Like many people these past days, thoughts have constantly turned to the tragic shootings of 11 Jews in the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Shabbat. It has marked for many, years of concern at the rising tide of anti-semitism throughout the western world.
Jewish institutions the world over have been undergoing a makeover into protected fortresses. Even in Melbourne, Australia, our Jewish Schools have barbed wire, video surveillance and armed guards during school hours. It is given that our synagogues are fortified with security barriers and armed guards
Yet nothing prepared us mentally for the massacre in Pittsburgh.
So what can be done from here?
There have been conversations circulating in some media circles and in social media on what to do in response. They nearly all include engagement with the wider communities in which Jewish communities reside in order to bring political and social support at a time of great fear. Now is the time to engage, not withdraw. To build support, not ignore it. To work with other communities against xenophobic groups within our societies, not look just pitying ourselves for the continued misfortune of the Jews.
Which brings me to the communal event held in Melbourne recently, hosted by our local Rabbinical Council of Victoria. The evening was meant to be a voice for solidarity – a coming together of the bereaved community for solace and support.
The short service was centred on saying memorial Tefilot/prayers, and an American women who had previously lived in Pittsburgh.
A short speech was then given by the MC of the evening who turned to the audience and declared quite passionately that the evening was “an evening for action”. We could turn our grief and sorrow into something concrete. I shifted in my seat and looked at him ready.
Write to Parliamentarians. Seek motions in Parliaments all over the country condemning the shooting and standing with the local Jewish Communities. Engage with your community groups. Write letters to the papers (yes, I am old school). Spread a message of love not hate through social media. Challenge anti-semitic posts in the social media. Speak at Service Clubs. Bring the story to the surface in Melbourne, not bury it in fear. All these things were on my mind as I waited for the answer to the question of what to do.
“Light a candle, put on Tefillin, do a Mitzvah”, was the Chabad Rabbi MC’s call to action.
What has this to do for a bereaved community, I thought? Where is the engagement with our wider society? How do we build a coalition of communities united to confront the worst elements of racist sentiment? What could each person do to enlarge the role and cause of Jewry in our communities? For goodness sake, what was candle lighting going to do?
I know I was not the only disappointed. You could see it around the Synagogue.
It reminded me of a speech by another Chabad rabbi one Shabbat some time ago, a good man to be sure, when he spoke passionately about the Shoah and the darkness of the night before the morning. I was waiting for the transition to the light of modern Israel, but instead what his morning consisted of was the building of more shules and people doing more mitzvot.
I realised that the evening service in memory of the Pittsburgh fallen, like that past Shabbat speech, marked the limits of Chabad’s capacity for community leadership. The focus was on the micro picture of individual religiosity, not communal identify. The reason for this is at its core, Chassidut as a philosophy arose to redeem the individual through the individual Jewish experience of undertaking mitzvot – religious deeds. The movement never sought to create a community consciousness and engage Jews with the wider world. It took Rabbi Kook much later to translate those same ideas into the macro level and bring Israel into the forefront of modern Jewish thought and praxis.
Chabad offer a localised micro-level community service through their Chabad Houses, but when you offer to light a candle or put on Tefilin as a community’s panacea to the intense emotional and fearful reaction to Pittsburgh, then you need Chabad to step away and bring other community leaders to step up and connect each one of us to our wider community. It takes communal leaders, not Chabad Rabbis, to proactively build the support for the Jewish community to live peacefully within, and continue to contribute to, the wider society in which we live.