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Jewish mourning in the ‘America of Everyone’

I finally understand: American Jews are not just Jews who happen to live here and not elsewhere -- it's an identity in itself
Pittsburgh Police officer Sarah Pratt gets a hug before a Shabbat morning worship service held outside the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Police officer Sarah Pratt gets a hug before a Shabbat morning worship service held outside the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The place: Boston Commons.
The time: Sunday afternoon, exactly the time Americans usually spend with their families, play sports, go on day trips or rest in front of the TV.

But not today. Today, thousands stand here in solidarity with the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Many of them are Jews but not all of them. Over there is a priest, over here an African American woman with tears in her eyes. On stage the representatives of the largest of Boston’s Jewish organizations stand alongside Christian and Muslim clerics, local government representatives, a police representative, and a young girl who has prayed all her life at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

She was not hurt. Her relatives were not hurt. But these are paltry words, incapable of capturing the full truth. Because the truth is that this girl’s childhood memories — the memory of the people who were always there but will never be there again, the memory of past celebrations, the memory of simple security — are now intertwined with what came later. The place where she laughed and played and celebrated her Bat Mitzvah has become a crime scene, a space filled with bullets and blood.

One of the Christian women on the stage reads a passage from the Gospel According to Luke. I shift from foot to foot — it’s strange to hear a Christian sermon at an event that commemorates dead Jews. I remind myself that this is more than a memorial gathering: it is a demonstration. American citizens stand here to show their support, and to stand up to the hatreds within them. They are here to say: No. You will not tell us how to live.

“We are America,” says one of the speakers, and the words are the melody under all the other words, the rhythm that gives them meaning.

Because here in the America of everyone there is no room for hatred of the other, because the meaning of this America — its essence — is that it is a place where everyone can live side by side. Reality, of course, is not as glowing. But that’s exactly why they’re here, on a beautiful autumn Sunday, and not at home. All these people are ready to fight for their America, their ideal of America.

On stage, the speakers change again, and again, and again. “Our social fabric…,” says one. “We can’t let the haters win…” says another. A representative of a Muslim organization offers warm words (in the coming days, Muslim organizations will raise huge sums for the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and many will volunteer to stand outside synagogues across North America on Saturday as a human chain of defense).

And the girl from Pittsburgh is standing among them, talking about the synagogue of her childhood. And she says, “We will bounce back.”

She means more than the grieving Jewish community, I think, looking around at the faces around me. She means her America. Their America.

And so, surrounded by mourners, I finally understand: American Jews are not just Jews who happen to live here and not elsewhere. American Judaism is an identity in itself, an identity in which elements like religion and Bible are intertwined with components of the American civil religion, while also emphasizing Jewish concepts that are less central in Israel.

I feel very foreign and very different here among them. I am accustomed to other kinds of mourning, to different kinds of rallies. The emphasis on interfaith relations is foreign to me. The emphasis on the triumph of liberal society plays notes that echo a familiar melody but are not exactly the same, and the similarities and differences unsettle and confuse me.

But I think back to all the rallies I participated in after terror attacks at home in Israel, and the message that was repeated in them: We are not broken. We do not give in to terrorism. We are here.

I look at the faces around me. I look at the young girl on stage.

When she says “We will bounce back,” her “we” is different from the we that I know and remember from home. She does not mean “we the Zionists” or “we the Jews” but rather “we the Americans who believe in the idea of America.” And yet the emotion behind the words is the same emotion, and the determination is the same determination.

Bullets will not defeat us. We will not break. We are here.

* * *

A week has passed since the vigil in Boston Commons. A week of mourning. A week of emails from our synagogue here, from the children’s school, and any other Jewish institutions we ever interacted with, with detailed explanations of new safety procedures. And in all of them, the same message rings out: We are strong. We Shall Overcome.

Choose one mitzvah to do today and dedicate it to the memory of the murdered, recommends one email. Donate to the Pittsburgh community, urges another. Take the initiative, be involved. Find a purpose to strive for, don’t merely drown in sorrow, they all imply.

And America — not just its Jews — is really searching for what to do and how to contribute and for those purposes that will lead us forward, out of mourning and into a better world.

America is seeking redemption.

* * *

The Place: Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford.
The time: Saturday morning, just a week after the Pittsburgh massacre.

Synagogues across the United States are more crowded than usual today. Throughout the week, organizations and institutions sounded the call to show up at the synagogue on Shabbat, to demonstrate a presence. (They will not break us, they will not defeat us, we are here.)

Indeed, the sanctuary is full. But not only with Jews. The priest of the nearby church has come, along with a group of his congregants. They are here to support their Jewish neighbors, and not for the first time. A year and a half ago, when threats to Jewish institutions sprang up throughout the United States, the church gave the rabbi here a key to their building. Just in case.

On the bima, facing the congregation with tears in his eyes, the rabbi tells of the many expressions of support he encountered during the week. A social worker who lives near the synagogue offered her services free of charge to anyone who needed a safe place to talk — to relieve their sorrow, or to express their fears. A woman from a neighboring town bought bouquets of flowers and traveled from synagogue to synagogue to distribute them. Neither of these women is a Jew.

But they are American. And in their America, they believe that’s what neighbors do. That’s what people do. That’s what will eventually win.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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