On Saturday, everything changed. As reports estimate, for approximately an hour and ten minutes a now identified gunman laid siege on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania, before he was taken into custody. At 9:49 a.m, Shabbos Parshas Vayeira, as Jews around the world were participating in the Shabbat Project, an initiative to unify the Jewish people and inspire them with the beauty of Shabbat, an anti-semitic message was posted on a social media account ran by Robert Bowers, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he said. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” By 9:54 a.m, the 911 dispatch centre had already received the first of what would be many calls by panicked Shul-goers and neighbours of the synagogue. Just a minute later, the first officers arrived at the scene of this horrific attack. Yet, tragically, it took over an hour and ten minutes to get the animal to surrender, and allow paramedics inside. Eleven of our brothers and sisters were murdered in cold blood. Two more are still wounded, along with four brave police officers who responded to the scene. At such a time, we ask now what? What do we do? To this, we have to look back in our history.
This past weekend, while this senseless violence brought a wave of darkness upon our people, there was still light that shone through. I had the privilege of attending the NCSY Fall Regional Convention in Niagara Falls, along with two hundred fifty other Jewish high schoolers from across Canada. Essentially, we were preparing to receive news we didn’t even know there was. The theme of the Shabbaton was “Our Fight Song: Defending our Nation and our People”. Throughout Shabbat, we had an opportunity to hear Steve Gar, an Israeli counterterrorism specialist and soon to be Rabbi speak to us. He spoke at length on the topics of terrorism and antisemitism. As if that wasn’t enough during Ebbing, an NCSY tradition in which those gathered come together to sing and be inspired as Shabbat winds down, Rabbi Glenn Black, chief executive officer and regional director of NCSY Canada, created a program in which many people read a small passage as a Jew in a different period of time, going all the way back to our forefathers. This program then ended with four teenagers, including myself, that go to four different schools, with four different backgrounds, each getting up and stating, “.”
Although it did help, this program and all the programming over Shabbat could not adequately prepare us for what we would soon learn occurred just four hours south of us. But you know what, this inspirational Shabbos adequately prepared us for our response. That response was to sing, pray, and unify as a community. That is all that can be done in immediate response to such tragedies. It is not to say that we should not protect ourselves, or try to create change, but not as an immediate response. There is nothing political about this massacre. It is not on the hands of anyone except the shooter himself, and those who share and support his views. Just as Hitler, this being of evil, whom I cannot even bear to repeat his name, did not ask anyone if they were Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. He did not ask if those worshipping were Ashkenazic or Sephardic, Litvish or Chassidishe, Democrat or Republican. To him, it did not matter. A Jew, is a Jew, is a Jew. This deadly attack was an attack on Jews everywhere, regardless of denomination or affiliation.
We do not know why bad things happen to good people. But we do know that for thousands of years, the Jewish people have been subject to this kind of persecution. Anti-semitism is the oldest and most continued form of hatred. We are only 0.2% of the world’s population, yet in annual FBI data, we repeatedly account for more than half of the Americans targeted by hate crimes. We are a people that have had a target on our back since leaving Egypt when we were attacked by Amalek. We are a people that have endured countless attacks, expulsions, and attempts on our religion. Most importantly, we are a people that put something above ourselves. We are a people that brought purpose and meaning to an otherwise meaningless world. We are a people that brought absolute morality into the world. We are a people of a tremendous history. We are a people that keep the Torah close to us, and use it to guide our every decision. We are an eternal people.
“אחינו כל בית ישראל”, my brothers and sisters, the house of Israel. “והיא שעמדדה לאבותינו ולנו שלא אחד בלבד עמד עלינו לכלותינו, והקדוש ברוך הוא מצילינו מידם”. In every generation, there are those who rise up to exterminate us. But HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One Blessed is He, saves us from their hands. “עם ישראל חי”. Despite this senseless violence and any other attacks of antisemitism, the nation of Israel lives and will continue to live.