One Year after the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

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It has been just over a year on the Gregorian calendar since that terrible morning (October 27, 2018) in Pittsburgh when a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered 11 innocent people at prayer services. On the Jewish calendar, the Yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) will not be for a few weeks.

I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was in synagogue here in Cleveland Heights when someone brought the terrible tidings. Details were sketchy but we feared it wasn’t good. Once the details emerged our fears were confirmed.

Within days, the Cleveland Jewish Community–along with other communities across the globe–were organizing memorial services. It felt especially close here in Cleveland since Pittsburgh is just a couple of hours away–closer by just a few miles than even Columbus. In this part of the Midwest there is a lot of mobility and nearby Jewish communities have a sense of kinship and overlapping of families. When I was in high school (having grown up in the Detroit area) I even attended a youth group conference that took place at this synagogue. This was not some far away shooting that affected others; it felt personal.

Since then, there is a feeling among many in the American Jewish community that something has dramatically and fundamentally changed. Our sense of belonging in this country has been challenged; an aspect of Jewish history that has been constant is that in nearly every place where Jews have been settled, we have either been expelled or persecuted or worst. I always thought that the USA was different: it is a democracy (still?!) and a nation made up of immigrants, those whose ancestors were brought here against their will, and a small but important minority of Native Americans. This is a place where anyone regardless of their background can become an American–and that is the way I have always felt.

With Pittsburgh something changed. I wonder whether there really is a future for Jews in America or whether what we see going on now is just the beginning of a long, dark path leading to yet another wandering. On the one hand it is unthinkable, but on the other hand Jewish history tells me otherwise.

I am astounded and angry that so little is done in this country to curb gun violence; when nothing was done after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, I realized this country had a problem in its soul. I am incredulous that many political leaders not only do not speak out against xenophobia but actually promote it. The depths to which levels of discourse in the USA have sunk make it hard to imagine much positive change in the short-term…and perhaps even in the longer-term.

I am sad. My heart aches for the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, for the victim’s families, and for our world. I cannot imagine the loss felt in the Steel City.

I am also afraid. I fear that saner voices will not be heard, that the deafening daily distractions will drown them out. I am afraid that things will get worse for the Jewish community in the US (and elsewhere) that has already had to spend millions to upgrade security. Does your house of worship have an armed security guard during prayer services? Mine does….now. How can we focus on feeding the hungry, pursuing justice, seeking peace, educating our youth, looking after the elderly, and caring for the sick when we must divert funds to simply keep ourselves safe and secure?

I will do what I can at the voting booth as well as by contacting my elected officials. I will demand that steps be taken to put this country back on track and make it the place where ALL Americans feel at home. Hopefully my worst fears will not be realized and next year at this time, we will see a new light shining on our great nation–a light of peace, knowledge, justice and love. We must do more than hope…we must act.

A Sad and Sobering Day in my Jewish Life

The Jewish community in the US has not been the same since the massacre in Pittsburgh last year. The incident in San Diego, as well as the arrests of those wishing to do Jews harm in Toledo and Youngstown have only made things worse. There is a real sense of fear. At my congregation there are those who have chosen to stay away from the synagogue until more stringent security measures are put into place–which is quickly in process.

Tonight we held a “dry run” for an evacuation drill that we will hold on Shabbat during services.

What has our society come to? Who could have imagined such a scenario. As we prepared for the dry run, we discussed not only how we would evacuate the building, but also how we would help those who might have a hard time getting out quickly. It was a sobering and sad conversation knowing just how vulnerable we are, and knowing that we even have to have these kinds of conversations.

The cold truth is that it isn’t a question of if there will be another mass shooting (most likely perpetrated by a white supremacist), but rather a question of when and where. There is an epidemic of hatred and gun violence in our nation and there is very little political courage being shown by our elected officials to confront the issue; it comes at an enormous cost to families, the healthcare system, and our society.

This coming Shabbat morning we will have our drill. It will be a sad interruption in our holy day of rest–like smashing a glass at the end of a Jewish wedding. The difference being that the breaking of glass at a wedding is only a momentary pause in an otherwise joyous day. The reality of what evacuation and active-shooter drills represents appears unfortunately to be here for quite a while.

I am saddened that in this country that I have called home for my entire life it has come to this. Jews have a long history of being persecuted in nearly every place we have lived. I always believed that this country of immigrants was different…and I hope that it still can be. In the meantime, sadly, we prepare for the worst.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael v’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel v’imru Amen. My God who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us, for all Israel, for all who dwell on Earth. Amen.

I Try Not to Get Political on this Blog, but…

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I am heartbroken by the events in our nation, but particularly by the never-ending stream of mass shootings. It is a nearly daily occurrence and there seems to be no end in sight. I got sick of thoughts and prayers a LONG time ago. When Congress did NOTHING after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, my understanding of what I thought this country stood for was destroyed.

In the Jewish community there has been a lot of talk about security–in general, but especially after the Pittsburgh massacre. Judaism teaches us that we have certain obligations: ritual and ethical (and that these often go hand in hand). Among our obligations are a number of commandments that instruct us to go out of our way to ensure that we prevent unnecessary injury or (God forbid) death. There is a law in the Torah that tells us that when we build a home, a parapet must be put on the roof lest someone on the roof accidentally fall off. Another law tells us that when we dig a pit, it must be marked off or cordoned off lest a person or an animal wander in and be injured. Jewish law over the centuries expanded on this idea, exhorting us to take all necessary steps to prevent bloodshed. We must ask ourselves whether we are taking the necessary precautions to prevent gun violence. (As if the daily news feed does not tell us already).

I know that a lot of folks place the blame for what is happening now on the person who occupies the Oval Office; he certainly has not helped (and many argue that he has made it worse). The truth is that mass shootings in this country predate the Trump Administration; his administration–along with those of previous presidents–bear responsibility for not doing more.

I have been involved in the gun control movement for over 20 years, having served on the board of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence for much of that time. The executive branch is only part of the issue. Congress has it in its power to pass common-sense legislation that would carry out the spirit of Jewish law and the American ethos–namely to do whatever necessary to prevent bloodshed and violence. Congress has failed to do so–even when both houses were controlled by the same party. The NRA is a powerful force in ensuring that this remains the case. It is up to US, the voters, to let our elected officials know that we are a bigger threat than the NRA. The way we do that is by pushing this issue in town hall forums, debates, and in our communications. Facebook and Twitter are not enough. They do not vote NRA shills out of office–only WE can do that.

Of course, there is also an issue in our State Houses and Capitals. Gerrymandering has ensured that in many states there will also be no action on this issue. Ohio is a purple state. It is the swing state personified when it comes to national elections. On the state level, however, it is all red…year after year after year. Gerrymandering has made sure that the State House stays firmly in the control of one party even though the state is evenly split and the majorities should swing back and forth on a regular basis.

The ONLY way I see a change on a national level is by voting those who are in the pocket of the NRA out. On the state level, gerrymandering has to be dealt with. And if you don’t think that the US Supreme Court has contributed to the perpetuation of this problem, think again; there must be a serious examination of what responsibilities should accompany the Second Amendment.

Our work is cut out for us if we want to Make America Livable Again. IMHO, here is where to start:

–Get educated on the issue–especially in your state. What legislation is pending? Who is supporting it? Who is sponsoring? Who is blocking it?

–Support organizations that are helping to raise awareness and support political initiatives to end gun violence. There are dozens, and many websites can direct you to those that will use your donations wisely.

–Do more than send your thoughts and prayers: VOTE!!!

These are not Jewish imperatives, or even American imperatives…it is our human duty and it is literally a matter of life and death.