The profoundly horrific events of Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue this past Shabbat has given us all pause to consider what it means to be Jewish in America. There are the statistics that show quite clearly how contemporary American society finds it all too easy to attack Jews. It reminds me of something that the new Jews to the new world once taught their children: always have your passport ready.
Although I think that it is a bit of hyperbole at this point, I now fully understand what they meant.
When they came to the new world from Poland and Russia and all points European, they fled pogroms and the Shoah to live freely as Jews. The thinking was that such blatant Jew-hatred could never happen here. We now know it can. What was repressed by the David Dukes of the world is now out in the open. Social media is rampant with anti-Semitism.
But, as you know, it never stops with the Jews.
For reasons that no one has yet explained, anti-Semitism is the oldest hatred. No matter where Jews are, those on the left and those on the right will always find a way to blame Jews for something. In the Middle Ages, Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells of London. In France, Jews were seen as subverting the efforts against Germany in World War 1. And in Germany, Jews were seen as ‘Germany’s misfortune.’ And in almost every Arab country, the Jews are seen as controlling the world and humiliating Moslems. And in America, it was very hush-hush but we all knew it was there. Choose a country, find the anti-Semitism.
America was supposed to be different. And for a many generations it has been. There was no reason for locked doors or guards or fences around synagogues. Jewish stores operated all over the continent freely and were integral parts of neighborhoods. Now, though, things have changed.
I do not need to recite the litany of attacks against Jews in Europe and now in the United States. Pittsburgh was the latest and bloodiest manifestation of that ancient hatred.
But I do not despair of the future.
I believe in the heart of America and I believe the heart is good. Though there will always be those who hate, I also know there are those who love. I like to tell the story of my daughter SaraAnn who called us one evening from college telling us she was working with her computer science colleagues at a place called ‘The Cave’ at Rutgers. Naturally, Stella and I bought pizza for some ten hungry computer scientists. And when it arrived they had to take a selfie. The selfie is telling.
Ten young people all held up their pizza slices with huge smiles on their faces. They were grouped closely together and all were obviously delighted in the joy of the experience. But what was wonderful, truly wonderful, is that there were students of every color in that picture and every religion. One was Sikh, one was Hindu, a couple were Moslem, one was Jewish, several were Christian. It didn’t matter. They were working together, creating together and laughing together. No one was excluded. No one was judged. It was truly a peaceful world in that place. And, thinking as a rabbi, that place was holy. That is the heart of America and that is what America truly is and what it can be.
We saw the same love and commitment to each other in the Vigil for Sanity as people from all backgrounds said to one another, ‘We stand with you. Your pain is our pain.’ And in this I know that when good people go out on a cold night to stand against hate, hate can never win. Hate will always be loud but our Jewish commitment to love and justice, equality and celebration of life will always be part of the fabric of this nation and I know that there are millions who will stand with us. And we will stand with them, no matter what.