As the 2016 campaign unfolded, the number of anti-Semitic missives aimed in my direction multiplied dramatically. Still, those were just words, right? Except that the person primarily responsible for the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue last month was someone who imbibed those words to the point where he felt compelled to act on them. And as the New York Times’s Bari Weiss pointed out over the weekend, anti-Semitism is rooted in the language of conspiracy theories, a language that President Trump has been fluent in for quite some time.
In the grieving that follows this kind of tragedy, we need words of solace. We need them if for no other reason than that otherwise, many of us would be left with nothing but our anger. When #ShowUpForShabbat was announced, I made sure to go to my synagogue for Friday night services. My rabbis did not disappoint. Neither did my community..
For one thing, it was a boisterous service. The first Sabbath of the month at my synagogue is a more musical service than normal. The idea is that this encourages families with children to attend. The dozens of children singing at the bimah represented the future of the congregation, and that future looked rather robust.
The present looked strong as well. An ordinary Shabbat service at Temple Shalom would have had a few dozen in attendance. Last Friday, the numbers in attendance rivaled the High Holy Days. Occasional attendees like myself were there, but so were many non-Jews from the community who came to show their support. A Sufi woman sat next to my wife and me, politely asking questions about the various Shabbat rituals.
Two things made the service exceptional. The first was the rabbis, who made the most of a larger-than-usual congregation to deliver a variety of timely themes. They welcomed the non-Jewish neighbors who came out in moral support. They explained that the command to welcome the stranger appears more frequently in the Torah than the command to worship God.
The rabbis also invoked the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the premier Jewish theologians of the 20th century and an ardent supporter of the civil rights movement. They invoked the words he used in a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in advance of a meeting with religious leaders, in which he warned the president that the civil rights problem “will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.” He urged Kennedy to “declare [a] state of moral emergency” and concluded, “the hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” They led a hymn based on the Psalm that is the title of this column.
I will always be grateful to my rabbis for finding the words I needed to hear. But I will be even more grateful for the strong sense of community they have nurtured as leaders of the congregation. That feeling of community was on offer at #ShowUpForShabbat, and it nourished me during a moment when I needed it.
Some forms of identity are defined in the exclusion of the other. The values on display at Temple Shalom last Friday were not sectarian, however. The stranger was welcomed. The root of my community last Friday came not from exclusion but from a shared sense of meaning. In attending the service, an awful lot of members of my community made it clear just how important it was to embrace a Jewish identity, and how this did not conflict one iota with our American identity. We closed the service by singing “This Land Is Our Land” and “America the Beautiful.”
My anger at the state of our nation stays within me. It surged as I left our synagogue when I saw the new plain clothes security detail guarding the building,. The Shabbat service also gave me hope, however.
The loudest, ugliest acts are not the norm, they are the aberration. My people have endured far uglier acts than what transpired in Pittsburgh. So has my nation. There are valid reasons to be concerned about whether our society’s norms and values are trending in the wrong direction. But my congregation gave me faith that both will endure, and recover. That is a mitzvah.