Many people see the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a time to examine their life and reflect on how one can improve oneself. Becoming a better person, and living a life that is worthy of seeing a new year is at the top of our prayers and plans for the future. Much of our behavior is judged by how we deal with others. Being a better human being and making a difference because we have been given this chance and a place on earth.
As I look at recent events that stem from hatred and violence in our country, I think about the B’nai B’rith program, Enlighten America. This project was created in August 2000, in response to violent attacks against people because of their race, religion or ethnic origin. The decision to create a program at that time, came at a staff meeting, where we had just learned the news that a gunman had threatened a Jewish community center in Los Angeles. This event had followed several other attacks that were based on hatred and bigotry. We had no idea at the time that the largest attack on America was still to come on 9/11, just one year later. We recalled the two horrific murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard, who were killed due their race and sexual orientation. They continue to live on in legislation that bears their name. The passage of the National Hate Crime Legislation was one of the action items of the Enlighten America campaign at that time.
Frustration and a feeling that we needed to do something, as individuals, and as an organization brought together staff and volunteers weighing in on what actions could be taken. Promoting the passage of a national hate crime bill was one agenda item and another was a very simple call for an individual’s action, promoting a personal pledge and sharing the Enlighten America message. Readings were created to accompany the pledge, encouraging individuals to do this for themselves and share it with their families.
We focused on Thanksgiving, a time when families come together, providing an opportunity to share life lessons. We encouraged promoting the pledge and asked families to leave a porch light on Thanksgiving night to symbolize that they had supported the project. The pledge provided a tangible way that an individual as well as B’nai B’rith groups could express this important message. You may not be able to change how others think and act, but you can do something to change yourself. The pledge was available to be used to promote this message to try to bring change in others. Individuals took the pledge to many venues in their community. It was posted in a Jackson, Miss. newspaper, saluting the B’nai B’rith unit there. B’nai B’rith created art and essay contests for communities to take to their schools and youth groups. Promoting tolerance, supporting diversity and inclusion, and combating bigotry, hatred and violence were spotlighted and continue to be agenda items for our organization via the B’nai B’rith Diverse Minds Writing Challenge.
Enlighten America has at its core one of the most basic concepts of life in the United States—freedom. This is our appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy in this country to live as Jews, and we remember the promise of President George Washington, to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I. in 1790, that we are free to live as Jews. This right and appreciation for it, is not just a message for American Jews, but for all Jews wherever they may call home. Attacks on Jews around the world continue and as long as there are Jews that live in fear of attack we must speak out on their behalf.
Acts of hatred and violence fill the news, and we wonder if anything we do can make a difference. Hatred and violence in the U.S., has a long history, and Jewish people along with many other ethnic groups, have suffered because if it. Unfortunately, there are times when we need to remind the world that it is not acceptable and violence will not be tolerated.
The Enlighten America program is available for families to use to help deal with the horrific events around us. It is a message you can bring to your community to share your concerns about the events of the day. We have linked the Enlighten America message to many observances. There is an Enlighten America reading for Thanksgiving and one to be used for the Passover Seder.
Let’s think about the pledge as we start a new year and what we can do to make a difference to speak up about hatred and bigotry in our society. We encourage you to add your own thoughts to what you want to share with your family as you gather at the holiday table. Please send your thoughts to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We need to deliver this message now more than ever before to our family and friends to fight for the rights of others and celebrate our freedom to live as Jews. Click here to read more about Enlighten America.