Good morning, my friend. I’m writing to you, and hope you don’t mind my sharing this with others. I know that your heart is broken as you learned about yet another murderous attack carried out here in the United States at a synagogue during religious services. As Professor Deborah Lipstadt pointed out, while the media described the killer as having “acted alone”, that is far from the truth. Murders against Jews that are motivated by the simple fact of their Jewish identities aren’t acting alone. They act having been influenced by what they read in online anti-Semitic, bigoted and racist websites. I’d go a step further. Once a person becomes a murdering anti-Semite he is not a lone criminal. He has united himself with anti-Semitic ideas that have crawled around western civilization for centuries. He can find an ideological home in the Inquisition of the Catholic church, in the thinking of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, in the German ultra-nationalism that led to Auschwitz. He gets to share many of his beliefs with American racists, most of whom included Jews among the groups they pour out hatred towards.
My friend, your family and mine escaped the old country, fleeing oppression and poverty. They came to America and believed that they were not a minority group here. After all, President Washington had written a letter to the Jews of Newport RI, greeting their community and congregation and promising that the land in which they lived would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”. And while it took some years until our people were able to break down barriers to living in certain neighborhoods, being accepted to certain schools or joining certain country clubs, these were inconveniences at worst. And yes, while a few kids would be beaten up while walking to Hebrew School back in the day, this tended to be the exception, not the rule. Nothing was even close to the pogroms that our families had once survived.
Life was good in America. We became safe, upwardly mobile, comfortable. We celebrated Israel, most of us from a distance. We knew that Jews from other countries had moved there to escape persecution. But not American Jews. Those of us who moved there went out of pure idealism. Not for a moment did we think of Israel as our insurance policy. It was, for those of us who stayed in the U.S., our Jewish Disney World, where we could visit, tour, study, shop, eat, dance, play and then return to our wonderful American Diaspora.
Unexpectedly, the rug got pulled out from under us. Oh, it’s still mostly safe to be Jewish here. I put on my tallit and tefillin while waiting for a flight at Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport and didn’t give it a second thought. Before I knew what was happening, two other guys had tallit and tefillin on and were reciting their morning prayers. And nobody gave us a second look. As far as I know.
But, over the past few months, our working assumptions were blown up, with the lead taken by two anti-Semitic white supremecists armed with assault weapons. Now, when I walk to synagogue, I look around myself a little more to see who is around me. Now, I no longer laugh when my wife, whose mother left Germany just before the Holocaust struck, would warn me and the kids to always have up-to-date passports. Now I make sure to greet the North Miami Beach cop who sits in his patrol car outside the synagogue and the (armed) Israeli security guy who sits just inside the locked entrance of our synagogue, letting people in one-by-one every Shabbat and holiday.
In my optimistic heart and mind, I do not expect America to be overrun by anti-Semitic violence. But something has started here. Something that President Washington promised wouldn’t happen. And, for the first time in many years, you and I are off balance. Our steps are a little less certain.
Today, I lead a group on the March of the Living. We land tomorrow in Poland where a once proud Jewish community of 3 million now exists as a small community of a few thousand. It happened because something small began in a town in a neighboring country a few decades before the proverbial sh*t really hit the fan across Europe. So, while I want to believe in the “never again” affirmation, I’m no longer so naive as to ignore a few “isolated” incidents. And I mourn the lost innocence.
Today, I stand proud as a Jew. I stand in unity with each and every Jew. I value each and every ally who stands with me against a rising anti-Semitism. I stand with absolute faith in the belief that the Jewish people have an important role to play in human history and that we will continue to play that role faithfully.
Am Yisrael Chai — The People Israel Live!
Since the mass murder at Shabbat services at Tree of Life (and no, the irony of the name and the events isn’t lost on me), the thought that keeps rising in my head is: The innocence of the American Jewish community died last week.
Having worked in Jewish organizations for my entire career, I have generally felt removed from anti-Semitism. Sure, there was always that stray person who would ask me “where are your horns?”, but they were few and far between. I felt far enough removed, as an American, from the world in which people believed the accusations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to occasionally joke about Jews controlling the media. After all, nobody actually believes that crap anymore, right? And the Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist colleagues I interacted with were of the mentsch variety. None of them wanted to see me or my beloved Israel eliminated. Most (not all) did not seem to worry about my eternal soul being damned because of being a Jew.
I live in a country in which even most of the holdouts that wouldn’t allow Jews to live in their communities (file under Kenilworth, IL) had given up and now have their Jewish peeps. And while I had marched against the American Nazi Party in Skokie decades ago, the memory of swastikas in Chicago was a faded enough memory for me to feel exceedingly safe.
When I moved to South Florida, I was shocked at the level of security around the Jewish Federation in which I used to work, the local JCC’s and our synagogues. There was incredibly limited access to the buildings and armed security guards. When I asked it was explained as part of the picture because so many of our Jewish community members had previously lived in countries like Argentina and Venezuela, which had experienced anti-Semitic or political violence, and because of my security-conscious Israeli neighbors. There was no reason at that time, five years ago, to imagine that an American Jewish community would need strict security were it not for the mindset of those who had come from more threatened communities.
The scene for the Pittsburgh attack and for our loss of innocence was being set for a few years before we got to last Shabbat. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents was the sharpest annual increase ever. And of course, we had once again seen protesters marching while carrying flags with swastikas on them. But we continued, for the most part, to ignore the warning signals.
Then eleven individuals were murdered in a synagogue sanctuary and nobody could ignore the situation any longer. The anti-Semites, along with bigots of every make and model, have crawled out from under the rocks. And to blame any one politician or political party misses the point: Anti-semitism and its cousin – racism – has been there all along. But at long as we as Jews were able to get into the exclusive clubs and neighborhoods, we felt safe.
The attack on Tree of Life shattered our innocence. In hindsight, we should have known better. We had seen comments about Jews controlling (fill in the blank with: media, Congress, weather) things. Some of those comments were made by elected officials. Holocaust deniers and individuals who would deny the right of a secure Jewish homeland in our world have been there. And now we see them. In plain sight. And even on tomorrow’s ballots.
The innocent age of American Jewry died. And we have work to do. I am not in any way the expert on what we, as American Jews, do now. But, as a simple Jew, I’d like to invite you to create a dialogue on our next steps. Here are my humble suggestions:
- Be prouder than ever to be Jewish. We brought ethical monotheism to the world. Our ethics and values, which have evolved throughout history, reflect the words of our prophet, Micah “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
- Learn about what it means to be Jewish. Find a class, take a Jewish trip, read a book about Judaism, learn to read Hebrew, visit Israel. Go deeper.
- Add to the broader societal conversations. Our deeply divided world needs the wisdom of our tradition. Bring your Jewish game to the table, add value to our society and make sure everyone knows that you’re making a difference because you’re Jewish and that’s what Jews do
- Show up for Jewish. The most powerful sermon I ever heard was as a child when a Hasidic rabbi made the bold statement on the High Holidays that people should be in synagogue, not because of ritual, but because that’s the place where Jewish people come to know what it is important to know as a community. I’ll expand that. Important Jewish community conversations take place in the gym at the JCC, in Hebrew School carpool lines, and in (often non-Kosher) bagels places and delis. [Yes, this rabbi just encouraged you to be in the places where are people are to be found, Kosher or not].
- Give up the idea that Jews are just WASPS who don’t happen to believe in Jesus. We aren’t. We are an ethnic and religious minority. And many of the same people who hate one minority hate all minority groups. Stop running from it. Embrace it.
- Find and embrace allies. Over the past week, I’ve found empathy with religious leaders from the Black Christian, Moslem, Sikh and other communities. And I’ve witnessed good people reaching out to Jews in Pittsburgh and other Jewish communities with prayer, with flowers, with love.
The New Normal for American Jewry is here. What are YOU going to do about it?
As the director of security at my workplace said: It was bound to happen, it was only a question of when and where. It was yesterday and it was at Tree of Life, a congregation in Pittsburgh.
The finger-pointing and blame game began almost immediately.
It was the president’s fault.
It was the fault of the liberals who want gun control.
It was the fault of the victims, because their synagogue didn’t have armed guard (I have no idea whether it did or not, by the way).
It was the fault of Israel’s policies.
It was the fault of all Jews for being too complacent.
It was the fault of the mental health system.
It was the fault of one single person with hatred and bigotry and weapons.
These are the absolutely unconstructive, if not outright dysfunctional responses from people trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of something that cannot be rationalized away. Like the Holocaust or natural disasters, if we can explain it, it will put our minds at ease. But, like the Holocaust or natural disasters, we cannot. So, we bicker over our responses and come up with all sorts of ways of avoiding what we really have to do today – mourn, and what we have to do tomorrow – act.
The individuals who are creating chaos in our society are not monolithic. They are responding in horrible ways to very complex times. To expect their motivations to fall into one single category is absurd. As a result, the appropriate responses (both in mourning and in action) are going to be complex.
Here is the only simple thing: All those who are conducting acts of terror and of mass murder are creating chaos and festering more hatred and violence.
We are in a war, but probably not the one you think: It’s the war that the Dead Sea sects of the Jewish people spoke of in ancient times: The Sons of Darkness against the Sons of Light. But unlike the tribal designations for who are the forces for darkness and who are the forces for light, today the forces for darkness are those who promote anger, dissent, violence and terror. Today’s forces for light are those who are, to use the words of the Jewish tradition: rachamanim b’nei rachamanim, merciful humans who are the descendants of merciful ones. In other words, those whose characteristics of mercy are so ingrained on their souls, that it is practically part of their DNA.
Today, the Jewish community and its allies sit shiva. We mourn, comfort the mourners and each other.
Tomorrow we mobilize for action. We join the war on the side of the Sons of Light through acts of kindness, increasing mercy and love, decreasing the capacity for violence, and taking necessary measures to protect our community and our society.