At the beginning of this week, while our community joined with CBY and others from our interfaith community for a vigil to mourn the 11 innocent souls at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, I was in the Dominican Republic, joined by Gary Cohn, one of the leaders of our social action initiatives at Shaaray Tefila, and Kathy DiBiasi, our friend and Educator at the Bedford Presbyterian Church.
We joined in with many others “virtually” to be part of the memorial, knowing that the pain, the anger, and the mourning we have all experienced this past week are needed and necessary to hold one another, as we move through another barbaric and senseless terror attack.
While we are jolted by this tragedy, I keep thinking: what does it now mean for us as we walk into our familiar place of assembly, the place where we are gathered this evening – our synagogue, where we assemble to create sacred moments; where we laugh and cry together; where we seek comfort and counsel; where we learn, pray, and act.
The declaration that “all Jews must die” was the response to our Jewish community’s efforts to help immigrants and to care for those who are in need. Those inside the Tree of Life Synagogue, blamed for the good deeds of other Jews, and inside a place of worship – were murdered in sanctifying God’s name and God’s ultimate wish for us – to “choose life”.
This is not just an attack on Jews alone. This hate and pain-filled shooter expressed his hatred for Muslims, for immigrants – coming on the heels of pipe bombs being sent to a number of prominent political leaders (as I spoke about last Shabbat). All of this, coming only a day after another hate crime, against the black community in Kentucky, leaving 2 dead in a supermarket, when the shooter could not get into a black church.
After four little girls were murdered in the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham, Dr. King said: “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”
Dr. King was right then. And that message is as powerful, urgent and true today. There are systemic issues, which have created an environment in which hate can grow.
Anti-Semitism is the oldest, and most adaptive hatred in history. But we know that where there is a tolerance for anti-Semitism, there is a tolerance for hatred of all kinds. I know…this is not the America I know we have the capacity to be….the one that many of us strive to build and want to leave our children.
Today, we are in mourning, but after this time, our tradition calls us to rise and re-enter the world with purpose. We are called to address these acts of hate….from the rise of anti-Semitism, to the demonization of immigrants and refugees, to the lack of sensible gun regulation, to the intolerance of hateful speech and incitement.
Perhaps our “assembly place”, this place, offers us the knowledge and the constant reminder that we can “choose life” even if we cannot choose what happens to us, and that we remain resilient in the pursuit of that which is both good and just in the world.
The day after this senseless tragedy, I recall the faces and concerns of so many of you, as we reflected, prayed, and processed through the weekend’s horrific events. Not even 24 hours later, Gary, Kathy, and I found ourselves in the Dominican Republic, hosted by an NGO making transformative change in the world….in support of the vulnerable.
We were there briefly to build on our 15 years of service learning in Nicaragua and envision what our teens and adults will get to share in February there – countering hateful acts with our hands and hearts, bringing dignity to our global neighbors, who are very much in need of our love and support.
As our Shaaray Tefila community has and continues to demonstrate… our resilience knows no bounds. Whether in Israel, Nicaragua, the DR, Puerto Rico, Haiti or Northern Westchester, our tradition charges us with being the change we wish to see in the world…and here, we take that literally! Many of you here this evening have and continue to serve as our angels of repair.
But, even as we struggle to hold the enormity of this tragedy, even as we grieve –right now, we need ALL OF YOU to stand up and say, Hineni – I am here, ready, and present – to roll up my sleeves and get to work!
I know…this is not the America we have the capacity to be. Standing up and saying “Hineni” calls us to our highest selves, by putting aside the blame, and to make sure love wins – that goodness and solidarity – wins.
Hineni means being clearheaded and unequivocal in naming and condemning the disease of hatred that has permeated the culture of this nation, and the fanatical obsession with guns that has transformed it from a contentious debate to a near daily deadly reality.
Hineni means: standing up to the bigotry and prejudice we know we will hear, not just from our enemies, but sometimes from the words of those we are close to.
Hineni means: finding the courage to build alliances across lines of difference, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
Hineni means: not losing hope; to bring some light into the darkness; to not give into the doubt or pain of this moment.
We send much love, resilience, and strength to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh—our family. Zichronam livracha— may the memories of those who perished reverberate in this world as a blessing, and may the outpouring of support from around the world bring comfort and consolation to those whose hearts have been shattered.
And those who try, again and again, to break our resolve and “replace us”: we’re not going anywhere! Our values and ideals, which bring much light and hope to this world, will forever transcend the baseless hatred that you attempt to spread.
In memory of those souls innocently lost this past Shabbat, let us pray with our feet. Just as we have filled this sanctuary on this worldwide Solidarity Shabbat, our “assembly place”, may we all long for something else, work for something more, and lean into what is yet to be. Our communities, our country, and our faith traditions demand this. And our very humanity depends on it. Shabbat Shalom.