On Rosh Hashanah: Wake up from indifference, America. It’s killing us.

The sound of the shofar is meant to stir us from our end-of-year malaise and call us to reflect on our lives and the state of society.

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A woman blows a shofar at a Jewish Climate Action event in New York City on Sept. 12, 2021. Rosh Hashanah is a call to wake up from indifference to the world’s problems, the founder of The Ninth Candle writes.

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On Friday, Sept. 15, shofars will be played in synagogues around the world as Jewish people welcome Rosh Hashanah — the new year and the start of the High Holidays.

The shofar is an ancient, trumpet-like instrument, traditionally made from a ram’s horn. At Rosh Hashanah, its mystical sound is meant to stir us from our end-of-year malaise. It calls us to reflect on our lives and on the state of society. This year, its meaning is urgent for people of all faiths and none: we must wake up from the indifference that’s blanketed the country.

To be indifferent is to believe that one person can’t make a difference, and that there’s no point in trying. It’s to see something terrible and look away.

The U.S. is in the grips of a “death crisis,” for example. Our life expectancy has fallen behind that of Albania and Lebanon, among others, and our infant and maternal mortality rates are higher than any other developed nation.

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So-called “violent deaths” have been shown to be excessively high here, too. These include gun homicides, but also workplace accidents, traffic accidents, fires and drownings. The “death crisis” should be the subject of government inquiries and public protests — but it isn’t. Apparently, we’re just becoming indifferent to how long we live.

It gets worse. We’re also becoming indifferent to how well we live. Think of all the chemicals that get added to our food. We know that many of them are banned in other parts of the world. We know that they’re driving everything from childhood ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) to the obesity epidemic. We also know that the latter has made the U.S. a global hotspot for preventable diabetes and avoidable amputations. Collectively, though, we just shrug.

Apathy at the polls, poverty, bigotry

We’re becoming equally indifferent to who’s in charge. The turnout for the 2020 election was a record high, but Pew Center research shows that it still lagged far behind the averages for other developed nations. We’re becoming indifferent to how we’re governed, too. Whether the president upholds the law or not, for example, is no longer a concern for many of us.

If we’re this indifferent to things that affect the quality of our own lives, then how can we hope to avoid being indifferent to other people’s suffering? At least 37.9 million Americans are currently trapped in poverty, probably many more.

A record number of nearly 500,000 people are homeless. And the LGBTQ+ community is under constant attack from right-wing politicians and the extremists who listen to them; women are having their human rights restricted; students are having books removed from their libraries; and anti-Black and anti-Asian racism are both rising, as is antisemitism. It would be easy to dismiss all this as the work of a handful of rogue actors. But it’s the indifference of the rest of us that allows it to happen.

It’s always risky to compare America’s present with Germany’s Nazi past. There is at least one area of real overlap, though: the cancerous spread of indifference among the public.

On May 25, 1938, the German-Jewish writer Victor Klemperer said in his diary that his neighbors were “apathetic and indifferent.” They told him that they’d simply stopped reading the news about the Sudeten Crisis, when Hitler was trying to occupy parts of Czechoslovakia.

For them, he said, the Crisis was just “a theatrical sham.” He finished the day’s entry with the ominous prediction that they “will be very surprised when the theater turns into bloody reality one day.” Fifteen months later, World War II had begun.

A catastrophe ahead?

The moral? Widespread indifference can be a prelude to catastrophe.

As summer fades into fall, we’re surrounded by the embers of a life-cycle coming to its end. The leaves are changing color, the days are getting shorter and cooler, and the school holidays are disappearing in the rearview mirror. But, within those embers, there’s the promise of a new life-cycle yet to begin. A fresh start. What better moment to shake off indifference?

Change-making is never easy, but great leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela have always urged us to believe in the power of one. We can start with easy resolutions: to take better care of ourselves, find new ways of helping others and get more involved with our neighborhoods. This Rosh Hashanah, whether we’re Jewish or not, whether we’re religious or not — it’s time to heed the shofar’s call and wake up.

Luke Berryman, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of The Ninth Candle, a nonprofit organization that works with schools across the U.S. to improve standards in Holocaust education.

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