By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
In an opinion article published this past January by The Times of Israel, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz noted the “pernicious and rapid” return of anti-Semitism over recent years.
Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning center in Phoenix, Ariz., suggested that “external mechanisms” were needed to protect Jews “from acts of senseless hatred,” and also that “internal strategies” were necessary “to see what we could be doing better in the current moment.”
“Among these internal strategies is the cultivation of hope amidst despair and the nurturing of resilience in a context of fatigue,” Yanklowitz wrote. “My focus here, however, is how we can uproot from within ourselves that which we despise most in others. When we see ourselves targeted with hate we must fight it, but we must also take the opportunity to ensure that the characteristics of hatred and bigotry will not exist within ourselves or our community. Thus, now is the time for spiritual resistance.”
Yanklowitz will be one of three prominent rabbis participating in “The Big Night of Jewish Thought: A Conversation about 21st Century Ethics” on Sunday, March 29 at Temple of Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul.
The panelists also will include Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, author, speaker and occupant of the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where he is vice president; and Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit Halachmi, whose Facebook page says that she’s “an American and Israeli rabbi, writer, teacher, speaker, mentor. Grateful wife, blessed mother of three amazing kids, hevruta, friend.” Rabbi Sabath is assistant professor of Jewish thought and ethics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and has taught for more than 16 years on the school’s New York, Jerusalem and Cincinnati campuses.
For Yanklowitz, the Temple of Aaron event will afford a first-ever visit to Minnesota. During a phone conversation last week from his home in Scottsdale — where the temperature was 59, on its way to 70 degrees — we talked about his varied work for social justice from his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi.
As in the previously mentioned article, his call for “spiritual resistance,” Yanklowitz said that the work for Jews in this emotionally fraught time involved “two realms, our inner life and the societal realm.”
“The inner life is dealing with our character and our menschlichkeit [human decency], and our ability to purge our own prejudices,” he explained. “Outer life is dealing with everything from gun violence to climate change to racism and anti-Semitism — and I think the Jewish community has a unique role to play…. And I think the Orthodox community has a unique role to play. I see a lot of my work as supporting and challenging the Orthodox community to do its part and clean up our own moral problems as well.”
I have been interested to read the rabbi’s posts on Facebook, and asked about his work to ease the misery of asylum seekers on the southern border — Phoenix is not far from the Mexican border.
“Thank you for asking. Yes, we’ve actually been the only Jewish group in the country responding at the border on a daily basis. Over the last year, we’ve supported more than 40,000 asylum seekers. That has included everything from helping them get legal support, medical attention, supplies — everything from tampons and pads to baby toys and diapers — getting them a home stay on their travels to wherever they’re going… so it’s been very comprehensive and quite overwhelming.”
Yanklowitz said this work with asylum seekers — there is a legal right to apply for asylum at a U.S. border crossing — “is such an obvious Jewish issue, both because of our texts, our holy texts, and because of our history.”
Interestingly, Yanklowitz, according to press reports, is from an interfaith family. He has described his mother as a committed Christian and his father as a committed Jew. Of course, he chose Judaism. He told the New Jersey Jewish News that his religious affiliation shifted when he attended the University of Texas-Austin. On his arrival he led a Reform minyan, “and by the time I left, I was head of the Orthodox minyan.”
Apart from Valley Beit Midrash, Yanklowitz is a co-founder, president and CEO of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement, which weighed in over labor practices at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. (Nearly 400 undocumented workers were arrested in a 2008 raid at Agriprocessors by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The company later filed for bankruptcy and Sholom Rubashkin, the company’s manager, was convicted on federal financial fraud charges and sentenced to 27 years in prison, in June 2010. On Dec. 20, 2017, President Donald Trump commuted Rubashkin’s prison sentence.)
Yanklowitz also is the founder of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, which supports animal welfare and promotes veganism. And he founded Yatom, which provides resources for families looking to foster and adopt. The rabbi mentioned that he and his wife have four biological children and have been foster parents for many children.
Asked about his article in The Times of Israel, Yanklowitz commented that every denomination in Judaism has to challenge its adherents “where there are problems and where there are opportunities.”
He remarked, “We see, in the rise of anti-Semitism in these last few years, an Orthodox alignment with the white establishment, in a way that is fostering deeper xenophobia and racism — American Orthodoxy in its alignment with evangelical [Christian] America. We’re doing webinars and sessions within communities to really challenge that and uproot that.”
Uri L’Tzedek has distributed a “Pledge against Racism in the Orthodox Community,” which reads: “I, the undersigned, as an Orthodox Jew committed to halacha [rabbinic law] am aware of both the mandates to care for the widow, orphan and stranger and the frequent persecution brought upon my ancestors by the racialization of my people. Therefore, I pledge never to be silent when observing racist behavior exhibited by my fellow community members and racially charged community policies.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz is an Orthodox Jew of a different stripe, and Temple of Aaron’s Big Night of Jewish Thought should provide a spirited and provocative back and forth.
Finally, I asked Yanklowitz if he’d chosen a costume for Purim.
He laughed and said that he would be taking his children to the costume store this week to pick out costumes for the Purim festivities.
The second annual Big Night of Jewish Thought will take place 7 p.m. Sunday, March 29 at Temple of Aaron Synagogue, 616 S. Mississippi River Blvd., St. Paul. A VIP book reception is set for 6 p.m. Tickets available at Eventbrite.
(American Jewish World, March 2020)