To our non-Jewish fellow citizens, the mass shooting that took 11 lives at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh will be remembered as yet another instance of murderous violence at an increasingly tumultuous time in our nation’s history. The body count is too high for the massacre to be entirely overshadowed by other events, ,even by the arrest of the man accused of sending unexploded pipe bombs to ten prominent public figures who had been critical of the present administration. But with the midterm election less than a week away and the President threatening to create — or at least pretend to create — a military confrontation on our southern border, there’s only so much attention that the average American can give to a single mass shooting, even one as deadly as this one. Even the Parkland school shooting, which took more lives and produced a temporary jolt of activism by the survivors, has begun to fade from out conscious memories, proving once again that the gun lobby’s staying power is greater than that of bereaved families.
But for us as American Jews, the Pittsburgh massacre can never become just another act of gun violence among many. It can be — it must be — a wake-up call, reminding us that even here in America, the most hospitable of the many Diaspora communities in which we have lived during our centuries of exile, the specter of anti-Semitism is capable of extracting a lethal toll.
There is nothing particularly noteworthy about the Pittsburgh Jewish community today, nor about Tree of Life, the synagogue where the shooting took place. I wouldn’t call Pittsburgh, whose Jewish community is estimated at 54,000, a major center of Jewish life, but it’s a respectable sized community. Squirrel Hill, where Tree of Life is located, is the center of Pittsburgh’s Jewish life , containing about one third of its Jews and boasting three day schools, four restaurants and twenty synagogues of various flavors.
The Tree of Life synagogue, according to its web site, has roots going back 150 years, but in its current form, it was formed by a merger of two older congregations in 2010. From a brief perusal of the web site, it appears to be, demographically and programmatically, fairly typical of egalitarian Conservative synagogues. It is, in other words, a fairly ordinary American synagogue.
It’s that very ordinariness that makes this massacre so frightening. There are communities and synagogues that by virtue of their size, their prominence or their activism, might be considered “obvious” targets for virulent anti-Semites, but Pittsburgh is not such a community, and Tree of Life is not such a synagogue. If you were looking for likely targets or anti-Semitic violence, its safe to say that congregation would not be high on your list . The reaction of American Jews to this shooting arises in part from that realization. If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere — even here, even in America.
Pittsburgh’s primary claim to fame in American Jewish history is its role as the site (in 1885) of the drafting of the Pittsburgh Platform. That doctrinal statement of `what is commonly called classical Reform Judaism, in addition to rejecting traditional Jewish ritual practices in toto, renounced any Jewish national aspirations:
We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
The Jewish world has changed a great deal in the 130-plus years since the Pittsburgh Platform was promulgated. The Reform movement’ began backing away from its rejection of Zionism in the Columbus Platform, adopted in 1937. Israel’s creation in 1948 gave birth to a new reality, one with whose far-reaching implications we are still coming to terms. Aside from everything else it has accomplished, Israel’s very existence has made clear that Jews can never be just a religious community. There is a national aspect to Jewish life that we cannot eradicate even if we want to. The world won’t let us. It is an irony of Jewish history that Pittsburgh, the city where the notion of a purely religious, nation-less American Judaism was born, may be the city where it is finally laid to rest.
The shock and horror expressed by decent people everywhere in response to the massacre has been heartening, but it will fade with time. It’s we who have to keep this massacre — and what it reminds us about the inherent precariousness of Diaspora life — in the forefront of our consciousness. The fight against anti-Semitism should be supported by every decent human being, but in the fist instance it’s our fight, not theirs. Whether we can stop squabbling long enough to lead that fight remains to be seen. There’s room for optimism. History teaches that Jews are capable of getting along — after exhausting all other options.