This past Sunday on February 22, something extraordinary transpired in a small shul in the concentrated Jewish community of Pico-Robertson. Pico Shul is housed in Tomchei Shabbos, the same building and organization that manages a significant amount of direct action charity for the Jews of Los Angeles, providing fresh food to thousands every week. The shared space is a foundation for the congregation, designed by a commitment to responsibility and kindness. This small but unusually crowded synagogue is groundbreakingly unprecedented in its approach to Orthodoxy in an unorthodox world, embodying an energy and spirit of tradition and spirituality reminiscent of the shtiebels of Europe, those that remain today by way of commemorative rocks at the site of the once Treblinka death camp. Rarely can we define a place by its spirituality, but there are few words to capture the physical presence of heart in a warehouse-turned-shul. Like any Jewish legend, it’s essence can be understood through its stories.
On February 22, The Rabbi of Pico Shul coordinated with the Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles and led a heartrending memorial for the innocent victims of the Khojaly Massacre, one of the most atrocious genocides of post-Cold War Europe. In 1992, Armenian militants committed a version of ethnic cleansing so brutal and depraved we can only compare it to one other time in history; sparing neither women or children. The specifics of Khojaly were uncomfortably recognizable to the Jews that attended the memorial, impossibly painful for the Azerbaijanis there to mourn their own families. The stories of the victims profiled through testimony at the memorial were heartbreaking, the tears in the room unstoppable. On that day, a small world was privileged to witness Jewish and Muslim inseparableness, joined together across religious distinction, blending into one for the memorialization of a common pain.
Yet it has never happened before this day. On that Sunday, the Jews of Pico Robertson hosted a formal memorial for the Muslim victims of Khojaly, a place that few have ever heard of. Azerbaijan, a Muslim neighbor to Iran, is a particular friend to Israel, and to Jewish people, and that warm friendship goes back a few millenia. In this world of divisive and intense threats to Jewish life from Islamic extremists, the Khojaly Memorial at Pico Shul is hardly on the list of expected activity, no less at an Orthodox synagogue in California. Yet it is equally unusual that Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim but secular nation, champions positive Jewish relations and does so alone. In the Pico Shul on Sunday morning, any notion of strife between Jewish and Muslim people was wholly absent. There was simply the beautiful and open room filled with mourners, a solo violin, and the testimony of the survivors of Khojaly. Only by envisioning the physical presence of true and elevated friendship can we capture the magnitude of this event. Through this uncomplicated act of solidarity, a unified beam of humanity was created, shining as a beacon of hope to challenge all paradigms and assumptions of our chances for peace.
Most Ashkenazi Jews of survivor descent dislike comparisons to the Holocaust, though much credit is due to Jewish scholars for the world’s developing awareness of genocide as a concept and crisis for many. The movement for global awareness and solidarity to recognize the specific genocides that have taken place is arguably a Jewish led movement. Yet for the Holocaust, with our meticulous capturing of the immeasurable cruelty, we identify elements that separate out the Final Solution singularly in its inmost depths of inhumanity and base hatred. At Pico Shul on Sunday, it was clear and deeply edifying to all that what happened in Azerbaijan in 1992 is inseparable from what we know of our own tragic experiences with the kind of hatred and violence as experienced by the victims of Khojaly. On that Sunday at Pico Shul, as the Rabbi stood before a somber and silent room of Muslims and Jews, he sang the special Jewish prayer for the souls of martyrs, and in that moment, an absolute miracle of unity was realized.
Time will tell if the promise of that day can spread across the hearts of nations to cure and repair our tragically broken world. Through the cracks and darkness in this vessel of life, we are gifted to see unimaginably bright rays of light that enable a healing as equal in intensity to the crush of the many causes of breaking. We should feel a sense of desperate worry to realize a world where the same hatefulness of the Holocaust was exacted on innocent people in 1992 as it was in 1940, and still denied by the perpetrators, unknown to most. In this dark and threatening reality of unknowns there exists a penetrating and tangible hope, a legitimate and lasting peace between friends from nations that the world assumes could never be friends. Between the humble and hopeful walls of Pico Shul last Sunday, by the power of a deep and shared humanity, the possibility and path to world peace was realized.