Around this time last year, I was granted permission to enter a special jurisdiction that few people who are not federal employees or government contractors will ever visit — the National Security Agency headquarters campus at Fort Meade.
Or as we used to call it, “the Magical Kingdom.”
At the time, I was writing for Fort Meade’s weekly publication, Soundoff! My editor heard there was going to be a big Chanukah bash at the NSA, for its Jewish and spiritually curious non-Jewish employees, as part of the agency’s cultural diversity program. She wanted me to check it out.
I figured it would be a nice, feel-good story. A few spins of the dreidel, the consumption of latkes and jelly doughnuts, the retelling of the story of the Maccabees, the singing of “I Have A Little Dreidel” — the typical shpiel.
It wasn’t easy gaining access to the NSA campus. I had to submit all of my vital information, and the unseen powers that be (and hear) did all of their background checks. Somehow, I snuck through. All of my colleagues at Soundoff! — some of whom had worked at Fort Meade for many years — were envious I was crossing over to “the other side,” since the NSA campus is pretty much off-limits except to folks who have official business there.
More than 50 people attended the soiree, held in a fairly ordinary auditorium in a fairly nondescript building. Everything was typical of a Chanukah celebration, until a visiting prominent rabbi from Baltimore spoke. This rabbi, whom I won’t identify, explained some of the historical details behind Chanukah: the oppression of the Jews by the Assyrian Greeks, the Maccabean Revolt, the menorah oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.
But instead of leaving things there, the rabbi used the Chanukah story as a launching pad to rail against American society in the 21st century. Bitterly, he spoke of what he viewed as our society’s hedonistic ways and loose morals, particularly regarding the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in our culture. He compared American society to Sodom and Gomorrah, and said we live in an “anything goes” climate.
“The society around us over the last 15, 20 years has lost its moral compass,” the rabbi said. “So we as Jews need a holiday to strengthen ourselves to deal with a society that looks at principles as archaic and interfering with the desires of an individual and our ‘there are no rules’ culture.”
Suffice it to say, he wasn’t in a jolly holiday mood.
By the time the rabbi’s fire-and-brimstone tirade was over, it felt like all of the air was sucked out of the room. A sweet, joyful holiday gathering had turned into a platform for the culture war in our country right now.
As a Jew, I felt like slinking down in my chair and crawling out of the room. I wanted to go up to each non-Jew there and explain that not everybody in the Jewish community or every rabbinical leader shared this rabbi’s views.
Look, you can argue whether he was right or wrong. But it was neither the time nor the place to deliver a diatribe against the greatest country on Earth in front of those folks who work tirelessly at keeping it safe.
The bottom line is, when you spew hatred and disgust for any particular group of people, you can kindly count me out. In my book, that’s not what Chanukah is about. It’s about fortitude and compassion and illuminating the world with hope and acceptance for all people.
Sorry, Rabbi, but don’t expect any Chanukah presents or gelt from me this year.
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief
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