Terror in Pittsburgh

Image: Pittsburgh cityscape (mgehring/pixabay)

I am sick at heart.

I do not usually post on Shabbat morning, but I see that many people are looking on this blog. Perhaps you are looking for comfort, or strength, or for some way to understand the events in Pittsburgh this morning.

CNN reports as I write this that a man walked into services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, carrying a gun. He shouted that he wanted Jews to die. He shot at least 12 people and four people are dead.  When the local police arrived, he shot at them, hitting some of them, and then was taken into custody alive.

Baruch Dayan Ha’emet – Blessed is the true Judge. I grieve for the dead, for the families of the dead. I pray that those who are injured are able to heal quickly and completely.

Police are beginning their investigation, which will likely go on for some time. They want to find out if this person is associated with others, and look for how we can make events like these less likely in future. They need to put together the evidence to convict this man of his crimes. Good.

In 1999 I was a member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. I was out of town, and when I heard on the news that three “Northern California synagogues had been firebombed,” I was terrified. It was the first time I, as a Jew, had heard of an attack on my community, not on Jews in other times and places, but here and now. It was my first experience of violent anti-Semitism.

TodayI would be able to get a lot of information instantly, but in 1999 the Internet and CNN were not what they are now. Eventually I found out that it wasn’t my shul, it was three Sacramento synagogues. Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento had had the worst of it, a firebombing. The other two synagogues were vandalized but damage was much less.

I will never forget what my rabbi, Rabbi Steve Chester, said to me. “The things you want to watch at a time like this, ” he said, “Are ‘how long did it take the police to come? How long before the fire department? What did the public officials say?’ Because unfortunately there have always been and will always be people who hate Jews, but as long as the community is with us, as long as our neighbors see us as their neighbors, we are going to be all right.” He continued, “If the police are slow to come, or don’t care, then we have a larger problem and we should worry.”

There have always been and there will always be people who hate Jews. I am going to write more posts on anti-Semitism in the coming days, but what I want to say today is that I am reassured that the police came immediately and the news coverage of this terrible event has been sympathetic to the Jews, not the murderer. We can pay attention and take comfort in that.

This horror was intended to frighten us, whether the gunman was a lone anti-Semite or part of an organization. If we react with fear, staying away from synagogues, hiding signs of our Jewishness, we will give him a victory he does not deserve. It is natural that it is our first reaction, but it must not be our final reaction.

As a community we need to embrace our cousins at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with love and sorrow as they grieve their dead and deal with their own wounds. As a community we must strengthen the security at our own synagogues and institutions. As a community we need to tell the anti-Semites, “No. We will not allow you to terrify us. We will go on doing mitzvot, living our lives, because we will not make a false god of you or the terror you bring our way.”

This is a terrible day. We ache for the families of those who were killed. We ache for the wounded and their families. But I pray that we will not let one evil man sway us from our task as Jews: to live lives of Torah despite it all.

More Terror in Jerusalem

Today there was another act of terrorism in Jerusalem: a heavy flatbed truck slammed into a crowd of IDF soldiers. The driver drove back and forth over the bodies, killing four and wounding 17. According to the Jerusalem Post:

Three female soldiers – 20-year-old Lt. Yael Yekutiel of Givatayim, 22-year-old Lt. Shir Hajaj of Ma’aleh Adumim, and 20-year-old Sec.-Lt. Shira Tzur of Haifa – and one male soldier, 20-yearold Sec.-Lt. Erez Orbach of Alon Shvut, were declared dead at the scene.


Yahrzeit candle

The driver was a resident of East Jerusalem; he was killed by gunfire from the IDF soldiers he didn’t hit. Hamas is celebrating him as a hero.

There’s a report of the murders on the Times of Israel website.  I recommend you take a look.

My heart breaks over and over again. Terror attacks do not intimidate Israelis. What will happen is that they will find a way to make the attacks more difficult, which will make Palestinian life more difficult. And around and around we go. In the meantime, the young people die.

I do not know any answers, I only know that every time I hear about another attack my heart bleeds.


Stop the Hateful Cycle

Image: Sign with “Violence” and “Hate Speech” with “No” symbols over them. Photo by John S. Quartermansome rights reserved. Cropped for use here. 

I’ve been listening to the news organizations do their endless “special report” drill on the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida. I finally turned off the television.

The so-called news had devolved into a cycle of speculation: hate crime? terrorism? domestic? ISIS? wash-rinse-repeat…

Let’s get something straight (pun intended): Hate leads to Terror. The magnitude of this particular act of violence is unprecedented, but there is ample precedent for the hate that inspired it. Someone failed to teach the murderer that violence against anyone is unacceptable. Maybe his parents tried to teach him, but over the years acquaintances listened to his verbal violence against LGBTQ folks and said nothing. Someone heard homophobic words and said nothing. Others encouraged him, all those voices that said “someone ought to do something” or that said that “killing LGBTQ people is God’s will” bear responsibility. That includes ISIS, along with voices closer to home.

I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.

(By the way, if anyone is thinking about arguing that “slander isn’t slander if it’s true,” please stop right there. Rechilut, the Hebrew word in question, may also be translated “gossip.” It may be either true or false.)

When we listen passively to anyone (elderly uncles included) talk about what “ought to happen” to a group of people, we stand in the blood of those human beings. This is equally true whether the targeted group is a group we like or a group we don’t like at all.

Let’s resolve to speak up every time we hear hate speech against:

  • LGBTQ people
  • People of color
  • Jews
  • Muslims
  • Christians
  • Palestinians
  • Atheists
  • Mormons
  • Persons with disabilities
  • Fat people
  • Thin people
  • Mentally ill people

… and anyone else.

To do less is to stand in the blood of another.

Addendum: I write this as much for myself as for any reader. I, too, have let hate speech pass when I have written off the speaker as beyond learning. I was wrong to do that. I teach not only with my words but with my silence. Whenever I let hateful speech pass unchallenged, I teach the speaker that I think it is OK. I was wrong to do that.




Full of Grief and Dread

Har Nof
The Har Nof neighborhood, seen from nearby Yad Vashem, by JuanDev

I worked late last night, and I was typing away at my table when the news came: during morning prayers at a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, two young Palestinian men (allegedly, men who worked in the neighborhood) entered and wounded several people, murdering four. The police arrived and had a gun battle with the attackers in the synagogue. The attackers died, and at least one policeman was severely wounded.

Photos from the synagogue show pools of blood on the floor, slowly soaking into prayer books, tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin.

As the news went out, celebrations began in Palestinian neighborhoods. Hamas put a cartoon on its website, celebrating the murders. Prime Minister Abbas condemned the killings but wrapped his condemnation in generalities that suggested Israelis were to blame for incitements at the Temple Mount and elsewhere.

Things readers who have not lived in Israel may want to know, to understand the news reports:

  • Har Nof is a neighborhood in West Jerusalem. It is well to the west of the so-called Green Line, the 1947 boundary established by the United Nations. In other words, in no way, shape or form is it a “settlement,” or in an area occupied by Israel since 1967. It is one of the last places I would have expected such a terror attack.
  • The synagogue on Agasi St. is like many other such places around the city. About thirty people gathered there at 7am for the morning prayers. Most were men who are devoted enough that they make it there every morning to pray, who shared the kinship of that particular minyan. Perhaps someone slightly less religious was there to fulfill the mitzvah of saying kaddish for a close relative.
  • Prayer was underway. The participants were deep into the service, eyes lowered over the prayer books, swaying gently, murmuring the words, concentrating on saying the prayers. Their left arms were wrapped in tefillin, their shawls were wrapped around their shoulders or over their heads. Those deepest in prayer were likely completely unaware of their surroundings, wrapped tightly in their prayer garb, all senses occupied with the service.
  • Two men entered the synagogue with meat cleavers and a gun. They hacked at the group of people who were deep in prayer. The attack was so savage that five people are dead now, not counting the attackers themselves, and many others are in the hospital. The synagogue floor runs with blood.
  • PM Netanyahu and his cabinet are looking into ways to defend against more such attacks. This attack will not accomplish anything other than to make matters worse.  Life in Israel is about to get more difficult for everyone.
I am full of grief and dread. The grief is for the deaths of Torah scholars, and for one more step away from anything that might be peace. The dread is that it doesn’t matter what Israel is willing to offer, nothing but the annihilation of Israel will satisfy those on the other side. I want to shriek at the people celebrating, “Don’t you realize this is just as bad for you as it is for us?”
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Who Saves a Life, Saves a World

Bad news from Jerusalem today: a man in a car mowed down passengers exiting a light rail train. Some were Israeli, some American. A three month old infant is dead. Video makes it clear that this was a deliberate act, not an accident.

Hamas is celebrating, although reports conflict as to whether it has taken credit or not. I do not understand people who celebrate the death of an infant.

On October 1, Ibtisam Rashid was at a checkpoint in Israel, trying to take her 5 year old grandson to a chemotherapy appointment. She had a fatal heart attack and died after being denied crossing.

I lived in Israel before they built the infamous security wall. Buses were bombed regularly. My grammar teacher came to school once after helping to pick up the bodies of schoolchildren whose bus blew up in front of his car.

I do not know the answer to the matzav, the situation. I cannot fathom the pain of the parent whose child was smashed by that car. I cannot fathom the pain of the little boy whose grandmother collapsed at the checkpoint.

This week we read the story of a man named Noach. He received word from God that his family alone was to be saved from the Flood, his family alone out of all those on earth. He followed the directions he received from God: he built the ark, he put the animals on it, he shut the door when it began to rain.

Noach (whose name is related to the word for comfort)  was comfortable with the idea that God had singled out his family for survival. He did not question the idea that others would suffer and perish. He did not ask if innocents might die along with sinners. He shut the door.

Some of our sages point out the contrast between Noach and Abraham. Noach had concern only for God’s command and his family’s well being. Abraham was concerned about the suffering of theoretical innocents, the people he thought might be in Sodom.

Let us not become Noach, concerned only for ourselves. Let none of us, on any side of this conflict, be callous to the suffering of the other. Let us be like our common patriarch Abraham, concerned for more than his own. Let us remember that every death is a tragedy, a whole world lost.

May the day come when all people on all sides can see the humanity of the other.

Responding to Terror

Tikkun Olam
(Photo credit: AjDele Photography)

“He [Hillel] used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are occupied excessively with business will not become wise [in Torah]. In a place where there are no human beings, endeavor to be a human being.” (Avot 2:6)

I am horrified at the bombing that took place in Boston today. Instead of assigning blame, spreading rumors, or ranting, I’m going to take positive action in the world: I’ve made an appointment to donate blood.

I challenge you: if you are feeling strong emotion, DO SOMETHING: give blood, give to the food bank, take some other action to relieve suffering. All the nattering on social media and all the pontificating on the TV will accomplish nothing, but the actions of a few good people could make the world a better place.