Processing Squirrel Hill with Judaism

Like many others, I was shaken to my core with the news of the horrific shooting at Tree of Life Pittsburgh. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and community, and the brave first responders who were injured trying to save lives. The coward who perpetrated this crime will face the swift justice of the community, and for an act this heinous I am hopeful Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf suspends his moratorium on the death penalty. Some actions are so offensive to the existence of a civilized society that society must consider the life of the perpetrator forfeit, and I ask what could be more disgusting than gunning down innocent men and women at prayer.

That this occurred during a ceremony of Brit Milah (circumcision) is particularly painful to me as a Jewish man. Like my male ancestors before me, I entered into the Abrahamic Covenant, and Jewish peoplehood, through this ceremonial circumcision. Bringing my son into the same ranks is on my “Mount Rushmore” of meaningful moments in my life. While I have experienced great joy as a teacher of the Jewish tradition, knowing that my own children will contribute to the Jewish future is profundity larger than me. To violate the sanctity of that moment encapsulates the notion that the attacker sought to threaten the very future of my people.

As a Jewish man living in America today, I am truly blessed in ways my ancestors would not be able to fathom. Anti-Semitism is a force in our country without question. I do not deny that it rears its ugly head in ways both obvious and subtle in American life. However, that many would seek to brand their political opponents as Anti-Semites in this country indicates that such attitude is considered retrograde and undesirable. For that, I am most grateful. As a Jew living in a country that is mostly non-Jewish, it is a historical and contemporary oddity that Anti-Semitism is considered a backward belief. My wife and I keep a Jewish home, living outwardly as Jews, raising Jewish children, and are free from harassment and persecution for doing so. Thank G-d!

Teaching Judaic Studies with my 7th grade students this week stirred great feelings of sadness and hope. My students are on the cusp of becoming adults in our religious community, and with initiation into adulthood comes the obligation to mourn such things as this shooting with the community. United in a sense of grief and fear, a normally garrulous group of teens was muted and looked to me for guidance as to how to react. My first message to my students was that what happened at Tree of Life was not typical in America, and they were safe. My synagogue employs an armed guard during high-traffic moments and has a sophisticated security plan. After a brief service mourning the lives lost, I chose to share with them commentary on the Torah portion read by Jews all over the world that the congregants at Tree of Life were not able to share. It discussed the quest by Abraham to spare the wrath of G-d from annihilating the wicked city of Sodom. I explained to the students that this portion teaches us that we must always work to see the good in one another, and always try to uplift one another even when such efforts seem hopeless. The resolve of these young people to live that sentiment, and their pledges to care for another, moved me to tears. As I wept in my car after class, I cried tears of sorrow at the broken world these kids would inherit, and tears of joy that they would work to heal it.

In the aftermath of the shootings, I received numerous messages of condolences and prayers for my people from non-Jews in my life wishing to express their solidarity. To receive such sentiments only further underscores my dumb luck to be Jewish in America today. My ancestors on the shtetl would not have received these messages following a pogrom. At the very center of the Torah are three words.

“Vahavta l’reiacha kamocha!”

This translates to: Love your neighbor as yourself. Based on the reaction of the average American regarding what happened in Squirrel Hill, it is clear they are at the center of the American ethos as well.