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dayton's Teshuvah

09/30/2013 01:40:51 PM

Sep30

Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

I would be surprised if you’ve ever heard of Dayton, Washington, a small town set among the rolling hills of in the southwest corner of the state.  My husband David and I joke that when we drive into Dayton, we increase the Jewish population significantly – by 200 percent – from zero to two.   With just over one thousand residents, Dayton has only one traffic light, right in the center of Main Street.     Dayton is one of those “small town America” places where everyone you encounter says hello, whether or not they know you.   It’s also a place where (according to a reliable source[1]) at least one person actually believes that the United States’ Constitution was written by Jesus. 

In this area of the country, farming towns used to be divided into “Catholic towns” and “Protestant towns.”    My sister-in-law told me that when she used to spend time in Dayton with her grandparents, she felt uncomfortable because her family was Catholic.    Even today, the residents of Dayton are mostly white and Protestant.   

It doesn’t take a lot of digging to expose Dayton’s troubling history.  The following news item from a regional newspaper published in 1923[2] offers a snapshot of that history:

"Dayton Days" are over.  This attraction will be remembered by a good many people of this city and county.  A feature of the celebration was the big parade in which nearly 500 men, dressed in white robes -- the Ku Klux Klan -- participated.  They presented an imposing appearance and, strange to say, there was not a drunken person among them.  Their only banner was the United States flag.  At 5:30 in the evening a big barbeque was staged, in which all Klansmen joined.  Later in the evening 700 Klansmen marched up the hill back of Dayton, where a huge cross on the ground outlined by kerosene-saturated saw dust, was lighted.  Open air initiation of candidates to the order followed this ceremony.

I know the street down which the Klansmen marched.  David and I watched a parade on that street this past summer.  I know the hill where the Klan held their rally – it’s the hill right behind the grandstand at the fairgrounds.   And I know that the KKK rally described in the newspaper was no anomaly.  Dayton had an active KKK group at the time, a group that met twice a month.   The KKK groups of the time were anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-communist.  They believed firmly that "Protestant Anglo-Saxon blood is the heart and soul of the foundation of this republic."[3]

When I look at photographs from those days, for some reason, I am most disturbed by the white, hooded robes worn by the crowds of Klansmen.  The hoods obscure their faces.  Only their eyes are visible through the slits.  The Klansmen don’t resemble people; they look like ghosts.  What we see when we look at them is an image of faceless hatred, as if their very humanity has been erased.

I know about Dayton because of my brother Justin.  Several years ago, Justin was preparing to relocate from Hawaii to Washington State.   My brother wanted to find a place to settle where he could have chickens and ducks in his yard and live comfortably on his pension from the Navy.  Dayton seemed like a good option -- except that Justin is gay, and his (now) husband, Roger, is from the Philippines.   Justin and Roger did not know about Dayton’s history when they first moved there; they chose the town based on what they saw on the Internet, and after they spoke with a few of its residents.

When Justin and Roger moved to Dayton they settled into an old, historic house on a shady street.  Their house is known as the “Minnie Mo” House, named after the pioneer woman who built it.   After they settled in, Justin and Roger decided to invite the whole town to their home for an open house.  Justin and Roger wanted Dayton’s residents to meet them and see what the Minnie Mo house looked like under their care.    

Justin and Roger took a risk.  I can’t imagine inviting strangers into my home so readily.  Dayton is a small, conservative town.  How would its residents react to a gay, interracial couple?  But in this case, Justin and Roger’s gamble paid off.  The residents accepted them for who they are.  Justin and Roger settled nicely into Dayton, opened a restaurant, made friends, and soon became part of the fabric of the town.

And then last fall, hateful things began to happen in Dayton.  On Halloween, three teenage trick-or-treaters knocked on the door of a teacher, who is African American.  The trick-or-treaters wore the costume of the Ku Klux Klan, white hoods obscuring their faces.  One week later, a teacher at Dayton Elementary School found a swastika burning on the grass outside of the school.  A few weeks after that, a threatening note was posted at the entry to the High School, forcing a two hour delay.[4]  The residents of Dayton grew fearful.  Was their town slipping back into its hateful past?

The Superintendent of the Dayton School District knew he had to do something.  He contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center where he found resources to address the racism and help his students explore issues of diversity.  Now, one year later, there have been no further hate incidents in Dayton.  Thanks to the leadership of the school superintendent, a man who is “committed to opening children’s hearts and minds to difference,”[5] the town has turned itself around.  We might say that Dayton – this former stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan – has done teshuvah.

Our tradition defines “perfect teshuvah” as occurring when a person is given the opportunity to repeat his/her sin, and that person declines to do so.  The medieval sage Maimonides[6] illustrates “perfect teshuvah” with an example that is easy to remember.  Let’s suppose that a man has had illicit relations with a woman.   In doing so, this man has committed a grave sin.   How would he demonstrate teshuvah, perfect repentance?  Maimonides said if the man were to find himself alone with the object of his desire again, and he still feels attracted to her, and he still has “bodily potency” (a nice euphemism)  – If all of these conditions are in place, yet he turns away and does not sin, then he has demonstrated perfect teshuvah.

Maimonides’ definition of teshuvah is a good one.  We human beings are creatures of habit.  Too often we repeat the same mistakes, over and over.  We easily fall back into the habits of the past.

The residents of Dayton could have slipped back into their old habits.  They could have let the hateful actions of a few poison their entire town.  But faced with the opportunity to ‘sin again,” they resisted.  And they were able to do that because of one leader’s determination to teach young people how to remove masks of hatred and view others with an appreciation of our shared humanity.

And what about other places with a history of hatred?  On the day before Rosh Hashanah, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Europe’s Anti-Semitism Comes out of the Shadows.”[7]  The article described “scattered attacks” which have “raised alarm about how Europe is changing and whether it remains a safe place for Jews.”   When I read the article I wondered, as I’m sure many of you did, whether Europe is gradually slipping back to repeat the actions of its hateful and murderous past.

But this article also mentioned a rally held in Berlin the prior week, a rally at which Chancellor Angela Merkel declared “It is our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism.”[8]  The article describing the rally begins:  “Thousands of Germans, many of them wrapped in Israeli flags, gathered at Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate for a rally against anti-Semitism.”   Many in the crowd were Jews, who had traveled to Berlin by the busload. 

One of those who came to this rally is a man named Armin Husung, who attended the rally with his partner and his 11 year old son.  Husung said he went to the rally because “I wanted to show clearly which side I am on.” His statement is quite significant.  In recent months, many Jews had been discouraged from wearing outward symbols identifying themselves as Jews as a safety precaution.   They would not wear a kippah or a necklace with a “Star of David” in public.   Those who attended last month’s rally in Berlin wanted to publicly acknowledge their religion, to show their faces to their nation and declare:   This is who I am.

Faceless hatred thrives on anonymity:   Anonymity of the haters, like the white hoods that obscured the faces of the Klansmen who marched the streets of Dayton long ago, and also anonymity of the hated.  It is far easier to hate “all Jews” when you don’t know that your kindly neighbor is Jewish.   It is far easier to hate “all Muslims” if you have never looked into the eyes of a Muslim child.

In our world today, combating faceless hatred takes courage – the courage to say “this is who I am.”  It took courage for Justin and Roger to invite the strangers of small-town, conservative Dayton into their home.   It took courage for the Jews attending the rally in Berlin to declare their identity publicly.   But if we want others to shed hateful habits of the past, if we want our world to do teshuvah, we have to be willing to do our part.  We have to summon our courage and show our faces.  We have to stand up and proudly declare, “This is who I am.”

 

[1] My brother, Justin Jaech

[2] Attalia News Tribune, June 14, 1923; found on web site of the Tri-City Herald

[3] See web page devoted to KKK activities in Washington State at dept.washington.edu/civilr/kkk

[4] “Schoolhouse lessons confront small-town racism,” Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, 2.1

[7] September 23, 2014

[8] “Germans Rally To Protest Anti-Semitism Over Gaza War,” New York Times, September 15, 2014

Wed, June 26 2019 23 Sivan 5779