We all have favorite books. They are the ones we can’t wait to pick up again and again, and we could open up to any page and we are instantly immersed in the writer’s flow of ideas. One of my favorite books is called Why Freedom Matters. It’s beautiful anthology I picked up more than ten years ago, and it aims to capture our spirit of independence and celebrate our great experiment in democracy. Some of the entries date back to the 1700s, but this modern poem, “I Am an American,” caught my attention this week. It was written by Steve Connell:
I Am an American
I am an American.
I have the right to remain silent.
I wish to refuse that right –
And if you refuse that right
Everything you say can and will be used
Well, I am a poet also . . .
so that is what I want.
I am of the opinion
that words are not mine until
I am accountable to them.
I am of the opinion that words are the greatest power
Man can have,
And if I don’t have words that are mine then I am powerless.
I will not be powerless
And I will not be silent.
I have that right
I am an American.
Like freedom, democracy does matter. As we well know, ours is not a perfect system, but I believe it is far and away the best our world has. Our democracy is premised on the notion that each individual matters and that each person has the same rights no matter their level of income, their religious beliefs or the color of their skin. Democracy matters because it is the only system that allows, as we witnessed this morning, for the peaceful transfer of power – even after a hard-fought and divisive election.
We don’t worry every four years that our country will descend into chaos and war but our system is not easy. It’s messy. Kind of like Judaism. It requires thought, contentious debates, and being capable and willing to listen to the other side. Democracy can be frustrating and divisive, but it is so worth fighting for and protecting. American democracy has worked well for 240 years and it is our job – our moral obligation – to make sure it keeps working well forever, for all people.
So, I offer this reminder to all: it is our mandate as Jews and Americans to speak out when any group is marginalized or derided and threatened with denial of their constitutional and basic human rights. We have to speak out for our Muslim, Latino, and African American brothers and sisters in this country. History has shown us that a true democracy depends on protecting all of our citizens. We should do this first and foremost because it is the morally right thing to do, and secondly, because we are a minority as well. Part of protecting our democracy means protecting the most vulnerable among us. On Monday, at our community’s Multifaith Day of Service, I had the opportunity to share a few words at the San Mateo kick off breakfast in the social hall of a Mormon church. I said that what we were doing that morning was a great model. We were people of different religions and skin colors, all working together for the wellbeing of the community. And right now, I shared, there are a lot of people who are very anxious about what the immediate future holds, but that we need to stand up for and stand with each other.
This week, in the Jewish community, all across the country, we have had a scare. On Wednesday morning, the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City received a telephone bomb threat, prompting the immediate evacuation of the school and closure of the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, which shares the campus. The bomb threat was one of thirty received that morning by Jewish institutions in at least seventeen states. In all of cases, local authorities and the FBI determined the alerts to be false. Another twenty or so JCCs around the country received bomb threats the week before. Though all of us are disturbed by these threats, we will not allow our community to feel intimidated or threatened.
We stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters, and will not allow them to feel intimidated or isolated. We are here to lend moral support, and to let the Jewish community know it is far from alone; it is an important and valued component of our multi-faith and multi-cultural society.
And Pacifica Institute, a Muslim-Turkish service organization, put forth this message: following: “We condemn the recent hateful threats of violence against our Jewish friends across the country and stand in solidarity together with them.” What’s more, several area Jewish schools received this message from a prominent local imam:
I write to you to express my solidarity and prayers for what the school staff, admin and students went through yesterday. The hate is real, and my community has been on the front of the receiving end for many years now since 9/11.
And last night I attended a meeting of the Burlingame High School drama parents and students, as the students rush deep into its preparation for its spring play, Letters to Sala. This is a Holocaust play, and BHS is the first school in the area to perform it. The director, a woman named Cindy Skelton, shared with deep intelligence and passion the story’s narrative and the purpose and message of the play, how it required deep education and sensitivity, and that much effort will be engaged in to educate the students, bring in survivors, as well as educate the theater-goers.
I was so moved by her words and the fact that while we are living in a time when hate has been unleashed in the most disturbing ways toward religious and racial minorities, Ms. Skelton would choose this play. I turned to the Jewish families to my left and right and shared what a message of support this was. I felt moved to go up to her after the meeting and shared with her how deeply grateful I was that she had picked this play. As I began to speak, I realized that I was unexpectedly choked up, with tears in my eyes and a shaky voice. I shared that this is a pretty scary time for Jewish families in the school and that her choice means a whole lot to the Jewish parents and teens in this school, especially the Jewish students in the drama program. She, in turn, was moved and teared up as well.
I share this, because while bomb threats come in, we can find comfort and strength knowing that we have people, all over the country and right here in our community, who are loudly saying that they choose to stand with us. I feel in my heart that we are very lucky to live in the United States of America, and I pray that it will continue to be a beacon of hope to others around the world.
In honor of this being the week of the observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I will conclude with these words from Dr. King, given on Independence Day 1965:
And I tell you this morning, my friends, the reason we got to solve this problem here in America: Because God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world. Never before in the history of the world have so many racial groups and so many national backgrounds assembled together in one nation. And somehow if we can’t solve the problem in America, the world can’t solve the problem, because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large. And God set us out with all of the opportunities. He set us between two great oceans; made it possible for us to live with some of the great natural resources of the world. And there he gave us through the minds of our forefathers a great creed: ‘We hold these words to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’“The American Dream”
Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on July 4, 1965
May God bless our new president with wisdom and insight, and may God bless our country. Amen.