Certain events leave you without the appropriate words and the sensation that any words you may be able to muster will be grossly insufficient. As one friend put it, to capture this kind of incomprehensible darkness may be beyond the means of ordinary language—and yet we must.
On Saturday morning, congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh’s oldest Jewish congregation, gathered for their traditional Saturday morning services and to attend a ceremonial bris—one of the first of many traditions marking a male infant’s entrance into Abraham’s covenant. The celebration turned horrifically fatal as, shortly before 10 a.m., a white supremacist entered the synagogue, murdering 11 people and wounding an additional six, including members of the Pittsburgh police department.
The synagogue’s namesake, “Tree of Life” (or etz chaim), evokes a sensation of connectedness. It is a reminder both of what we chant at the conclusion of our Torah reading, when we reaffirm our closeness to G-d, and a reminder of what it means to be part of a community, singing in slow and thoughtful unison. They are the words we speak after we have reflected on what the weekly passages mean to our lives. Now they are the words we utter to identify something terribly and horrifically unthinkable.
Jews are no strangers to the realities of anti-Semitism. Through history, Jews have experienced extended periods of anti-Semitic violence, finding safe havens in certain areas, only to discover, there too, they were not welcome.
Even in our enlightened, post-World War II Western order, anti-Semitism has located its gnarled foothold, often using anti-Zionism as a socially acceptable cloak for its subversive activities. From the upper echelons of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party to the base ranks of the American alt-right to garish pockets within the American progressive movement, anti-Semitism has made itself well at home within our time.
The 2017 Charlottesville riot, in which one person was killed amid neo-Nazi chants of “Jews will not replace us,” was one horrific incident among thousands. According to the most recent FBI statistics, the majority of religious hate crimes in the United States in 2016 were committed against Jews.
The Anti-Defamation League ran its own audit of anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, discovering that instances of harassment, vandalism, or physical assault against Jews rose almost 60 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. I recall two separate incidents over the course of my time working at Stanford University where campus safety discovered swastikas drawn on university buildings. It was a stark reminder that ignorance can pervade even the most espousedly open-minded environments.
Although I have no family in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, I cannot begin to imagine the depth of pain those within it must feel. An attack on one Jewish community reverberates throughout the larger one, and Saturday was no exception. As a Jew, I spent yesterday heartbroken.
Globally, Jewish institutions such as Jewish community centers and Jewish museums have experienced shootings, and almost all centers of Jewish life have experienced other forms of targeted harassment. However, yesterday’s events were the first shooting at an American synagogue in modern U.S. history.
A 2016 report released by Community Security Services (a nonprofit devoted to bettering security initiatives within American Jewish communities) surveyed anti-Semitic violence against Americans and Israelis in the United States from 1969 to 2016, noting that “militant white supremacists, Islamic radicals, and Palestinian-affiliated militants” were responsible for the vast majority of incidents. The CSS report makes a dark, but important point regarding the gross intersectionality of anti-Semitism and its capacity to cull hatred from various parts of the political spectrum.
Where do we go from here? How do we as a multi-religious society challenge an illogical ideology based on pure hatred? For now, I don’t have answers. The only recourse I can envision in the short-term is prayer. The Jewish community must have the time to grieve those who have been killed and to process the entirety of Saturday’s horrific tragedy.
Despite this horror, the United States is still undoubtedly one of the most wonderful places be a Jew. Amidst such darkness, a good friend sent me a 1790 letter that President George Washington addressed to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in which Washington emphasized the importance of religious liberty. Washington’s words continue to provide an echo of solace today:
May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Anti-Semitism is not a “political question” that can be quickly solved. How to confront and lessen that hatred will be an ongoing battle for American society, but it is not one we have shirked from in the past, and it shall not be one we shirk from today. It will require people from both sides of the political spectrum to find common purpose, despite the political fracturing of the past decade.
For now, however, I am in mourning. Zikhronam livrakha.