There are police cars parked in front of the San Francisco JCC, where my kid went to pre-school when she was small. I can only imagine what the parents of today’s kids are thinking or feeling or telling their children when they drop them off this morning.
It’s hard enough talking about this publicly, and with my own teenage daughters. How do you explain it to little ones?
We are all in shock right now. On some level, the American Jewish community has been bracing for something like this, expecting it for several years now. The hatred, xenophobia, and murderous supremacism that has infected the discourse and politics in our country these past few years — that now emanates right from the top, from the presidency itself — were like blinking red warning lights. The mass murder at a historic black church in South Carolina. The murder of an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville. The attempted pipe-bomb murders just last week of a dozen leading Democrats. The demonization of immigrants. The rise in acts of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. And, just three days before Pittsburgh, the murders of two African Americans in a supermarket by a white supremacist. All of these were warnings.
Like all of these terrorists, the terrorist who attacked the Tree of Life synagogue, because of the support the Jewish community has shown for the plight of immigrants seeking safety in America, wanted to destroy those who opposed his white nationalism. To eliminate those who stand for its opposite.
But we will not be eliminated. And we are not alone.
All of this reminds me of something that happened at another Jewish Community Center, one in Los Angeles, 15 or 16 years ago. The offices of the social justice organization I ran were there at the time, as were a number of other programs the JCC hosted, including a summer camp for local kids, and a hot lunch program for seniors — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — from the surrounding community.
One of the people who came for the hot lunch was an elderly African American gentleman. I liked it when he’d show up, because he was an amazing jazz pianist, and after he’d eaten lunch he would sit down at an old piano in the JCC auditorium and play for a while. I loved to linger at the doorway to listen to him. We would smile at each other and nod hello, but we didn’t talk much more than that.
I remember one rainy summer day, one of those rare occasions when LA’s June Gloom turns into an actual rain storm, and the camp counselors kept the kids inside and pretty much let them run wild around the JCC. The kids were laughing and running and shrieking and just being kids, but it was so loud with all that noise ricocheting off the walls and ceiling of the old building that we couldn’t get any work done in our offices down the hallway. Between the kids and the storm, it was a cacophony.
I was in the bathroom washing my hands and the piano player was standing at the sink next to me. I smiled at him in the mirror as he smiled at me, the two of us, side by side in the reflection.
“It’s pretty loud in here today,” I said to him.
“It sure is,” he replied.
“We can’t even hear ourselves think! I guess it’s too loud to play music today,” I said to him.
“Yes, I guess it is,” he smiled. “But the noise doesn’t bother me at all.”
“Really? What’s your secret?” I asked. “It’s driving us all a little crazy.”
“Well, back in the Second World War, I served in what they called a Negro Battalion. And I was one of the first GIs through the gates of the Dachau concentration camp when we liberated it. I never forgot what I saw that day. And so the sound of happy Jewish children shouting and playing doesn’t bother me at all. It’s music to my ears.”
And he smiled again, said “You have a good day, son,” and walked away.
I stood there at the sink for a while, staring at my reflection. I had been proud that my Jewish community had provided a hot lunch to an elderly man. It never occurred to me that he was a rescuer of that Jewish community, a liberator to whom we owed so much more than a free meal.
I think about him today and all the kids at all the JCCs and all synagogues and churches all over America, and I think about the two African Americans gunned down in Louisville and the 11 Jews murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue and about what it means to be allies, and what we owe to each other to be better — to build bridges and alliances between our communities and stand up strong and united against the evil that confronts us. And how the fear and fury that so many American Jews feel today is something that African Americans know far better, and for far too long. And about how the only way forward out of this current darkness, the only way to get to the America we dream will one day be, is hand in hand, together.