SUNDOWN this evening marks the start of Rosh Hashanah, and with it the Jewish new year, 5767. As we embark on this new year, it is important to point out the similarities between the period surrounding the Second World War and the time frame in which we are living.
In the late 1930s, our nation experienced an enemy bent on reconfiguring the world order. The striking reality for Jews involved the Nazis' call for "the final solution," not dissimilar to the words we hear from Iranian leaders today. An uncertainty existed then as to how the world would contend with this threat, and what might be the fate of European Jewry.
Now Western society is challenged to confront the threat of terrorism and the potential for nuclear blackmail. Israel must contend with new threats to its security as well as an assault on its legitimacy as a state.
Reaching back into history, we can discover from an extraordinary set of religious leaders lessons for our own times. Their ideas about celebrating core religious values, creating effective political organizations and building coalitions of faith provide to us a specific course of action.
In 1939, Rabbi Harry Stern described the mind-set of his generation when he offered these words: "This New Year 5700 marks the turn of a century and what a tragic hour it is in the turn of world events! ... We are like children afraid of the night, the night that has overtaken humankind."
Just as fear defined this earlier moment in time, so it touches our society now.
The Christian theologian and historian John McMurray writing in the 1930s suggested, "The character of the Jewish mind is what Hitler fears.... It is the Jewish consciousness which is the enemy. The thought and triumph of the Jewish consciousness fills me with joyous exhilaration while it casts Hitler into depths of despair."
The essence of a people, its history and its ethics, represent its greatest strength in periods of crisis. Now as before,the Jewish voice must be heard. The values and teachings of this tradition must no longer remain silent.
The stirring words spoken by Rabbi Solomon Freehof in April of 1942 offered a response that also has particular relevance: "There is no other peace, there is no compromise permitted to us by our enemies. They mean to destroy us or to enslave; they have shown it scores of times in every land they have overrun. Peace is possible only through victory."
As in our time and place, there simply can be no appeasement to the enemies of democracy and freedom.
During those dark days of war, Rabbi Stephen Wise insisted that division and discord had no place at a time when Jews needed to unite to fight the Nazis and advocate for the creation of a Jewish national homeland. Wise was credited with creating an infrastructure for political action, while also understanding the value of interreligious coalitions.
Similarly, Freehof, Wise and their colleagues saw the crisis of their times as an opportunity to re-engage Christianity with Judaism. What was striking about these calls for unity was the shared engagement of religious leaders acting as one in the effort to defeat the Nazis.
In today's climate, religious leaders must set aside their differences to address the challenges of terrorism by forging new bonds of cooperation among Islam, Christianity and Judaism. This is a moment for our society to engage the world, drawing upon the insights of a previous time in history.
Steven Windmueller is the interim dean of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.