To Those Who Stood With Us
I had already decided to attend Shabbat services last weekend when I heard about the nationwide initiative for #SolidarityShabbat. I even looked into flights to Pittsburgh. I didn’t just want to commune with fellow Jews in my own community. I wanted to go closer to the scene, to show solidarity not just in my hometown, but in the town that suffered and will forever endure the tragedy and horror of the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history.
But I will admit the following. When I saw that the synagogue I choose most frequently to attend when the mood strikes would be hosting spiritual leaders from around town, including students from a local seminary, I was turned off. I almost decided not to go.
When I saw the hashtag #SolidarityShabbat I didn’t even think about solidarity with everyone else. I wanted solidarity with other Jews. I wanted to turn inward, to close ranks, to come together to recognize and memorialize this horrific event as our own, with our own, on our own.
I thought, that’s great that Muslims and Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists and Catholics and all others will show up for services this week. Where will they be next week? Next month?
At the end of the day, I thought, we Jews are in this fight alone. Because, after all, haven’t we always been?
Is that not the lesson from our centuries-old history of pogroms, discrimination, the Inquisition, the exclusion, the persecution, both social and government-sanctioned, the hatred, the violence, the broken glass and desecrated synagogues and Jewish cemeteries?
Many of the harebrained, insulting, asinine comments from right-wing Israeli leaders in the past week have hinted at such: that the story of Pittsburgh is not new, not a first, but a continuation, only the next chapter in the centuries-old tale of anti-Semitism.
Liberal American Jews like myself recoiled at those comments, particularly those from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs Bennett defending the U.S. president from protests and criticism of his tolerance of white nationalism.
We reacted because we see what happened at Pittsburgh as a continuation of not a a Jewish reality but an American sickness: our country’s impotence at stopping mass murder by gun, our sickness of attacks in houses of worship, and yes, the growing tolerance and presence of white nationalism. (Recognizing the difference was an astute perspective by Israeli writer Chemi Shalev.)
In the days since the shooting, I’ve realized that both are true. Our president’s hateful words towards others not like him, especially immigrants, his reference to the white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” his endless fear-mongering, has unquestionably turned up the temperature in our society.
The loose cannons who are some combination of estranged, mentally ill or looking for meaning in a life that has provided them none, have taken his words, his xenophobia, his penchant for espousing baseless conspiracy theories and acted out on them.
It’s not just the president. Every time a Fox News broadcaster or Republican campaign commercial references George Soros, the billionaire supporter of liberal causes who also happens to be a Holocaust survivor, they are feeding the flames of anti-Semitism, the stereotype as the Jew as world-controlling enemy. Soros. Bloomberg. Sanders.
It’s the Jews’ fault — and they must be stopped. HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which was the Fox News-promoted source of angst for the Pittsburgh shooter, has helped bring the families of many of my friends and acquaintances to America. They continue to help immigrants, yes, even brown-skinned ones from Central America, into the United States.
And then there are the guns. Just another shooting in America. From Sikh temples to African-American churches, from country music festivals to gay nightclubs, from post offices and office spaces to the classrooms of pres-choolers, the guns. And the trail of blood and tears they leave behind.
So yes, what happened in Pittsburgh was most definitely a continuation of this most horrifying, unhinged, hellish moment in America.
But it is not that alone.
The Romans who forced Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai to flee Jerusalem never watched Fox News. Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille, who forced the Jews of Spain to convert or die, did not know of “Second Amendment remedies.” There was no Gab.com, Reddit or 4chan fueling the pogroms in Russia. Only after the Third Reich came to power and unleashed their own hell on Earth did George Soros himself flee Eastern Europe for the United States, where decades later he’d become the bogeyman for today’s neo-Nazis and far-right fringe of the Republican party.
And it’s not like anti-Semitism in America is new either. It was the Nazi-sympathizing aviation hero Charles Lindbergh who brought the initial “America First” movement to fame. Neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Skokie in the 1970s. Henry Ford helped spread the anti-Semitic tome the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Ever wonder why the Anti-Defamation League, America’s foremost Jewish organization fighting anti-Semitism, was formed? In response to a lynching of a Jewish man named Leo Frank who was falsely accused of raping and murdering a young Christian. Less than a century ago, the president of Harvard suggested a quota on the percentage of Jewish students allowed into the school.
Shit…across the street from the Jewish Community Center where I learned to swim, play basketball and, not coincidentally, about the Holocaust during my years of Hebrew High School, was a golf and country club that prohibited Jews from being members.
And you know what? I never wanted to belong to that club. None of us did. I thought the JCC was just fine. It was ours. It was ours because we weren’t allowed to be part of theirs.
But no matter how successful Jews have been in America, no matter our relative comforts, no matter our (mostly) isolation from overt anti-Semitism, we’ve always known it was there.
A few years ago, when buying Hanukkah candles at a grocery store, the clerk at the register said, “Those candles have really been selling lately. I didn’t realize there were so many Jews here.”
“Yes,” I thought to myself, “ever since we stopped wearing yellow stars, it’s been harder to count us and keep an eye on us.”
I paid in silence.
When working for a Jewish organization earlier in my career, the topic of a database of supporters and donors throughout the country came up. Such a database is common among non-profit organizations (or any business or fundraising operation). Yet the idea made some uncomfortable.
Even though it had already been implemented in practice at several local chapters, some vocally expressed unease with the notion of creating a master file system with names, addresses, and relationships to others.
What if it fell into the wrong hands, they asked. Imagine how this could be used by those who mean us harm. It had never dawned upon me before to fear what is essentially a Jewish community directory. But such is the lesson taught by history to those who had to think about such things.
It was at that same Jewish organization where I re-learned (after surely being exposed to it in Hebrew school) the Jewish principle of kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. It’s why Jews in the United States give to organizations that help Holocaust survivors in Russia, or to Jews who have suffered anti-Semitic attacks in France, and to our own communities, regardless of our individual needs.
The ethos of tzedakah, technically translated as righteousness but understood, in this context, to mean charity or philanthropy, is taught at the earliest ages. My parents used to give me quarters to contribute to the tzedaka box at my Sunday school. (I still have a tzedakah box but, who pays with cash anymore?)
So when bad things arise, as they did in Pittsburgh, there is already a model to follow. We can handle this. We have systems in place. Unfortunately, we’ve been through this before. Like the ADL, the Jewish federation system for who I worked for over four years has in its roots a communal response to anti-Semitism, in the Boston Jewish community after Kristallnacht. While communal fundraising entities had existed previously, that night helped created a united front, with local chapters bonding together to pool their money to help Jews overseas.
All of this is why I had the instinct, one I’m both proud and ashamed of, that on this Shabbat, our community’s first since the Tree of Life shooting, to not want outside help or support. I wanted the solidarity to come from within. It was a selfish attitude, both personally and communally.
I’ve seen what the outside world has done, and continues to do, to Jews. And for those who are as appalled and saddened and hurt and frightened by the Pittsburgh shooter as I would expect anyone to be, I’ve seen their inability to stop or influence anti-Semitic acts throughout the ages, whether it be a pogrom in Europe, or a desecrated synagogue in Brooklyn.
But I was wrong.
I was wrong to hold all of the world responsible for the existence of hatred and anti-Semitism. I was wrong to not see that the world is made more of loving, caring, thoughtful people than violent racists. I was wrong to not see that, just as I am appalled and ashamed at the continued existence of racism, there are millions just as disgusted and ashamed by the persistence and nastiness of anti-Semitism.
And I was wrong at not seeing or appreciating how important it was for those millions, or, in the stead, representatives of those millions, to literally stand up and speak up and name themselves in solidarity with us, against hate. Important to them, to us and important to me.
I’ve been to synagogue more times than I can count. Last Saturday morning, the prayers and the melodies comforted me, wrapping and embracing me in familiarity, tying me back to tradition, reminding me of such a large part of how I came to be who I am. After a week of sadness and alienation, I felt at ease, finally, just knowing the Jewish tradition was continuing. I never thought it wouldn’t, but it felt good to see. To be a part of it, to watch the synagogue fill.
But it wasn’t until the part of the service when the rabbi invited all those who had come to join us in solidarity to come to the pulpit and introduce themselves that I really felt it. There were dozens. Until that point, not being quite familiar with the crowd at that synagogue, I didn’t know who was a guest and who was a regular.
That, I imagine, is the point. It didn’t matter. We were all there for the same reason.
We all felt compelled to come together to mark a tragedy, to share the same physical space, to see and be seen, to tend to and comfort others. It was a communal shiva call (when one visits with a Jewish family within the first seven days of losing a loved one). It really was, as advertised, a show of solidarity.
The visitors introduced themselves, and along with their names gave their affiliation. Most were from a church or a local seminary.
One woman, however, had no such affiliation. She was there, she said, because she was a human being.
I tear up just writing that. Finally, my own internal wall distancing the rest of the world from me as a Jew collapsed.
For a brief moment, one I’m not sure I’ve ever felt in America before, with the possible exception of the days and weeks after 9/11 in New York City, I no longer felt estranged from a world out to get me.
I saw others in pain, and they in turn saw me. A human being…yes.
It questioned my cynicism about all the other human beings. In that moment, I switched my default perception of all other human beings from assuming, or at least lurking as a possibility, that they, too, had it in for the Jews to something a bit more generous. Open-minded. Tolerant of people not like them. Vocally and visibly promoting peace and understanding.
I don’t walk around town or in public spaces thinking that all those around me are anti-Semitic. But it’s always there, in the back of your head, that nagging questions, how differently would this person treat me if they knew I was Jewish? That’s one of the worst burden of centuries of anti-Semitism, the permanent implantation of that question in our brains.
I identify, both to myself and to the world, as Jewish. History shows the inherent risk in doing so, even in America. That risk, that amount of fear, however small it may be — that’s the fear in me that didn’t want non-Jews in synagogue last weekend.
I can’t wish it away, but to hell with that fear.
We can post security guards in front of synagogue doors and blockades in front of Jewish community centers. As a community we’ll manage that fear. And I must do the same.
Two consecutive Sabbaths, each representing the polarity of human existence. Hatred and violence, tolerance and peace. Out of the former, let’s continue to pursue, all loving people, the latter.
I hit my limit on synagogue endurance before the service was over. I’m out of training, but still put in nearly two and a half-hours. I folded my tallit and put it in its bag and walked out.
Right as I was leaving the building a large black SUV pulled up right by the curb. “Oh, come on,” I told myself. “I know I’m leaving early but you can’t get here at noon. That’s lame.”
But when the mayor stepped out of the vehicle I changed my tune. Man, I froze. I said hello and kept on walking. He could tell I recognized him, but I didn’t offer anything that the most casual of greetings.
If I could have that moment again, I would have thanked him for coming. I would have thanked him for representing the city in solidarity with the Jewish community. The mayor himself is Jewish, so perhaps, like me, he was not just there in his role as civic leader, but as someone also deeply impacted by the Pittsburgh shooting.
I wondered what all the Jewish people who endured centuries’ worth of persecution and violence would have thought upon seeing a Jewish mayor walking into a synagogue on such a meaningful day.
So despite being mad at myself for missing my chance to have a private one on one chat with the mayor, I felt better. I got what I came for.
I was able to comfort myself by being around others. Others who are Jewish, and others who are not.
But all seeking community with like-minded open-minded peopl who believe in the sanctity of love and acceptance over all else.
In that sense, in that room, at least for that morning, there was no ‘other.’
Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.