Three years ago, I was grateful to ascend to the bimah of this loving and warm 100+-year-old shul in the heart of the “Driftless Area” of southeastern Wisconsin. I knew this was a special place. The Driftless Area is so-called because it never experienced the drift of glaciers during the last Ice Age. It is defined by hundreds of mounds called bluffs, and the largest concentration of cold water streams in the world.
I succeeded Rabbi Simcha Prombaum, their leader for over 37 years. I knew it would be a challenge to fill his shoes. I also knew that – being the only rabbi for more than 76 miles – I would often be called upon to represent our small but active Jewish community to the greater community. Since then, I have hosted dozens of visits to our shul from church groups and public schools. I have proudly displayed the shofar, the kippah and tallit, etrog and lulav, our sukkah, the Torah scrolls, and examples of our prayer and group songs. To these folks, I am the local Jew. I am also co-leader of the local interfaith clergy group.
Then there is the media. I am asked to appear on the local TV stations several times a year, do radio interviews and write newspaper articles. I have taught at both local universities. It can be fun to be a local “celebrity.”
But the outside world encroaches on us. In other states, Jews were murdered at Shabbat services, dozens attacked on the way to worship in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. From elsewhere in our beautiful state, we heard of cemeteries being desecrated, swastikas carved on doors, antisemitic expressions on campuses, and how Jewish pro-Israel students were not given the freedom to express themselves, while those who support BDS and other anti-Israel or anti-Jewish programs are given free reign.
Such things happen elsewhere, not in our valley of Shangri-La on the Mississippi. Then they began to happen. On Aug. 1 of this year, a congregant told me about swastikas that had been painted on political billboards throughout a northern suburb. Two months later, returning UW-La Crosse students were greeted with chalk-marked comments, supporting Kanye West’s recent antisemitic diatribes. The president of the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse College Republicans resigned her post after these hateful remarks were posted as images on social media.
In an op-ed piece for the La Crosse Tribune, I said that the only way to defeat hate speech is through love. I proposed a campaign of love all ovr our region. More than 22 people wrote in, or called me, to express their support for such a campaign. We have been working with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation to increase our security. For all the High Holidays, we called on the La Crosse Police Department to be present during services. More importantly, we continue to work with other faith communities in our city to increase their knowledge and their support.
Rabbi Brian Serle leads Congregation Sons of Abraham, which is two blocks from the campus of University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, the recent site of antisemitic chalkings.