Confronting Hate with Hope
It was a steamy Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh this last May. I was on my way to Beth Shalom Masorti Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, which is something akin to Caufield in Melbourne. The Jewish population is concentrated in this lovely, tree-lined neighbourhood, and there are synagogues on offer ranging from hassidic to masorti and Reform to downright eclectic and experimental. I was carefully listening to Google Maps guiding me up the Wilkins Avenue hill when I saw something that took my breath away: there at the intersection of Wilkins and Shady was a large white building that was familiar and yet newly alien. Inscribed across the top were the words "Tree of Life Or L'Simcha Congregation."
I had mistakenly thought that this building had been torn down, but here it was: it was ringed by fences and barricades, but still standing nevertheless, a visible reminder of the massacre that unfolded here on October 27, 2018. I knew the building well. In fact, I'd attended Shabbat services there on a morning very similar to the one when eleven beautiful souls were murdered. In January 2017 as in October 2018, the building was hosting three different Shabbat services conduced by three synagogues. New Light Congregation, a sister masorti synagogue, met in the small chapel. Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha met in the main congregation. And my friend Dan Leger, his wife Ellen and I were there early to set up for services in the synagogue's library hosted by Reconstructionist Congregation Dor Hadash.
This last May, I was driving to Dan and Ellen's house so that I could walk the two blocks with them to synagogue. I was overjoyed to see the two of them and spend much of Shabbat with these beloved friends whom I'd known since my children were babies. On October 27, 2018, Dan and his dear friend Jerry Rabinowitz were among those arriving early to make sure the seats were set out and the prayerbooks and Torah books were easily accessible. As happens in more traditional congregations, most worshippers would not arrive for thirty minutes or even an hour after services began. Only the shamuses for the three synagogues, along with the most faithful synagogue members, were present when the shooter entered the building.
Among those who died were Cecil and David Rosenthal, two developmentally disabled brothers in their fifties who took enormous pride standing at the entrance to Tree of Life's sanctuary and welcoming people each week. Jerry Rabinowitz was also killed, and Dan was shot in the chest and grievously wounded. He spent months in and out of hospital and underwent numerous surgeries. He told me on my recent visit that he gives thanks each day to be alive, but that his life has been changed forever by the events of that day.
The October 27 massacre came up in virtually every conversation I had during my weekend in Pittsburgh. It still hangs in the air, and is especially present in the strict security protocols in place in every synagogue and Jewish institution in the city. Nothing will ever be quite the same again for Pittsburgh's Jews. Their peaceful reality has been forever shattered.
The shooter on that day referred to Replacement Theory as his motivation for doing what he did. Replacement Theory suggests that a conspiracy is underway in the United States and other western countries to replace the mostly white population with people of colour from developing countries. This secret plot is being spearheaded, of course, by us Jews. October 27, 2018 was the date designated as Refugee Shabbat by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS was established in 1881 to assist Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe to begin new lives in the United States. Today, the HIAS assists refugees from all over the world, including Afghanistan and Ukraine. The mere existence of such an organisation is more than enough to prove the point of all of those replacement theory conspiracy mongers out there. The shooter took this special Shabbat as an invitation to wreak mayhem on faithful shul goers.
Depressingly, there are other types of anti-Semitism that haunt us. There is left-wing anti-Semitism, which usually manifests itself as extreme antipathy towards the state of Israel. At a recent talk to a progressive Christian group, I asked which country had a worse record on human rights: Israel or China. There was a long pause, as those in attendance slowly weighed the two options. Very quietly and very politely I seethed. I pointed out that China has imprisoned as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs in concentration camps where they are subject to physical and psychological torture. Meanwhile they hold the remaining population of Xinjiang Province as effective prisoners in their lives through unending computer surveillance and aggressive policing. I noted that the fact that my audience even had to think about it suggested that they held Israel in an entirely different category, almost certainly because Israel is the world's only Jewish state. The last time Beit Shalom's fence was tagged with graffiti was during the Gaza war in 2014. We arrived on Shabbat morning to find the words, "Weep for Gaza" painted in metre-high spray paint. The suggestion that our synagogue was somehow connected in any way to decisions of the Israeli military on the other side of the world is profoundly troubling. It is not difficult to find examples of cartoons that caricature Israel using classic anti-Semitic tropes such as demonic imagery and bloodthirsty rabbis.
Then there is old-fashioned middle-class anti-Semitism. This is death by a thousand cuts, in which people who believe themselves to be cultured and well-meaning make one offensive comment after another, usually involving how we Jews are way too fond of money. Research recently published by Professors Suzanne Rutland and Zehavit Gross depicts numerous instances of Jewish children in Australian schools teased into picking up small coins thrown on the ground.
I started thinking through this sermon back in May when I was in Pittsburgh because I appreciate how anti-Semitism has dramatically increased. I never imagined that our own Adelaide community would find itself impacted directly so close to Rosh Hashanah. In a short 24 hour period, I heard about right-wing extremists making the Nazi salute on the steps of the Adelaide Holocaust Museum and also the publication in the University of Adelaide student publication On Dit calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. I was heartened that, within a few days, both the South Australia premier and the head of the Opposition denounced antisemitism on the floor of Parliament. I am thankful that, unlike in far too many countries, Australia's politicians for the most part still side against hatred towards Jews in any form.
It's Yom Kippur, which means it's not a day for sugar-coating. We are living in very challenging times. I believe much of the blame should be placed squarely with social media companies. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all private corporations with enormous power over public option. They exist not to do good or ill in the world, but solely to make money. They have learned in recent years that igniting strong emotions is good for business. They all claim to be concerned about the social consequences of their products, but the reality on the ground tells a different story completely. Tiktok, of course, is controlled in part by the Chinese government, which is terrifying in a different way. We know by now that people who are radicalised, often by exposure to hate speech on these platforms, eventually make their way into the dark and secret corners of the Internet where they meet like-minded folks, and together they become sucked completely into their own reality where Jews, gays, and people of colour are conspiring to destroy the world.
I want to talk with you for a few minutes about the Aleynu. Trust me--this will eventually make sense. Those of you who listen very carefully will have noticed over the years that I sometimes fudge words on a few prayers. One is the Friday night kiddush. Rather than saying ki vanu vaharta v'otanu kidashta mi kol ha'amim, I say, "im kol ha'amim." I don't say, "you chose us and made us holier than all other peoples," which is what the prayer means. Instead, I say, You made us holy with all peoples." Ever since I was a little girl growing up at Reform congregation Temple Sinai, I've struggled with the concept of chosenness--the idea that in order for us to have been chosen by God, everyone else ended up being rejected.
Of all prayers about chosenness, the Aleynu is the most problematic. In our machzor, the translation reads "You made us unique in the human family, with a destiny all our own." A literal reading of the Hebrew is closer to, "You did not make us like the peoples of other countries, and you did not place us alongside the families of the earth. You did not place our destiny alongside theirs, nor make our fate similar to other nations." No other prayer in our tradition speaks so explicitly of our separateness from the other, "normal" peoples. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable to speak about us Jews as if we are a species apart, with nothing in common with all those other people.
For many years, I fudged this prayer too. My colleague Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman pointed out that a very modest change of spelling in the word lo לא-לו could alter the prayer's meaning to state that our fate is, in fact, together with the rest of humanity.
A few years ago, I went back to reciting the Aleynu as it is written. I no longer believe that Jews are just like everyone else. I no longer think that our destiny is the same as all other people's. I think we are different. Not because we want to be different, but because so many others in the world have chosen to see us as perpetually, perhaps eternally different.
A number of us read Dara Horn's provocatively titled book People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present." Dara Horn argues that dead Jews are lovingly, perhaps even eagerly embraced by a world that mostly appreciates us as a people that lost six million of our brothers and sisters in the Shoah. Living Jews, on the other hand, with our complexities, contradictions and challenges, are far less convenient. The book is punctuated by three chapters about shootings of American Jews, beginning with the Tree of Life massacre. Horn is partially thinking out loud as she makes peace with how fundamentally different we Jews are. Here is an extended excerpt, written not long after a gunman attacked a Pesach seder in California:
"Since ancient times, in every place that they have ever lived, Jews have represented the frightening prospect of freedom...The Jews' continued distinctiveness, despite overwhelming pressure to become like everyone else, demonstrated their enormous effort to cultivate that freedom: devotion to law and story, deep literacy, and an absolute obsessiveness about consciously transmitting those values between generations. The existence of Jews in any society is a reminder that freedom is possible, but only with responsibility--and that freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all.
"People who hate Jews know this. You don't need to read the latest screed by a hater to know that unhinged killers feel entitled to freedom without any obligations to others...The insane conspiracy theories that motivate people who commit antisemitic violence reflect a fear of real freedom and...most of all, a casting-off of responsibility for complicated problems."
I read these words with both trepidation and pride. Trepidation, because I see an increasingly resistance in society to taking responsibility and working on behalf of all, rather than just on behalf of ourselves. Pride, because I'm overjoyed to be part of a people that holds such values, even when they are counter-cultural. I am proud to be transmitting our traditions of law and story, deep literacy, and a sense of ethical leadership to the next generation. I think it is the most sacred work I do.
A member of this community has asked on several occasions, "What can we do about antisemitism?" I want to acknowledge the amazing work of the Abraham Institute, led by Rachel Gillespie, which seeks to stop hate before it begins by bringing Jewish, Christian and Muslim educators into South Australian schools. However, I fear that, for the most part, the solution is not in our hands. We will need to look to governments as well as private corporations to police hate speech more than they have been. In the meantime, my solution is to live as full and joyous a Jewish life as I possibly can. Wishing us all a year full of sweetness and joy, peace and love, and wishing us all well over the fast. Shana tova!