Religious freedom forms the very foundation of our state. Roger Williams’ vision for freedom of religious expression explains why we are the home of the First Baptist Church in the United States, as well as the nation’s first synagogue, Touro Synagogue, in Newport.
Yet, as we have read about anti-Semitic violence in New York and New Jersey, it is hard not to be concerned. While Rhode Island has not seen violent attacks of this nature, we are not immune to anti-Semitic activity. We have witnessed an increase in threats and vandalism. Anti-Semitic graffiti has been found on buildings and in local playgrounds. A cemetery in Fall River was desecrated. Some members of the Jewish community have expressed concerns about wearing items that identify them as Jewish, such as a Star of David necklace or kippah.
We believe that the best answer to anti-Semitism is an affirmation of Jewish life, learning, observance, and community. If response to hatred becomes the foundation of our faith, we miss its depth and meaning. We commit to not letting this hatred define our Jewish selves as we continue to build a vibrant, joyful, and meaningful observance of Jewish life and values with hope for a better future.
The Jewish community’s strength and resilience is bolstered by support from other faith communities, from our elected officials, and from local law enforcement. That is the legacy of Roger Williams, and part of what makes our small state so special. After each attack against Jews in this country, Jewish leaders and rabbis across Rhode Island have received texts, phone calls, and emails from other community and faith leaders, and from elected officials expressing their outrage and offering support. In 2018, when 11 people were murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, those same leaders stood beside us and addressed a crowd of 1000 Rhode Islanders — Jews and non-Jews alike — to say, “We are with you.” Interfaith relationships that nourish in times of joy and sorrow are essential to fighting the hatred in our midst. Each ally who has called following these incidents helps ease the pain with their love, and we are grateful.
As we reaffirm the principles upon which our state was founded, we are reminded that we each have a responsibility to fight anti-Semitism and counter hatred and intolerance in all of its forms. We must lead by example, to educate the next generation about the power of our words and to make clear that hateful acts are not acceptable. No one is born wanting to hate others. It is learned, and we must do our part to avoid using language that can lead to hate. We call upon our elected officials to work with our schools to develop and strengthen curricula that enable our young people to become thoughtful citizens, equipped with the tools to be “upstanders,” not bystanders, when hateful incidents do occur.
Moses Seixas wrote a famous welcome to President George Washington upon Washington’s visit to Newport and Touro Synagogue. He requested a government “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience.” President Washington responded, “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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington’s vision is our prayer for our beloved state and our nation.