Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Sermon for Pittsburgh Massacre

Tonight is a Shabbos that we will remember forever.  Tonight, we feel pain, anger, and so much loss and sorrow that we are almost drained of those emotions.  We have counted our dead.  All eleven victims of the Pittsburgh massacre. Our feelings are not going anywhere. There is never an appropriate time to ignore our feelings. Such pain will not heal itself; at best, it will leave us scarred.

Feelings provide us with valuable information. If we place our hand on a hot stove, the sensation of heat, along with the burning skin cells and nerves, tells us to remove our hand. If we feel hungry, we eat. If we bleed we feel pain. When we get cold, “the human body has a mechanism to try and boost our core temperature when it gets chilly. Our muscles shiver and teeth chatter. Our hairs rise and our flesh forms “goosebumps.’ Imagine if our bodies lacked the ability to feel heat, cold, or pain. Being subject to such numbness would prove a curse to our existence, and maybe even make it harder for us to survive.

We, the Jewish people, are an organism. When we feel symptoms, and we must react. In the hours following the Pittsburgh massacre, I received phone calls from family, loved ones, and friends.  I was hearing from fellow Jews, who wanted to hear, from a rabbi, that there was an antidote for such terror, or a vaccine to prevent the spread of an ailment, a virus ravaging our people that so heartlessly took away 11 holy souls. Anti-Semitism has always existed in America. Some people have always felt it here, while others have not. However, this attack is different than what we, as Jews, have historically experienced in America. A pogrom had never before occurred in American history. Jews had never been the victims of a massacre in American history. Jews never had to pray secretly in this country. The events of October 27th,2018 changed American Jewish history forever.

Our feelings are telling us something tonight; we are angry; we are upset; we are sad. We must fight the infection ravaging our bodies. We must react. This infection is not limited to our community, but has spread among our brothers and sisters. It is currently an epidemic in America that, right now, has manifested, in the form of anti-Semitism, within the Jewish organism; but many others know it equally well, but call it by the name “racism.”

We, American Jews, have historically devoted ourselves to the broader fight against racism and our own battle against anti-Semitism. Today is not the moment to surrender.  Bigots have traditionally hid behind the same constitution that is intended to protect the rights of Jews in America. Unfortunately, the constitution is neither an antidote nor a cure for the virus; in fact, it is the condition that explains the development of our organism, along with the virus affecting us.  In 1977 the American Nazi Party, backed by the ACLU, won a case in the Supreme Court that granted them the right, under constitutional law, to have a march in Skokie, Illinois. The American Nazis had selected Skokie as the location for the march, because it had (and still has) the nation’s largest concentration of Holocaust survivors. The Nazis wanted to make a statement to the very people who had been hurt the most already by anti-Semitism. They figured that if they could force a march there, they could march anywhere, and say with confidence ‘whose streets? our streets.’

Jewish groups reacted with unsurprising alarm and anger. Thousands of Jews amassed themselves as counter-protestors, calling for bloodshed if Nazi boots hit the ground in Skokie. The American Nazis backed down, and ultimately, there was no Nazi march in Skokie.  On August 12, 2017, the terrifying events in Charlottesville happened. Again, the ACLU backed a bigoted organization that, under constitutional law, had the right to march. How did we, as a Jewish community, react? We fought back, after the march. With the guidance and tutelage of the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, we also tried to make the law work for us, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, not against organizations but against those individuals responsible for empowering and supporting the “Unite the Right” rally. We used our own form of intimidation, instituting legal proceedings against bigots. The endless array of charges leveled against these bigots were diverse, ranging from unpaid taxes to domestic terrorism.

On August 16th, 2017, Christopher Cantwell, a leading bigot in America appeared on YouTube, crying, and begging authorities, and organizations to cease their endless campaign of legal intimidation against white supremacists. In the video, he claims to fear for his life, feeling threatened by the police, as an arrest warrant had been issued in his name. In his plea for mercy, Cantwell cried and insisted that “we are trying to be law-abiding, and our enemies will not stop.” Well, brothers and sisters, we must not stop. We cannot afford to stop or show mercy to people like Cantwell or Nazis who would like to march in Skokie. We cannot afford another Pittsburgh, or tolerate another Charlottesville. The privileges of American liberty and freedom are tremendous, but so too are the associated responsibilities of American citizenship.

Tonight we feel pain, anger, sadness, pity, and fear. I welcome these feelings. Our brethren are experiencing many of the same symptoms. Hath we, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?  Our revenge may be to ensure that others will cower in fear if they seek to exterminate us, to lynch us, to run us over by car, or massacre us in temples.  Let today be an opportunity for us to join hands with our brethren and be united in the fight against the menace of our peoples.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native of Israeli-American nationality, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both a M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European anti-semitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience from teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading Shabbat and Holiday services at Greenwood House in Trenton, New Jersey, and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently, in Cincinnati, he leads services for Beth Boruk, in Richmount, IN and teaches at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.
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