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From Pittsburgh to Poway: What do we do now?

4 steps to move American Jews through the pervasive fear that has followed the attacks
The day after a deadly shooting, people arrive to pay their respects in front of a memorial outside of the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 28, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
The day after a deadly shooting, people arrive to pay their respects in front of a memorial outside of the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, October 28, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Here we are again. Six months ago, we mourned the tragedy known now simply as Pittsburgh. We were sad, scared, angry, and frankly, surprised. But here we are again, not that long after Poway and not that long after Pittsburgh. In the days after Poway we were again sad, for sure; angry – boy, do I still feel angry; but were we shocked that such a tragedy could occur again?  Were we surprised? I felt none of that this second time around. “It was only a matter of time,” we said, following Pittsburgh, until another tragedy would occur. “It was only a matter of time.”

Here we are, after Poway and after Pittsburgh. Many of us have already “moved on;” we have become numb to the tragedy. For others, we are still trying to formulate a response: not just to the loss that was Poway, but to the growing threat of anti-Semitism and the compounding plague of gun violence which has affected other faith communities as well.

As Jews, to move forward we must look to the past. During the waves of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, our people responded in one of three ways: in western Europe, where the ghettos walls fell at the beginning of modernity, our people sought to flee the plague of anti-Semitism by assimilating; in eastern Europe, still oppressed, many Jews responded by turning radically inward to wall off the outside world. Yet, the Holocaust showed quite clearly that neither assimilation nor isolation were successful approaches to confronting the threat of anti-Semitism.

Still other Jews had an even more radical response to anti-Semitism: they turned toward Zion, seeking to establish a modern State of Israel. Both secular and religious Zionism were responses to anti-Semitism, and we celebrated recently on Yom Ha-atzma’ut the success of their efforts and of oursl’hiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem. So far, thank God, one of the most successful responses to anti-Semitism has been the establishment of a Jewish nation-state with a Jewish army willing to defend Jewish sovereignty, Jewish Land and, most importantly, Jewish People.

Here in America, there was a different response to the anti-Semitism unique to our national milieu. The approach of the American Jewish community of the 19th and 20th centuries to combat the broad array of anti-Semitism here was to engage in what I call the 4B’s: Belonging, Battling, Building and Believing. We belonged to synagogue families where we found friendship and community. We battled against anti-Semitism through the courts, through legislation, and by standing with other minority groups who suffered discrimination. Some of us even remember as children battling anti-Semites with our fists.

Belonging, battling, … and building: we built unbelievable synagogue and JCC structures to announce to the world the success of the Jews in America. We also built families: we married young and we had several children.

Belonging, Battling, Building, and Believing. We believed in God. We believed in America and especially its government. And we believed this was a different land, a different place, and a different time – where Jews and Judaism could actually thrive in the Diaspora. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews truly belonged, battled, built and believed.

But because of our successes here in America and the subsequent decline in anti-Semitism, we became complacent in our Judaism and in our commitment to Jews. We stopped belonging to synagogues. We raised fewer children and, by leaving our families-of-origin to move to new cities for the proverbial success of “better jobs,” we ceased building the altar of the Shabbat and holiday dinner table. We also stopped believing in God, stopped believing that governmental leaders could make a difference, and we stopped believing in Israel and hatikvah: Israel’s hope to be a democratic, Jewish state in the land promised by God to our ancestors and to us. We also stopped battling; well, I should clarify: we blessedly kept battling against discrimination and for the protection of the rights of other minority groups. But we stopped battling for Jews. And we certainly stopped battling for Judaism.

So here we are today: smaller in number, many of us lacking in faith, and all of us suffering anti-Semitism once again – an anti-Semitism intensified by the ease with which one might obtain a rapid-fire weapon. What, now, do we do?

First, it is a mitzvah for Jews to protect themselves, and necessary steps must be put into place despite the additional expenses Jewish institutions will accrue. Perhaps, too, in these difficult times Jewish philanthropists will refocus their giving toward their Jewish brothers and sisters to help offset these additional expenses. As we consider how we more diligently protec ourselves, though, we must caution against vigilantism and responding to violence with violence; the idealization of the Wild Wild West with a gun for every person will only increase our exposure to danger: it will not prevent it.

Second, in order to combat anti-Semitism, we must remember that assimilation and isolation do not work. Pretending that we are not Jewish by ceasing our involvement with Jewish communal life and by stopping our religious practice because of fear or apathy is exactly what the anti-Semites want. Assimilation allows the anti-Semites to win.

Isolation too does not work. Not that long ago, the United States nearly annihilated anti-Semitism: not by Jews separating themselves from the outside world, but because — through education and communication — good people of all faiths grew to see the evil of discrimination against Jews. The Jewish community is stronger as a result of our interfaith partnerships, and we are grateful to our non-Jewish brothers and sisters who stand up for us and who speak out against anti-Semitism in particular, against discrimination in general, and against violence of all kinds.

Third, unlike assimilation and isolationism, Zionism is working, and we must do everything we can to support Israel as a democratic, Jewish state in the Land of Israel while recognizing it is not yet the messianic ideal, and seeking to help our Israeli sisters and brothers to fix the modern State’s imperfections.

Fourth, we must recommit ourselves to the 4B’s that led to a strong Judaism in the America of the 19th and 20th centuries: belonging, battling, building and believing. We must encourage belonging to synagogue families where we can find friendship and community. We must build Jewish families: when possible, by having three or more children, while still recognizing with love and understanding that infertility is a real issue for which no one should be made to feel guilty or stigmatized. And we must again believe: in God; in the American dream; and in the hope that is the State of Israel. Belonging, building, believing … and battling.

We must battle against anti-Semitism through the courts, through legislation, and by standing with other minority or otherwise oppressed groups who suffer discrimination. We must battle this 21st century anti-Semitism by beginning in our own homes to practice civility, respect and tolerance. Please: no more name calling, patronizing, or hurling of insults at those with whom we disagree – either in person or on social media. After all, the children are listening to us and, because of the insults, those adults whom you are castigating certainly are not.

Looking toward Washington D.C. and from coast-to-coast, we must battle anti-Semitism by calling out the insulting rhetorical tropes of both the political left and the right, as well as those in our government who might not be anti-Semites themselves but enable a culture of anti-Semitism. Those of us who point the accusatory finger of anti-Semitism in only one direction, by the way, to the left or to the right, are simply not paying attention to what is going on or, even worse, are placing political allegiances ahead of loyalty to the Jewish people. There are anti-Semites and enablers of anti-Semitism on both sides of the political aisle. We must call upon local, state and national leaders to speak up for civility, for respect, and for tolerance and we must elect only moral leaders who pursue those values.

We battle anti-Semitism by calling out those of the media, including mainstream news sources, who inflame tensions or, worse, promote anti-Semitism. As is often said, the Holocaust did not begin with gas chambers … but with words, stereotypes and prejudice, sometimes presented as cartoons and caricatures. We must lobby for greater access to mental health care and destigmatize that care, and we must also seek from our elected leadership a rational, reasonable response to the gun violence plaguing our society and our homes. Transforming our society’s infatuation with weapons will take lifetimes to achieve, but we must start today.

And it is not only words and legislation that matter. We Jews must protect ourselves physically. We must combat assimilation and isolation. We must support Israel. We must engage the 4 B’s of belonging, battling, building and believing. Finally, we must deepen our resolve to offer a Judaism that is joyful – not an oversimplified version that is light and silly, but deep, profound and joyful. If we want our young people to belong, to build, and to believe, we must not perpetuate the 20th century Judaism of formality and of guilt nor can Judaism be only about battling anti-Semitism. Rather, we must provide a Judaism that offers a sense of meaning and purpose, of gratitude and true, true joy. Prayer experiences ought to uplift and inspire, and we – not just clergy, but parents and grandparents – we must teach our children and grandchildren how to celebrate Judaism in the home: with bright candles, good wine, delicious food, traditional Jewish rituals, and Jewish family celebrations. We must turn off the cell phones and tune in to each other. Grandparents must model and must encourage their children and grandchildren to “do Jewish” and to “go to shul,” and they must facilitate that in ways small and large. Our Judaism must become a religion of “get to’s” rather than just “have to’s.”

Two months ago, my oldest son and I were headed downtown for a show. “Don’t forget to put on your kipa (yarmulke),” I reminded him. A couple minutes went by; we were just about out the door and, noting to myself that my bareheaded son is indeed an early adolescent, I said to him again while pointing at my own yarmulke, “Please put on your kipa.” Then, we were getting into the car and I saw that he still didn’t have on his kipa. “Where is your yarmulke?” I asked him, with some frustration. “Abba,” he says, “it’s dangerous for Jews out there. If I wear my kipa then they’ll know I’m Jewish.”

Our children are afraid. Honestly, I’m afraid too. In fact, most of us, I think, are on some level afraid. And that is exactly what the anti-Semites are trying to accomplish: fear, and through fear, destruction. For hundreds of generations anti-Semites have sought to break our bodies in an effort to destroy our souls. They fear our belief in God, and how our holiness and righteousness translate into morality, justice, peace and joy. So, they seek to extinguish the flame and to diminish the light. But we must not give in to the fear and we must harness our anger. Our souls must continue to burn with a love for God, and so we must reinvigorate our Jewish practice and our commitment to morality and justice. We must stand as well with other individuals and faith communities who seek to bring kindness, justice, and peace to the world. After all, an attack on one house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship.

We cannot give in and yes, we must protect ourselves without becoming obsessed by it. We must stand up for Israel. We must not turn to assimilation or to isolation. We must strive again to achieve the four B’s: belonging; battling; building; and believing – not just because of anti-Semitism, but because this is the way we should live, emboldened and undeterred. In so doing, let us not bequeath to our children, grandchildren and future generations a Judaism of fear, but rather, one of depth, of joy, of gratitude, and of blessing. We are reminded in the Book of Chronicles (I Chronicles 16), “Yismach lev m’vakshei HaShem, Joyful are those who seek God.” The world needs the Jews and the Jews, though we sometimes fight it, we Jews need Judaism.

There was Pittsburgh and there was Poway. I worry that it is only a matter of time until another tragedy will occur. But let us not become numb to the violence nor let us learn to accept it. Instead, let us instead fight by using facts, faith, and fervor against the fear. Let us continue to celebrate with pride and joy that a democratic, Jewish state exists once again in the Promised Land. Let us belong, let us battle, let us build, and, perhaps most of us, let us believe: in ourselves, in Israel, in America and most importantly, in the Holy One, blessed be God.

HaShem oz l’amo yitein; HaShem yivareich et amo vashalom. May God bless the Jewish people with courage, wisdom and strength, and may God bless us all with freedom, safety, joy … and peace. Amen.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly-Michigan Region and the Metropolitan Detroit's Board of Jewish Educators. Rabbi Starr is the author of the book, "Taste of Hebrew," and the article in Conservative Judaism, "Tradition vs. Modernity: The CJLS and Conservative Halakhah."
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