Safely Sitting Under Fig Trees
July 7, 2023
By Rob Goldberg

Earlier this week, some of us lit sparklers for the Fourth of July and tonight many of us will light candles to welcome in Shabbat. While Independence Day today is known more for barbeques and fireworks, it remains a moment each year when we stop and express gratitude for our liberty. However you marked the holiday this year, there is an interesting Jewish intersection with the spirit of July 4th that has always made me proud.

On August 18, 1790, congregants of the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, warmly welcomed George Washington to their community. Our nation’s first president delivered a letter to the synagogue that has become famous for reinforcing the ideal of religious liberty in American life. He writes: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

I went to college in Providence and lived in Rhode Island for nearly 15 years. I visited Touro several times and always felt a connection to the place and to Washington’s powerful words. But reflecting on them this year, I’m struck by the President’s promise that we will be protected and can live safely considering the insecurity and fear we face and feel today as Jews.

Just consider: the white supremacist responsible for the deadliest act of antisemitic violence in U.S. history was recently found guilty of all federal charges stemming from the October 27, 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Meanwhile, just last month, a 19-year-old suspect was charged with threatening a mass killing at a synagogue in Michigan and an individual interrupted a wedding threatening to “machine gun down” all the celebrants in New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Despite our efforts to live out Washington’s promise, it is no longer a simple prospect to sit in the shade, unafraid. Instead, Jewish individuals and communities across the globe are reckoning with the highest increase of religiously motivated hate crimes in decades.

I’m reminded of Jeremiah’s words that we chant tomorrow as part of the Haftarah for the Torah portion Pinchas. His direction is to fortify and guard against those who seek to do us harm “…I have made you today into a fortified city and into an iron pillar, and into copper walls against the entire land, against the kings of Judah, against its princes, against its priests and against the people of the land. And they shall fight against you but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you says the Lord, to save you.” (Jeremiah 1:8-9)

Washington asserted that every religious community in the United States would enjoy freedom of worship without fear of interference by the government. Jeremiah suggests that we should assume others – leaders and their people – will be against us and we need to take our security in our own hands and only then will God protect and save us.

Washington’s position on religious liberty was a hallmark of his presidency and a reminder of how extraordinary it is to live in America. Yet today, because of the scourge of antisemitism, we also have the sacred obligation to do what is needed to live securely.

Buffalo Jewish Federation has done just that by working in partnership with Rochester, Syracuse and the Secure Community Network to strengthen our security infrastructure for a regional system that will keep all of us – we in Western NY and others throughout Central NY – safe and secure. Through training ourselves, ensuring our buildings are secure, and creating awareness, we can fulfill Washington’s promise to be able to safely sit under our vine and fig trees – freely worshipping and celebrating the richness of our Jewish heritage – and never be afraid.

Rob Goldberg is CEO of Buffalo Jewish Federation.

Safely Sitting Under Fig Trees - Jewish Thought of the week 2022