Jerusalem mourns in circles

“Two things hurt me last Thursday,” says the young secular guy sitting across from me. “Shira’s murder, and the fact that so many of my friends indiscriminately lashed out against a whole sector.”

It’s Wednesday night in Zion square, and this guy and me are sitting on the floor, surrounded by other Jerusalemites. We are here to mourn and talk. loose fences separate us from the revelers. A Haredi guy has shrouded himself in the Gay Pride Flag, and he walks around talking to the security personnel protecting us. Activists from The Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance and from Medabrim Bakikar are conducting conversations with passersby. Luminaries like Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz from the city council and MK Rachel Azaria converse with the crowds.

And I sit on the floor, among men and women of various persuasions, value systems, and sexual orientations. We are sitting in circles, discussing recent events, and sharing our pain.

“The fact that so many of my friends indiscriminately lashed out against a whole sector,” says the young man, and his words shock me. These are my words, I want to exclaim. These are the very words that have been haunting me all week!

From the moment Yishai Shlisel plunged his knife into Shira Banki and five others at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, the internet and the printed media exploded into a free-for-all accusations fest.

Some people accused the Haredi community as a whole.

Some people lashed against the wider religious community, or against specific rabbis and religious politicians.

Some people went as far as saying that as long as we (religious people) don’t disclaim halacha, Shira’s blood is on our hands.

Some people painted their hands red and heckled minister Yuval Steinitz when he spoke in the anti-violence rally in Tel Aviv last Saturday night, blaming the governing coalition, or at least its representatives.

Some people on the right lashed out in their own defense, accusing “the other side” of being repressive and intolerant, as did many religious people. Some even said “you brought it upon yourself.”

Now don’t get me wrong: At the core of all these accusations, there are real issues that need to be dealt with. Can those of us who follow halacha successfully teach our kids to respect other people without compromising our beliefs? Can freedom of religion and freedom from religion coexist? Can community leaders be held responsible if their words are misinterpreted and used to justify violence?

But the vitriol of it all, the sudden abundance of self-righteous hatred, was unbearable. And for me personally, it was most painful when originating in “my” camp. I could take the accusations against me. I couldn’t take the way some of my fellow believers lashed out.

“Two things hurt me,” says the secular guy, and his words make him kin. We share the same pain.

To my left, a young man wearing a kipa talks about his experience as a religious homosexual. “The religious community as a whole is not to blame, and besides, it’s slowly growing more tolerant,” he tells us. More and more Orthodox schools invite him and other religious gay speakers to address their students. “First of all,” he says, “I tell them that a sexual orientation is not a sin. Only certain acts are, according to halacha. And no matter what, God will continue to love them.”

These must be the days of the Messiah, I think to myself. This man, the ultimate victim of the halacha I follow, defends my community, using halachic terms.

A sweet young Hassidic man with a Breslaver look and long curly peot says Judaism and hatred don’t go hand in hand. An elderly lady challenges him. How can you believe that homosexual intercourse is an abomination, a sin, and remain loving? He shrugs. I am not God, he answers. It’s not for me to judge. My job is to do mitzvot and love others.

I marvel. A religious man who preaches a Live and Let Live, or rather Love and Let Live, ideology.

To my right, a secular girl who attended the parade speaks about her fears and trauma. She finds it hard to separate between Yishai Shlisel and the religious community in general. But when other secular participants defend religion to her, she acknowledges their points.

Secular activists. Defending the religious sector.

I wander off to other circles. Some are more intimate, others less so. One, in particular, focuses on sharing emotions rather than discussing opinions. All of them are what the participants make of them.

If these circles are a microcosms of Jerusalem, I think to myself, then we are doing great. It’s easy to say “tolerance” and “coexistence” when you never meet people who are truly different from you. Once you do, as you must in a city like Jerusalem, things get complicated. Yet every single person in this circle proves that when we truly engage with different people, when we leave our comfort zone, we are better for it. Our understanding of the world is better for it. It’s more nuanced, and less vitriolic.

But a better understanding isn’t enough, I remind myself. It wouldn’t protect people against violence. And heartwarming though this experience is, the hard questions are here to stay. The real contradiction between halacha and liberal values are here to stay. When we will have to amend laws or vote, they will come back to the fore.

I watch as passersby join the circles. Some walk over purposefully. Others appear to be revelers who only stopped for a minute on the way to the next bar, then decided to stay.

We can’t stay in this safe place, these circles, forever, I think to myself. The challenges and real disagreements await. But when we next disagree, we will probably do it more respectfully.

We come here as concerned individuals. But what we build here is more than a temporary circle. It’s our civil society.

So I forget, for now, about the future. I stay by the circles, and listen.

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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