Facing the Shadows: A Rabbi’s Perspective on Contemporary Antisemitism

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal is the Senior Rabbi at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, affectionately known as AA, in Atlanta, GA. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, and graduated from the University of Southern California in Psychology. He received a Master of Arts in Hebrew letters and a Rabbinic Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May 2008. He regularly engages with the Atlanta Jewish Community and was President of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association from 2019-2021. He currently serves as Board Chair for the Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, which is about teaching environmental stewardship and justice to faith-based organizations. Rabbi Rosenthal is also a great musician with tremendous skill with the guitar and is currently focusing on jazz guitar.

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas War in October, there have been public displays of antisemitism across the U.S. in cities through protests. Many Jewish students have found that even college campuses are not safe from these demonstrations and displays as they have been harassed by Pro-Palestinian students who see Israel as the culprit, despite the war having begun due to the actions of the terrorist group Hamas raping, killing, and abducting thousands of innocent civilians, both Israeli and non-Israelis alike. 

However, there have been religious leaders who have been using their social platform in their communities to unite Jews, Christians, and other religions together to better understand how to stop antisemitism from expanding and to help them understand both the State of Israel and the Jews better. Rabbi Rosenthal is one of these leaders implementing these changes in the Atlanta area. His background and experiences as a Jewish Rabbi have given him powerful insight into antisemitism in America and his wisdom is useful for anyone looking to better understand these complex issues. 

What was your experience growing up in a multicultural city with friends and neighbors of different backgrounds and faiths?

I grew up in Los Angeles, California; we had a lot of Jews around us, but I also had a diverse group of people I went to school with. I really didn’t have a cultural identity. Of course, I had one, but I didn’t identify with it until I started high school.

I started to feel that I was contributing to all the wonderful cultural experiences that I was having with the friends I had. I felt I wasn’t contributing because I had friends who were Hindu, I had friends who were Muslim, I had friends who were White American, I had friends who were African American, and I did notice that there were wonderful cultural differences between us that contributed to my life. Meanwhile, I felt all I had to offer was cable television and things like that, but I wasn’t offering anything of substance. So, you know, I kind of felt a little bit of guilt with that.

Was there something in your background that made speaking with people of different backgrounds easy because of your friendships?

Although I wasn’t able to identify it, I think being Jewish was a reminder of being a minority, being reminded of my history of persecution and having ancestors who had to leave Europe, things that I didn’t have to leave but having that history in my family made me more sensitive to other people’s journeys. So, I was more patient, listening to their journeys. I did feel less connection and didn’t feel complete ownership of where I lived, and I kind of felt like I was sharing the space.

My home wasn’t really a home, I don’t know what to call it, but where I was originally from, it was talked about in my family that we were from Latvia or Lithuania. It was because of that I felt, as part of the Jewish minority, that I was a little more sensitive and interested in other people’s journeys.

What motivated you to become a Rabbi?

 I was looking for a way to become involved with people, a career where I wouldn’t just be a doctor, where people would come to me with problems, and I would fix them without knowing anything else about their lives. I really wanted to be part of the other aspects of their lives. I was studying psychology because I thought it would give me that.

It wasn’t until my grandmother passed away that I watched how the Rabbi interacted with my father and my aunt to prepare for her burial that I really saw that the Rabbi is someone who is involved in a family’s life in a special time. It is a real, meaningful life to have. Unlike a doctor, a Rabbi has more of a conversation about their love, their hope, and their life. It really is something very special. That was what drew me to becoming a Rabbi, and I still use psychology in the work I do. 

How have you used your platform to change how the Jewish Community is perceived?

I make a lot of connections with other faith traditions through shared spiritual and educational experiences. What I find is that living within very established spiritual communities, there is always a striving for spirituality. It is kind of a human condition; I think all humans are spiritual beings, and we are all striving for it. So, even in a Catholic Church or a Christian Church, a Mosque, or a Hindu Temple, there is always the desire in those religious institutions to deepen their spirituality. We, in synagogues, got that as well, which is really nice about the ability to engage with other faiths’ spirituality. 

One way we do that is by finding spiritual occasions that we all share. For those in America, we have churches we partner with for Thanksgiving services, and that’s been really special because although it is not necessarily the prayer service that I would have, we get to introduce people to our Jewish identity and traditions through that experience.

How would you define antisemitism? Would you say that the level of antisemitism has risen because of the current war between Israel and Hamas?

I think antisemitism is an irrational hatred for Jewish people or a judgment of hate for Jewish people.   The level of public antisemitism definitely [has risen], but truthfully, these are not uncommon flair-ups. I don’t think that antisemitism is as high as it has been in the past; there are times in history when we could see a lot more, but right now, it’s definitely at higher points, and it is very disturbing. 

I think that there needs to be a difference made to better understanding between the high and low simmer of antisemitism. The low simmer means people telling mean jokes about Jews to each other, making private decisions not to interact with Jews, not interacting with the Jewish community, and people excluding Jews from whatever they are doing.

Those things are all expressions of antisemitism. They are what we would call a low simmer. Right now, we are dealing with very strong outward displays of antisemitism. Those are painful, but those people didn’t just start feeling this; they had those feelings before. Those things were inside of them before.

Would you say the Jewish and Christian communities are in a good relationship now?

The Jewish and Christian relationship is better than it has been in thousands of years, in at least 1,600 years. Yes, there are areas where there could be an improvement with different denominations, especially around the issue of the State of Israel.  But all in all, this is better than it has been throughout the whole history of Christian-Jewish relationships.

This has a lot to do with the work of the Catholic Church from the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council. It also has to do with a lot of work that different Episcopal Churches have done. A lot of Christians have done a lot of hard work, and of course, Jewish communities have also done a lot of work to get where they are. Both groups have helped build up their relationships with each other.

What would you like non-Jewish people to know about the Jewish people so they can understand them better?

I would like people to know that the Jewish people are in a very intense, loving relationship with God and humanity. Jews feel the responsibility to make the world a better place, and we believe God wants us to be in partnership with all of humanity and with different people to make this perfect world. Judaism believes that all people have their own special relationship with God. Ours is our relationship, so we focus on developing and deepening that relationship. Still, we don’t negate other people’s relationships with God. We hope that other communities will develop their relationships with God while also allowing us and other groups to have their own relationships with God.