David Segal: You’ve got to be taught

David Segal
Continental Divine

It’s a strange time to be an American Jew. The Pew Research Center published a survey last month finding that Jews are the best-liked religious group in America. Respondents rated religious groups on a 1-to-100 “warm feelings thermometer,” with 100 being the warmest. Jews came in at 67, higher than any other group (Catholics were second at 66).

That’s nice, but perhaps the survey’s methodology failed to properly weight the depth of negative feeling on the other side. Jews continue to be the most targeted victims of religious hate crimes, accounting for almost 60 percent, according to last year’s FBI reports. (Crimes motivated by religion make up only a fifth of overall hate crimes, whereas race-based crimes account for almost half.)

Incidents against Jews have spiked in recent months. From January through last week, there have been 100 bomb threats called in to Jewish Community Centers and day schools around the country. Three Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated in the past two weeks in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, New York. What a callous and cowardly crime, to attack the final resting place of a community’s loved ones. It recalls dark periods in Europe’s history, when pillaged tombstones were used to pave roads. A friend of mine who studies Neo-Nazis showed me an article from The Daily Stormer, a popular white nationalist site, blaming the Jewish cemetery vandalism on Jews. By the author’s perverse logic, these incidents are part of a sinister Jewish plot to whip up sympathy for Jews and turn public opinion against white supremacists and the president. I’m sorry I dignified this view by publishing it here, but it should be known that hate groups traffic in such offensive ideas.

Last November, the playground and bus stop at Aspen’s Burlingame neighborhood were graffitied with swastikas and other hate symbols. Law enforcement officials thought it was kids acting out, and I hope they’re right. But a prank is only a prank until it isn’t. And what does it say about our community if these are the symbols kids are using to “act out”?

Last December, I got a call from Aspen High School about a student who had been suspended for drawing a swastika on a classroom whiteboard. The school leadership, to their credit, wanted to provide a teachable moment and not simply a punishment, so they asked me to meet with the student and his father. I was joined by a member of my congregation who told his family’s Holocaust story: He and his mother narrowly escaped the Nazi occupation of Holland, but his father, who stayed behind, was murdered in Auschwitz.

The student had not heard of Auschwitz. It was clear that he did not understand the meaning of the swastika he had drawn. He and his father, to their credit, took responsibility for his ignorance. And I took notice when they raised an important question about how a product of Aspen’s elementary and middle schools could make it to high school without knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust.

Last week on an Aspen school bus, a few students were overheard throwing the N-word around and saying that “the Holocaust should be a holiday” and that they wanted to “bomb Jews and Asians.” When the administration had them tell their parents, the reactions were mixed. Some parents were shocked by their child’s behavior and turned it into a loving, teachable moment. Others did not see anything worth responding to. Children may not understand the full impact of their behavior, but the adults in their lives should not shrug it off. It reminds me of lyrics from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific”: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year/You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/to hate all the people your relatives hate/You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It turns out you can be casually taught to hate by the closed minds and loose lips of parents.

These days, you’ve got to be carefully taught to love. You’ve got to be actively guided toward respect, openness and curiosity. To blame kids for these missteps is to deflect responsibility from those of us who should know better.

I’m not an alarmist at heart. In spite of the spike in incidents, both nationally and in our corner of the mountains, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of reasons to keep faith in humanity. For more than a year, I have helped organize an interfaith group of Roaring Fork Valley clergy to meet monthly for fellowship and learning. Grounded in our faith, we explore ways to act together locally for the good of the community. After the cemetery vandalism in St. Louis and Philadelphia, local Muslim groups raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help repair damaged Jewish grave sites. After a mosque was burned down in January in Victoria, Texas, the local Jewish community opened their synagogue doors so their Muslim neighbors would have a place to worship and gather. Just this week, Muslim American military veterans are volunteering to protect Jewish centers and cemeteries from further threats. These and more are signs of the promise of humanity, and of America. They teach hope.

The Pew survey found that respondents gave higher “warm feeling” ratings to religious groups if they knew someone from that group. This is not rocket science — it is the power of relationships. You’ve got to be carefully taught to love, and the surest way to do that is to connect with people who aren’t like you. That’s how strangers become neighbors.

Rabbi David Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be reached at or 970-925-8245. He blogs at His column runs the first Sunday of the month.