Shabbat Live Sermon – Rabbi Ninio, Friday 16 February 2024


Last night, I was walking the dog and I bumped into one my neighbours. After her dog greeted mine with a bath of licking, we discussed the road, the tree roots, the council, she asked me how things are with the antisemitism at the moment. Whenever I am asked this question, I pause and stop to think. There is no easy answer.

Do I speak about the fear in the community, the echoes of the Holocaust and past persecutions which grip us, when Jewish names are placed on lists when chants are heard in the street when politicians and others use antisemitic tropes we thought were long buried in the annals of time?

Do I say that every interaction with friend and stranger alike comes with an added layer of trepidation, how do they feel? Will something come up about Israel? Will they say something?

Do I mention that we are constantly vigilant, we never know when the next challenge will come, when we will read, or see or hear something which pains us, hurts us, or frightens us?

Do I speak about how disturbing and galling it is that elected officials, people in government, are suggesting that Jews are taking over the world, that media and social media are suggesting, in a huge irony somehow lost on them, that Jewish cabals are controlling the narrative and the media and preventing people from speaking out against Israel or saying anything about Jews without being accused of antisemitism?

Do I talk about people who have lost jobs, businesses, who have been targeted in their workplaces, in their homes, simply because they are Jewish?

Do I tell these stories?

And if I do, do I have to add in the positives as well? Or even downplay the antisemitism and instead focus on the places there has been connection and support? “Well, yes there was that incident but there were people who stood with us, who spoke out, who defended us.” But then do I have to say, they are very few voices in the barrage of statements?

Do I speak about all the incredible leaders who joined us last week for Shabbat and leave it there, or say they, in many cases, are speaking against their roof bodies, religious bodies, leaders’ public statements and positions? That they are the mavericks not the mainstream.

Do I speak about the incredible Marcia Langton and Nova Peris and their words of support and comfort, reminding us of the deep allyship, historically and otherwise, between the Jewish people, Indigenous people and our connection to land?

Do I say then, how great that is, or how disappointed we are that Jews, who have been at the forefront of almost every movement for equality, civil rights and justice, when we need support, when we need the voices of people for whom we were present, there is a soft whisper and an avalanche of silence, or worse, antagonism?

What do I say to such a simple question, which seems should have a simple answer, yet does not? I clumsily walked my neighbour through my stream of consciousness, spoke about the Mardi Gras, school children afraid to be at school, the difficulties for so many at work. Then I shifted to speak about the support we have had, the people who have stood with us. We moved onto Gaza, the tragedy unfolding there, the hostages, all in about five minutes. She said: “Well that conversation took a turn I did not expect. See you soon!” and she headed home. Now to be fair, it was after 10pm at night but I guarantee that was not the answer she wanted, it was not the answer I wanted to give. I felt incoherent, unprepared and like perhaps I had missed an opportunity.

But it is so hard. And I cannot imagine how much more so for all of you who live and work much more fully outside the Jewish community. My work is here, with all of you, sometimes being invited as a speaker outside (invitations are sparse at the moment!) but you are all on the coalface. You must be asked questions like this all the time, and what do we say?

This past weekend, I was speaking with our women’s rosh hodesh group about the month of Adar, which we have just entered. Adar is the month when we celebrate Purim; as such, we think about masks, dressing up, hiding, and revealing. Esther, the heroine of our Purim story, hides her Jewishness, and then, when her people are in peril, she pulls off her mask and reveals herself as Jewish. So many of us are like Esther, we have our mask: do we put it on and conceal our Jewish identity or do we reveal it and with it, possibly be subject to danger, hurt and harm. So many of us have felt the need to put the mask firmly over our faces to hide our Jewishness. To go to the supermarket with our Magen David tucked inside our shirt, when before we would not even think about where it was, just so we don’t have to have difficult conversations while trying to buy a carton of milk.

Others of us who have been ambivalent about Judaism, or felt uncomfortable speaking about it or revealing identity, are taking their masks off. We are shouting to the world who we are, we want to stand with our people publicly, we want to look over the room and see another person with an outward sign of their Judaism and share a knowing look, a supportive, caring, loving presence. We want to be challenged, to have the conversation. Bring it on!

And most of us, I would suspect, are a tangled, complicated mixture of both. Sometimes we feel strong and ready and able to be who we are. Sometimes we are tired, feeling vulnerable, not in a space to have those conversations. To answer the simple questions that are actually fraught. We just want to escape to an easier time.

For 600 academics and creatives this week, the mask was removed without their permission with the—I learned a new word, doxing—of their information. Their personal, private information was publicly revealed and shared widely on the internet for nefarious purposes. Once again, Jews were being targeted, shops, businesses, livelihoods and lives were upended at best, destroyed at worst, simply because someone was Jewish and joined, or were placed in a Whatsapp group. I cannot believe this is happening, and I cannot believe it is happening here now. This incident made world news, as it should, the perpetrators should be held to account, made to understand it’s not just a list of names, each one is a person and who could suffer very real consequences for having their information made public and shared in this context.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them in the desert. Each feature and piece of furniture is described in detail, including the menorah, which makes a first appearance in this parasha, the cherubim, which guards the doorway, and the curious feature about which I want to speak. The Torah says that when they build the ark, it should have gold on the outside and inside. The commentators ask, why put gold on the inside where no one will see it? Indeed it is not necessary. They answered their own question by saying that it is to teach us we should be the same on the outside and on the inside. In their case, they were speaking about people who present a positive public face and then are completely different in private. Or vice versa, someone who in private is loving and caring, yet with their workers or people over whom they have power, they are cruel and unjust. For us today, it is so hard to be Jewish on both the outside and the inside. Some of us will find safety in hiding part of who we are, others for whom Jewish identity has not been significant or particularly important are now seeing a need to let people know to wear their Jewish identity in a more public way. And for many of us, it is a mixture of both.

Just as there is no simple answer to: “How have you found the antisemitism at the moment?” there is no singular way of being. We all need to make choices and decisions that are right for us, which protect us and help us to move in this world with ease. We are all exhausted.  No matter how much rest we have, we are tired because we cannot walk in our lives with the carefree abandon of the past. Every moment is a decision, to mask or unmask, to speak or not speak, but whatever choice we make, I hope we know that there is a place in the synagogue, here, where we can come and let go: we don’t have to worry, we are amongst our community. We sit, and we can just be. That is the power of community. We probably all disagree about the politics, about what should or should not happen, but here we are safe to express our thoughts and feelings, we are able to be free, and we have a safe home, a place to dwell. God says in this portion, “Asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham,” build for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst you. We have built our sanctuary, a place for us to dwell in peace and rest, to be wrapped in one another’s arms, in love.

I want to end with a poem written by Starhawk which I read often and love but I have now discovered the first few lines…called “Community.”

We are all longing to go home to some place
we have never been—a place half-remembered and half-envisioned
we can only catch glimpses of from time to time.
Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands
will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.
Community means strength
that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing.
A circle of friends.
Someplace where we can be free.

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio

4 thoughts on “Shabbat Live Sermon – Rabbi Ninio, Friday 16 February 2024

  1. Nicole Jacobson says:

    I was in shul for this sermon and it was such a privilege and honour to belong to Emanuel shul and to be able to listen to Rabbi Ninio.

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