his former teacher and friend, Janice Kobata Zoeger. Rabbi Biatch spoke lovingly of Ms. Zoeger’s story as well as the Japanese American story; and the importance of cross-cultural dialogue and unity in today’s political climate. He spoke specifically of the Jewish and Japanese Americans community’s roles in speaking up for injustice, quoting Elie Wiesel, he said, ““Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Here are his remarks in full:

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Temple Beth El, Madison, Wisconsin

L’shanah tovah! May this New Year, and all its potential, be for us, for all Israel, and for all the world, a year of health, happiness, and peace!

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I once had this friend. For three years, she was my high school Latin teacher, and a kind of mentor as well. Her name was Janice Zoeger.

She told me once that Zoeger [zeiger] was a German word for a clock hand. I told her that Biatch [бич] was a Russian word for “whip”. We laughed, because she was a Japanese-American with a German husband, and I was a Jewish-American. with a Russian peasant last name, and we thought that was all very funny. But hey, this was southern California, a place where many different people lived, worked, loved, and laughed together.

Janice and I got along very well. And, as happens with friends, we lost touch with one another. I subsequently learned that she died of a cancer-related illness in 1999.

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There are many things that friends, students, and teachers share. Janice and I shared a love of food. In those days, I made some pretty good hummus. And she made a pretty mean Caesar salad.

In fact, my fellow Latin students each had their favorite dish, and over that three-year period, our class had some great parties. Sometimes we even had toga parties…this was a Latin class, after all…oh, uh, minus the wine, of course…this was high school, after all.

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There are also many things that students and teachers obviously don’t share. We did not discuss too much the fact that I was a Jewish-American…heck, seventy percent of my high school was Jewish. Nothing unique there.

And we did not speak too much about the fact that she was Japanese-American; it was clear by looking at her and knowing that her middle name was Kobata. Again, she and I both grew up in southern California, and we lived among people from many different ethnic groups and countries. There was nothing unique about non-white ethnic backgrounds.

But there was something else that she did not share with me.

She did not share that she was, at one time, a prisoner in the Amache Relocation Center, in, Granada, Colorado, one of the internment camps created by our government to house Japanese-Americans during World War II.

I discovered this fact only a few weeks ago. It was mentioned in a brief biography that appeared in the bulletin of a Japanese-American cultural organization.

Why had she never shared this shocking fact with us? She may have been very young at the time of her imprisonment, and perhaps did not remember much. What is more, is that many people, including we Jews, were still taking stock, in the 60s and 70s, of the atrocities of the Holocaust and World War II, and speaking of the Holocaust was still not commonplace. Still, I was shocked to learn such a basic – and yet horrible thing – about my friend’s life.

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I share this story with you tonight because some American’s feelings about Japanese-American citizens, during WW II, mirror the arrogance, bigotry, and ultra-chauvinism of the blatant white supremacy and neo-Nazism we see in our nation today. I look around me, in places across the nation – I see plenty of animus directed against minority groups – and I wonder whether these groups will suffer by actions from the white supremacists or even by our government. I hope our nation, today, is better than this.

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Look, we Jews have dealt with racism and xenophobia all the time, and we always will. We accept this reality as axiomatic. What was new this past year – and what we must contend with in the years ahead – is that government officials have given aid and comfort to white supremacist beliefs. This is unconscionable in our nation where we theoretically grant equality to each person.


-when we see anti-Semitic mobs marching on the streets of Charlottesville;

-when they bear torches like those borne by German Nazis on the streets of Berlin;

-when they strut and shout “Jews will not replace us;”

-when they intimidate a synagogue full of worshipers who feel compelled to leave by their back door and to spirit away their torah scrolls for protection;

-when the President of the United States cannot clearly condemn them and their actions, identifying some of them as “good people:”

-and when we, ourselves, are victims of intimidation and threats of violence, as we were today here in Madison:

When we again see sprouts of hate taking root in American soil, must we not worry?

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My passport is up-to-date. Is yours?!

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Sorry, that may be hyperbole. I know that we can watch out for ourselves. But there has been and will be trouble for other groups as well, groups that we Jews have also looked out for. We know that this surge of white supremacist bigotry also threatens the civil liberties of other groups.

The shooting at the Oak Park Sikh Temple; the rise of organizations that purport to “protect” us from the so-called and unreal threat of Muslim law hijacking the US Constitution; the threatened deportations of participants in the DACA program, and others:

These are the reasons why we, as Jews and Americans, face an existential crossroads as we enter this New Year of 5778.

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Some in this room may remember. Did Americans rise and protest the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? I am sure some did, but dissent was not widespread, not like today’s resistance to some of our current government’s proposals. Even the press, as it turns out, came late to decry this mistreatment of Japanese-Americans.

Still, we American Jews need to decide, in our nation and our world today, how to respond to the hate that is more freely promulgated.

Thanks to the visibility of bigotry in our land, we don’t have to imagine the growing intolerance and violence that the haters are capable of. Accordingly, we must strive to discover what we’re capable of. Let us therefore make a pledge together in this New Year, to demonstrate what we – as Americans and as Jews – are capable of and willing to do.

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To begin with, a bit of learning. The Talmud teaches, ‘If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.’

One daring medieval commentator to this text even taught we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

As Jews, we have held ourselves accountable – in ever-widening circles of responsibility – to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, and in our world. So, this year I speak words of protest, as I join hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligations of rabbinic teaching and leadership. As a group, we offer these sentiments to our congregations, for we will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of national leaders – elected and appointed – who fuel hatred and division in our beloved country. We cannot be silent.

We believe these not to be political statements. We Rabbis, and others whom we lead, raise our voice, rather, with prophetic tenor and fervor. Like the prophets before us, we draw from the deepest wellsprings of our tradition, to deliver both a warning against complacency and a call for action. I ask all of us to rise up and profess – in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans – that we will resist individuals and groups when they dehumanize, degrade, and stigmatize people based on their nationality, religion, race, gender, beliefs or physical make-up and abilities.

Every Jew, every Muslim, every Christian, and every believer – or even every non-believer; every gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered person: every disabled, black, brown, or white person: every woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. As creatures fashioned “b’tzelem elohim,” “in the image of the Divine,” we believe that all people are worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of the shofar sounding. So let the shofar’s piercing tones sound an alarm, so that we express our fears, and – especially in these uneasy times – feel compelled to respond with actions leading toward justice.

Tomorrow, we will hear four distinct sounds of the shofar: as broken sounds, as urgent sounds, as a solitary sound, and as a singularly persistent sound. Let us listen to them and pay attention:

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These are the sounds of shevarim, of brokenness:

Something crumbled inside us when we saw the images of Charlottesville’s streets last month fill with torch-bearing, hate-spewing marchers. That horrendous event reopened the wounds and caused us all to remember many past attacks upon minority citizens.

In the wake of this most recent event, I must ask: How much more vandalism, how many more clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” when similar racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies pop in and out of news cycles.

Let us never grow numb to the brokenness we experience. Rather, let our pain fuel our vow to respond:

-with peaceful protests, because joining with “Antifa” protestors could hurt our cause;

-with wide-spread calls for healing, for that is part of our empathic nature;

-and by creating alliances with others and by speaking with a unified voice, because we can’t do this by ourselves.

Neither silence – nor complacency – nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event – are options any longer.

Not for us.

Elie Wiesel [d. July 2016], of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unspeakable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today: “We must take sides,” he said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

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Then there are the nine sounds of t’ruah, of an urgent call to arms, both literal and figurative:

The events of Charlottesville and its aftermath are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it morphs into explicit anti-Semitism or not. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first human being so that no group of human beings could ever claim that their lineage is greater than another group.

But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America appear white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn – and forget – only to learn again this year:

If one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.

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The shofar sound we will also hear is t’kiyah, a certain, singular certainty.

As Rabbis, we call on our political leaders – progressives and conservatives alike – to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the hope and intention that all people are created equal. On this first day of the New Year, we ‘proclaim liberty throughout all the land, to all who dwell here’. And we declare in unison that no one in our nation will tolerate acts of hatred, intimidation, and divisiveness.

We stand upon the shoulders of the sages and Jews in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. And we will call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and to advance its noble visions of tolerance.

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And tomorrow we will hear t’kiyah g’dolah, a long, unbroken, and resilient shofar sound, representing our endless pursuit of justice.

The book of Deuteronomy directs us that “Justice, justice, you will diligently pursue…so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” The second part of that declaration is crucial: The Torah reminds us that for a community to inherit its rightful place in the world, thoughtful leaders – at every level – must be dedicated to equality and to unity.

But more than that, every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on us all to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to build a society that protects and elevates every citizen. The Rev. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale of the Yale Divinity School, reminds us how to accomplish this: “In the end,” she writes, “the task of prophetic witness and ministry does not ultimately belong to the pastor; it belongs to the entire community of faith.”

That ‘community of faith’ is all of us together, my friends. So, let us relish being involved together in this way. Let us take risks for the sake of this greater vision. Let us give courage to one another in the tasks that lie before us. And let us heed the prophetic voice of our tradition to bring healing to our fractured world.

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You know, the internet has a fascinating archive of original documents relating to the Amache Relocation Center where my friend Janice was imprisoned with her family. Amache also has its own website of memory. And within the town of Granada, Colorado, there is a small museum dedicated to memorializing the Amache Camp and what happened there. Their hope is to preserve the memory of that era’s prejudice, so that this kind of fear might never again consume the heart of good people.

But physical mementos such as these are only part of the equation. Like the shofar, any physical object has great potential, but it requires something – or someone – to activate it. When we are inspired by the sounds of the shofar, that will be our signal to get to work.

What we will do; what actions we take in the coming years to stand up to the haters in our midst, the evidence of which we saw plainly here today: These will mark the distinction between simply commemorating the past, and resiliently charting a positive and healthy pathway for the future.

May this new year of 5778 be for all of us a year of resilience, of determination, and of action!

L’shanah Tovah.

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