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A roadmap out of fear

A famous Jewish teaching helps dispel the sense of paralysis following the Poway synagogue shooting
A couple embrace near a growing memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., on Monday,, April 29, 2019 (AP Photo/Greg Bull)
A couple embrace near a growing memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., on Monday,, April 29, 2019 (AP Photo/Greg Bull)

I’ve spent the days, since Saturday afternoon, when I first heard about the shooting in Poway, searching for comfort. Why did I need words of comfort? Because I am afraid. I am afraid as a Jew. In my life, in the first 59 years that I have been alive, I had never had one moment of fear because I was Jewish. Not here in the United States of America and not in the State of Israel, as many times as people used to ask me if it made me nervous to go there. In the last two years, all of that has changed.

And it got worse, my fear, when I saw the despicable cartoon published by the international edition of The New York Times, a dog whistle of a drawing, eerily similar to a Nazi cartoon, of a blind Donald Trump being led by a dachshund-like Bibi Netanyahu. Not because I am any defender of either of these men, far from it. But because the “paper of record,” a publication that is also trying to remain an outpost of the free press, would so blithely allow such calumny to appear in its pages, until a public hue and cry forced a retraction and an apology.

I felt besieged, frightened and almost paralyzed. But I tried to go about my business yesterday, hoping for some normalcy. I went to yoga class at my JCC; I was a little late to class and wound up taking a spot right by the door. It’s a very inviting and friendly class; our teacher never reprimands late arrivals, in keeping with that spirit. And each time someone who was even later than I was came to the door, I jumped. I realized that I had gone over to some very scared place. I tried to reassure myself. The JCC has a good security system, surely no one could have gotten as far as our room to attack us without us hearing something, is what I kept telling myself. This is not a normal thought for a yoga class. Yoga breaths weren’t helping, but I pushed through and found some peace by the end of class.

I continued to go about my Sunday, putting my house back together after the Passover holiday. I thought about how congregations around the world said the Yizkor prayers yesterday, the prayers that commemorate all those we have lost, both personally and as a people. Including the eleven souls lost six months ago at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, and the six million lost in the Shoah, and all the martyrs of our people. Here’s the thing you don’t know about Yizkor until you have reason to say it yourself: While it’s a sad time, because we are remembering loved ones we have lost, and the tragedies we have endured, the Yizkor prayer is one of action, or at least the promise of action. We promise, in the name of those we have lost, to take actions of tzedakah, of righteousness and good. By doing good, we perpetuate their memories. And in action, there is hope.

What teachings about action did I have? I wondered about this on my way home from the grocery store. What was my path forward, with all of this fear sitting inside me?

I realized that sometimes it is the teachings with which are most familiar that can often be the most helpful. Perhaps then, it is not so surprising that it is the famous teachings of Hillel, that helped me, as they have for decades.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? We need resilience. We need to be able to stand up, speak up for ourselves as a Jewish people. And we have these capabilities. We have strong public institutions, thank G-d. The legacy agencies –sometimes deemed old-fashioned these days – like the Federations, the JCCs, the Jewish Family Services – these are the agencies that are on the ground, every day and in stressful, scary times like these. We need to draw together rather than apart, through these institutions. Our synagogues must balance being places of comfort and of safety – we all have to do our part to help synagogue leaders, lay and professional, achieve that balance. We are so fortunate to have national and local entities – the ADL, JCPA, JFNA, and our local community relations committees who can work together to speak up for our Jewish community and to reach out for our neighbors.

If I am only for myself, what am I? Yes, we need to reach out for our neighbors, the ones we know and the ones we don’t know yet. The hatred and ignorance we as Jews are facing is not meant only for us. Since the Pittsburgh massacre alone, we have seen awful, murderous hatred aimed at Muslims in New Zealand, Christians in Sri Lanka, and black churches burned in Louisiana. We must stand with our brothers and sisters to say that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. We must work to understand and see each other’s pain and sorrow, and to fight for the soul of this country.

And if not now, when? I was raised to love and revere this country. My great-grandparents came here seeking freedom from pogroms, from anti-Semitism that thwarted their dreams in central and eastern Europe. The basic premise of my Jewish childhood in Newport, Rhode Island was that the United States was to be a country that would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” As a student of history, I know how terribly and how often we have failed at achieving this goal, even as we started our existence as a nation. But the dream of an America free from hatred, with a place for all who want to call it home, is a dream I will not give up on. There is no time to wait; democracies die in silence. Join me in finding a way to speak up and speak out against hate, against the kinds of speech that foment senseless violence.

Tonight, I am going to a gathering at my local Chabad. It is not my place of worship normally, but it is a place to be together in love and peace. In the days that lie ahead, may we all take steps to be places we wouldn’t normally go, to seek peace, to stand for peace and against hate.

About the Author
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal is a Jewish volunteer leader and writer living in South Orange, New Jersey.
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