You can feel the increasing enthusiasm and excitement at school as Purim approaches. Younger children are learning the story of Purim as our older students think about the deeper meanings embedded in the story. Behind that backdrop of academic pursuit, is the more palpable energy of the anticipation of the joy and fun that comes with Purim - costumes, mishloah manot, carnivals, groggers and more!
On the surface, Purim seems to be a “silly” holiday. The text of Megillat Esther, filled with irony, coincidence, humor and the absence of God’s name in the text, could even be misconstrued as simply a fairytale. But it is not. Behind the mask is a serious story complete with characters and a storyline that include: a threat of the annihilation of the Jews; an evil minister - the descendant of Amalek - committed to destroying the Jews; and heroes, willing to put their lives on the line for the greater good - the survival of the Jewish people and our way of life.
This is a very ancient story, and it is the story of today. Jews always have to be vigilant. Anti-Semitism ebbs and flows, but it is always there. What is different from any other time in our history is that there is a Jewish State. And while for the first time since World War II, there is a tragic refugee crisis unfolding in Europe at a speed and magnitude unseen in modern history, Ukrainian Jews do not need to be counted in those numbers. As Natan Sharansky said in a toast he made at a recent wedding - “The world has changed. When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was an unfortunate designation. No one envied us. But today on the Ukrainian border, identifying as a Jew is a most fortunate circumstance. It describes those who have a place to go, where their family, an entire nation, is waiting for them on the other side."
As Jews, we can be thankful, as Americans we need to be very concerned about the war in Ukraine. Preserving life, freedom, democracy and peace come with a cost. We have learned this over and over again through our own history. Esther had to penetrate the palace at the peril of her own life in order to be there to protect her people. The strategy that Mordecai and Esther implemented could have cost them their lives. They risked it all for the value of freedom to live as Jews in Persia.
We want our democracies to survive. We believe in the principles of freedom, free speech, and self-determination. But I sometimes wonder and worry about what costs we are willing to bear for our freedoms. We are seeing, in real time, what autocrats will do to preserve themselves. Putin and people like him place no value on human life or freedom - as we are witnessing. This is evident by the indiscriminate bombings and the actions he took to shut down social media in Russia and the only independent television and radio stations. It is now a crime to say anything about the war that is contrary to the position of the Kremlin.
This is not the only front in the war for democracy. Putin began the war with the West around 2015 when he launched a disinformation campaign that is largely responsible for the divisions in our country today. While recent cyber attacks cannot be easily traced to its source, it is largely believed they came from the Kremlin. Putin has and continues to try to destabilize the West. Democracy is a threat to his rule - and we see that with other autocrats as well.
Every year an annual global democracy index is published measuring the strength of the world’s democracies. The United States now ranks 26 out of 165 independent states. That puts us in line with countries like Malta, South Korea, and Estonia. Authoritarianism is the challenge of the 21st century. Less than 50% of the world’s population lives in some sort of democracy, the greatest decline since tracking began in 2006.
Ukraine, a fledgling democracy, is under siege by Putin. They are fighting for their rights to live as free people, on their land, as a democracy.
The free world has decided to pressure and punish Putin through economic sanctions. The longer the war goes on, the threats to us will increase. We will likely not be untouched by this war. As Americans, we have grown comfortable with a professional military and most of us have never sent sons, daughters, or spouses to oversee wars. When war rages in other parts of the world, our lives have been largely left untouched.
This time will be different. The economic sanctions will impact prices on the many things we need and want. We are already paying more for many goods and now it will likely get worse. We are already dealing with record fuel costs. No matter how remote the possibility, we could be confronted with disruptions caused by cyber attacks.
Are we willing, as Americans, to stand strong, take economic hits and possible disruptions in support of the Ukranians fighting for democracy as the West tries to stop Putin, short of entering a direct conflict. Is democracy worth that cost?
And at home, are we willing to fight for our own democracy and freedoms for ourselves and all Americans? This threat is real too.
We are not being asked to step up like Mordecai and Esther. The story of the Jewish people, from ancient to modern times, is filled with heroes who stood up to tyrants - the weak against the strong, the many against the few. And perhaps we are seeing it again, as the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Jew himself, is taking a stand against the much larger enemy, Russia.
Bravery also comes in “small packages.” A little girl, hiding in a bunker, stood up to sing “Let it Go” from Frozen - "Не боюсь ничего уже,” the girl sang in Russian that translates to: “I’m not afraid of anything anymore.”
She inspired, and brought to tears, those around her.
We can do our part by supporting the sanctions, even when it becomes harder and harder for us. And we can stretch ourselves and donate to organizations who are helping the Ukrainian people.
Schechter’s mission reads, in part, that we inspire our students to…”embrace Jewish values and practices and strive with confidence and compassion to better the world.” This is lived through one of our core values of Tikkun Olam.
If we truly aspire to realize our mission and to live our values for, and with, our children, then they really need to hear us supporting these values, and living them. This war demands that we respond in any way that we can - if you believe our freedoms, here and abroad, are worth the cost we are being, and will continue to be asked to pay.