Reflections following Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue
November 2, 2018
Tragedy upon tragedy – ripples upon ripples.
A community of worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – were killed in the sanctuary of their synagogue on last Shabbat. And the ripple effect: In Charlotte, members of our community here at Temple Beth El are in Pittsburgh to bury their family members, sit shiva, and attend to family members who are recovering.
Eleven Jews killed in Pittsburgh – and the ripple effect: This week a Jewish child asks her father if it’s safe to go to Temple.
Eleven Jews killed in Pittsburgh – and the ripple effect: A child asks his rabbi if it is okay to take down the mezuzah – the outward symbol of a Jewish home that is on the doorpost of our houses. “Why?” the rabbi asked. “Because I don’t want my neighbors to know I’m Jewish.”
Eleven Jews killed in Pittsburgh – and the ripple effect: Parents of children in Charlotte asking, “How do I help my kids understand antisemitism? How do I help my children respond to the Holocaust jokes at school when they just heard about what happened at the Tree of Life Synagogue?”
We’ve been here before. This isn’t the first time synagogues and Temples have been targeted. If I’m being honest with myself – and honest with you – the killings at Tree of Life Synagogue weren’t surprising. Because we in the Jewish community have known for some time that something like this could happen…would happen.
What happened in Pittsburgh is a symptom of a deep and profound and long-simmering illness. We’ve seen this same type of hate lead to acts of violence against Muslim masjids and mosques, Hindu and Sikh temples, at African American Churches and other churches as well.
And it’s a reminder that an attack on one house of faith is an attack on all houses of faith.
Just over a year ago, we saw white extremists waving banners in Charlottesville that read, “Jews are Satan’s Children.” We heard the chants: “Jew will not replace us.” They yelled, “Blood and Soil,” an English rendition of a Nazi slogan. They screamed, “The heat here is nothing compared to what you’re going to get in the ovens.”
It’s the old and tired anti-Semitic tropes: Jews are weak. And we are all powerful.
We are less than human. And we are controlling the banking and media and global industry. And last Shabbat – a white supremacist decided to kill Jews – the deadly ripple effects of rhetoric.
According to posts that he made on an extremist social media platform, he believed a conspiracy theory that Jewish globalists, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, specifically are funding a caravan of asylum seekers from Central America that also includes Muslims from the Middle East.
But this conspiracy isn’t just the stuff of fringe groups – it’s coming from establishment politicians in the highest levels. And we are told by those using the rhetoric that words aren’t the same things as violence. As though no one bridges the gap in their mind that “we’ve got to put a stop to this” may be a call to bear arms – or that a post on social media site that says “Death to Jews” may encourage people to actually kill Jews.
And it’s a reminder: words matter, rhetoric matters. And we need to hold people responsible for what they say. Why? Because racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, and homophobia are like parched forests. When a match is lit – there is enough fuel for a powerful and destructive fire. Prejudice ultimately ends up in violent catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe that we’ve been seeing over and over and over again.
Haven’t we had enough? Enough of the cultural conditions that define who is American – leaving out minority populations. Haven’t we had enough? Enough of the painful and tragic breakouts of racism and antisemitism that have ended in death. Don’t we want our children to grow up in a world where the images we’ve been seeing this year and this week – are a thing of history books and not tomorrow’s news and the next day’s news and the next day’s news? Don’t we want our children to feel safe enough to proudly display their Judaism, not want to hide it? Don’t we want our children to enter their schools and their synagogues and to not have to pass armed security guards?
The prophets and teachings of our faith have bequeathed to us moral visions that call out to us: To act with values, transmitted to us by the generations. To confront hate and oppressive forces quickly and vigorously. To recognize our own roles and responsibilities. And to create the Promised Land of our future, a world where love and compassion and justice and freedom are the values upon which our great country is built.
The world as it is, is not as it ought to be. Our country as it is, is not as it ought to be. Our city as it is, is not as it can yet be. We can get to a better place, but it requires holding hands, and walking boldly, together. And it’s a reminder: We can speak our prayers and say our amens and we can make our resolutions. But the amens and resolutions will do nothing – and mean nothing unless they have actions behind them.
Rabbi Schindler taught from this pulpit last week that when a Muslim woman’s hijab is ripped off her and she is ridiculed, we have to feel as though the hijab was pulled from our bodies, too. We have to stand by her side, fighting for her rights.
When a refugee escapes pain and suffering and persecution to make their way to the promise and potential of the United States, we do not raise our fists and tell them to go back into a burning building. Rather, we welcome them – as the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
When young black boys and girls are told that their lives don’t matter, our dignity is ruptured with theirs. And we stand by their side, fighting for their rights. When a note is left for a gay man saying that his family no longer counts, our families shudder with the threat. And we stand by their side, fighting for their rights.
When neo-Nazis march, with swastikas yelling “we’re heating up the ovens now,”- our Jewish eyes meet with our non-Jewish brethren – because, as Jews, we know that many of us are here today because righteous people stood by our side in our time of need.
The Jewish community knows the cost of silence. And it’s a reminder: When people come for us, it’s not long before they come for our neighbors. We must link arms across lines of difference because when people come for our neighbors, it’s not long before they come for us.
Hate, and bigotry are not the most dangerous aspect of our society but silence –silence kills. With God’s strength, with the power of community, with the courage and conviction deep within us, we can be audacious in our spirit and bring greater healing to our parched cities and to this great nation. May we do so, as our tradition so powerfully demands of every generation. May we do so, loudly, with solidarity, courage, and resolve.
Shabbat Shalom Rabbi David Stern following the attack in Dallas in 2016.  Also influenced by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin