Weeks have passed since the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. What do we do now? Of course, we remember and memorialize those who were murdered. Of course, we reevaluate and improve security measures at our institutions.
But those responses do not address the question that I am asking. I am asking what we should do when the sanctity of a safe space – a synagogue, and the sanctity of the safe space of our place as Jews in the United States, are violated and desecrated in such a fashion? Should we just continue carrying on our lives normally?
Another tragic mass murder took place in a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, only 11 days after the shootings in Pittsburgh, usurping Pittsburgh’s place in the news cycle. We are left wondering what we can do as a community to move forward in a positive direction that would help us heal and grow.
After the tragedy we gathered together as a community in Milwaukee to mourn and to show solidarity with Pittsburgh and with one another (see page 42). At that gathering, I said that while we are a famously divided people – divided by religious approaches, politics, ethnicity and countless other points of difference, we are a people that comes together in times of crisis. Our unifying response to tragedy is both remarkable and important. Like a family, we come together when the chips are down, and that reaction is a source of pride.
However, coming together in response to crisis is not the ideal. Rather, the ideal is a Jewish community that stands united in good times and bad times. While as Jews we are members of a religious group, before we came under that umbrella we were a family. In his seminal essay, “Kol Dodi Dofek” (also known as “Fate and Destiny”), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) pointed out that the Jews were a people, with a shared fate, in the land of Egypt – even before they became a people of destiny at Sinai. Even before the Jews received the Torah – we were a family with a shared fate and we remain a family today.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz (1902-1979), famed spiritual leader of the Yeshiva of Mir in Jerusalem, was known for taking news of the suffering of the Jewish people very much to heart. In 1976, when the Air France flight was hijacked and taken to Entebbe, Rabbi Chaim’s family hid the newspapers from him because they didn’t want him to become distressed. When Rabbi Chaim finally found out about the hijacking, he ran into the massive beit midrash (study hall) in the Mir and banged on the bima (table) and said “What would you do if it was your child on that flight?” He then collapsed and was taken to the hospital. When Rabbi Chaim was discharged from the hospital, the first thing he did was run back into the beit midrash and bang on the bima again and repeat, “What would you do if it was your child on that flight?” We need to cultivate that depth of feeling for our fellow Jews.
Our tradition tells us that when the Jewish people were in the land of Egypt the tribe of Levi was given a break by Pharaoh – they were not worked as slaves. Rabbi Yonason Eyebshuetz (1690-1764) wondered why Pharoah chose this course of action. The midrash relates that Pharaoh’s astrologers told him that the man who would deliver the Jews to freedom would be a Levite. What did Pharoah hope to accomplish by giving the Levites a break from slavery? Said Rabbi Eyebshuetz, Pharaoh reasoned that if the tribe of Levi was given special privileges, they would not be able to understand or appreciate the suffering of their brethren. The Levites would not be able to serve as leaders because they would be incapable of putting themselves in their brethren’s shoes. But, Pharaoh was mistaken. The Jewish people are a family, capable of caring for each other despite our differences. Moshe Rabbeinu was able to feel for his fellow Jew – despite being a Levite and despite being raised in the palace in the lap of luxury. We may come from different ends of the political and religious spectrums, but we are all one family.
An important lesson we can take from the tragedy in Pittsburgh is to tap into the truth of our being a family with a shared fate. We need to feel that sense of “what would you do” if it was your fellow Jew in Pittsburgh, in Israel and in Milwaukee. We need to be able to care for one another and talk to one another despite our differences – and not just in times of crisis.
Talk is cheap. I know. I have to come up with a sermon every week. I can say a lot of words about a lot of things but the bottom line should be how much do I go out and do. After Pittsburgh, I want to do more than just talk or write in order to bring Jews together. I want to put my money where my mouth/pen/keyboard is. Maybe we can implement a Shabbat across Milwaukee, or a community kosher tailgate competition or an I-don’t-know-what – that is why I would like to hear from you. If you feel strongly about the unity of our Jewish community I would like to hear from you. If you think there are ways that we can find to come together, I would like to hear them and partner with you to make the ideas a reality. My email is RabbiKalmar@asktshul.com. Please be in touch.
If we can work together to create an improved sense of achdut (unity), we will honor the memories of those cut down in Pittsburgh – here in Milwaukee.
Rabbi Wes Kalmar leads congregation Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Glendale.