When faced with hate, Rabbi Litvin educates
When an antisemitic slur cut through the night, Rabbi Litvin might have been forgiven for responding with a rebuke. Instead he opened a dialogue.
Rabbi Shlomo Litvin loves to talk, especially with people he doesn’t yet know.
In years past, he’s parked himself at a table on the University of Kentucky campus where he works, with a sign prompting passersby to “Ask the rabbi anything.” The pandemic put a damper on his goal of having coffee with 100 strangers a year, but he’s found fresh ways to connect with new people. He offers 20 hours of Jewish education on the app Clubhouse, a network of audio-only chatrooms. His class Difficult Jewish Questions comes with the caveat, “Prepare to be offended!” His one rule is that everyone asking a question must be ready to learn.
So when he was confronted with an antisemitic slur outside his family home on campus this spring, it was no surprise that he insisted on talking to “the yeller.”
It was the end of the school year and a graduation party was bouncing across the street. Rabbi Litvin was on the phone with a student who had called in search of a listening ear as she parsed her options for the fall and summer, when the slur cut through the night like a knife: “Kill the ----s.”
“What did I just hear?” asked the student on the phone, shocked. Never mind that, the rabbi says he told her. “It’s not a Jewish student’s job to fight antisemitism, just like it’s not a Black student’s job to police anti-Black racism,” he explains later in a Zoom interview. “Their job is to study.”
So he finished his call before calmly crossing the street.
Rabbi Litvin could have asked campus police to break up the party or reported the hateful speech. But he believes that “in a place of great darkness, a small amount of light makes a great glow.”
It took an hour before the person who had yelled the slur agreed to come outside. Alone, the two men spoke about the history of the word the young man had chosen. The rabbi shared stories from his own family’s history, including the loss of an entire branch of his family tree in the 1941 massacre at Babyn Yar, when Nazi forces slaughtered 33,771 Jews in two days in what is now Kyiv, Ukraine.
The young man grew apologetic and tearfully promised never to use that language again. The rabbi invited him over for Shabbat dinner, for coffee, or just to talk. So far, the student hasn’t taken him up on it, but Rabbi Litvin says these kinds of conversations often do give way to new friendships.
That’s what happened when a student asked him how Jews ended up controlling the banking industry, a stereotype that underpins some conspiracy theories. Rabbi Litvin calmly asked if the student knew of any Jews in his rural hometown. When the student replied no, he asked, “Are there any banks in your town?” before explaining the historical roots of that particular misconception. That student became a regular at the rabbi’s Purim celebrations and considers himself a friend of the Jewish community.
In this and so many other instances, the rabbi might have been forgiven for responding with a rebuke. But that approach, he says, doesn’t allow the other person any room for growth or grace.
“The lie has to be countered,” Rabbi Litvin says. “But the whole conversation doesn’t have to be a condemnation.”