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Responding to the Pittsburgh Massacre

At Shabbat evening services we gathered together to celebrate Shabbat and stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I began the service with these words:
I never imagined that I would stand before our congregation and have occasion to speak about such violent and deadly antisemitism in our own country. The fact that someone acted on his desire that all Jews must die seems unimaginable to me. I recognize that violent antisemitism is part of our American history. Leo Frank, for example, was lynched in the early 1900’s. But that seemed a unique circumstance and I could dismiss it as “back then.” Sure, in my own day, there were antisemitic comments said here or there, and there was Nazi graffiti scrawled on synagogues, but nothing ever of this scale.

Such acts only happened over there, in Europe. Perhaps, we even quietly said to ourselves, it could happen in the South or in the far reaches of the West. Such horrific acts of terror aimed at Jews happened in Israel. But not, we believed, here. This week has taught us otherwise.

We are pained. And our hearts are filled with sorrow. We are even angry. This evening we gather to sing our songs, and offer our prayers, and bring comfort to our troubled souls. But even our most cherished songs seem inadequate when pressed against this massacre. And yet we will sing and rejoice at the gift of Shabbat. On this day more than any others, we will do so in defiance of the world and the hate it brings to our doorstep. We celebrate the Sabbath so as to assuage our anger and heal our pain. We sing so as to fill our hearts with gratitude.

And I am grateful that so many have come here, on this Shabbat evening, to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community. I welcome the guests who have joined us and most especially our local clergy: Reverend Jeff Prey, of First Presbyterian Church, Father Kevin Smith, the Pastor of St. Dominic's Church and Dr. John Yenchko, the Pastor of North Shore Community Church as well as their parishioners. Your presence gives us strength. Your willingness to join with our community gives us hope. On every Friday evening we begin with the same song, Hineh Mah Tov. On this evening it takes on added meaning.

Hineh mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim gam yachad. How good and pleasing it is that brothers and sisters join together.

Later I offered this sermon:
The Jewish tradition teaches that Amalek is the paradigm of evil. He, and his followers, attacked the ancient Israelites as they wandered through the desert. He attacked them from the rear. He attacked the stragglers and the weakest. This is what we saw happen this past Shabbat. People who went to synagogue to celebrate and pray, who faced the Ark to beseech their God, who relished in holding the Torah scroll in their arms were gunned down in a sanctuary that is supposed to only serve as a place of respite and peace.

Let us be forthright. Antisemitism is on the rise. Gun violence is a daily occurrence. Hate speech increases with each news cycle. These are our new realities.

What happened at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue is partly attributed to the gun violence that plagues American society. Automatic weapons, and guns made for military use, make such acts exponentially more lethal. And that should be said again and again, until we find some measure of regulating our society’s love affair with guns.

But what makes this instance different and unique is that Jews were purposely targeted. A man filled with rage and obsessed about Jewish conspiracies, fueled by the common cause he found on the internet set out to kill as many Jews as possible. The internet is like kindling for the blood libels, stereotypes and hateful rhetoric that have always been part and parcel to antisemitism. Any manner of idea can find compatriots not only in the web’s darkest corners but in the very tools we use day in and day out. They are a mere like away on Facebook.

Moreover, when our political leaders, demonize other human beings, whether they be immigrants, Muslims or Mexicans, antisemites breathe easier. When the events of Charlottesville are dismissed, when the differences between protesters and Nazis are equivocated, antisemites think to themselves, “Look at how many people agree with us.” Silence is interpreted as assent. Words really do matter. That is one of our tradition’s most important teachings. Words can hurt. They can heal. They can incite violence. They can lead us to peace. They can divide us. And they can lead to unity.

In the face of antisemitism, in the face of hatred and the demeaning of others who are different than ourselves, there is only one response, and that is to say loudly, “This is not us. This is not America.”

Perhaps this violent antisemitism was always here in the United States, perhaps it always bubbled under the surface. In recent years it appears to have found new air. I have studied enough history to know that antisemitism has a stubborn fortitude. We have found it in every country in which we have settled. Even in Israel, the place we believed would be this solution to this perennial challenge, Islamist leaders have resurrected the worst, and most lethal, of history’s antisemitic tropes. Still I never imagined it could become so devastatingly violent here, in my home, in our United States. Some might have thought this a na├»ve belief. I fear they may have been proven right. Still I stubbornly hold on to the notion that this place to which my grandparents immigrated, this country in which my family has made our home, is different. It is unique.

In how many lands would there be such outpouring of love and support from those who are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and others? Here there is a sense that if one faith is attacked all are attacked. That is the notion to which I cling. In how many countries would a local paper be emblazoned with the Jewish prayer for mourning? On the front page of this morning’s Pittsburgh paper are the opening words of the kaddish, written in Hebrew: yitgadal v’yitkadash… And my heart is buoyed by the presence of my friends who are here this evening. We may be of different faiths, but we are bound together. When one is attacked all are attacked. The fact that you have joined us on this occasion, to sit with us and join in our prayers, is a testament to the greatness of our nation and the notion that we are stronger than the hate that travels across our computer screens and the violence that fills our schools, movie theatres, malls, and sanctuaries.

In fact, I learned the meaning of sanctuary not from studies of Jewish texts but from Reverend Ramirez. Years ago, my congregation met at the Brookville Reformed Church. We did so for some ten years. Central to this congregation’s tradition was the notion that their sanctuary doors were never locked. A sanctuary must always be open. Anyone could come to the sanctuary and find solace and comfort within its walls. On occasion, when our students met in the social hall for Hebrew School, someone would wander into the sanctuary to sit and pray. I would sometimes find people there. Sometimes they sat in the dark and I would offer to turn on the lights. I could sometimes hear their cries as they prayed. Despite my offers to talk, they often preferred to sit in silence and pray. And that is the image I am holding on to.

An open sanctuary. A sanctuary in which people are shielded from the troubles of the world, a sanctuary in which any manner of person is welcome. People might tell you that a Jew can’t really be friends with a Christian or with a Muslim or with people of different faiths. They don’t really understand what America represents. We have a choice between walls that divide us or open doors that invite others in. Open doors are what should define us.

The only way out of this dark week is through these open doors. Shutting others out leads nowhere. America is about finding a place for differences. It is about finding a home for ourselves and right by our sides, a home for others.

This week we read, in our weekly Torah reading, about the death of Abraham and Sarah. They are both buried in the contested city of Hebron. In a fascinating turn, Isaac and Ishmael, the two estranged brothers, one who is the father of the Jewish people and the other, Muslims look to as their patriarch, come together to bury their father Abraham. They live in different lands. Ishmael lives in Egypt, apart from his father and brother, who live in the land of Canaan. Isaac’s mother Sarah forbids any contact between Isaac and Ishmael. And yet Ishmael shows up at Abraham’s burial. He is there by his brother’s side, so they can together grieve for their father. How can this be?

There is only one answer. Isaac kept the door open. He stayed in touch with his brother. That must be the choice we make.

There are voices that seek to divide us, and separate us from one another, and keep us far apart and at a distance, that seek to portray the other as alien and foreign. And if we listen, if we heed these voices, we will find ourselves unable to fight the demons that grow in our midst. We will find ourselves at odds with the very values that have made this country great. That is not a choice I am willing to make. Antisemitism may be stubborn in its perseverance. But I promise to be just as stubborn in my response. I promise to hold on to others despite our differences.

We may be different. We may pray in different manners. We may surround ourselves with different images, but we are one. And together we must say, what happened in Pittsburgh last week is not us and it will never again be us. It can never be a part of the America we all call home. Amen v’Amen.